The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

A Tale of Two Chitties

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was not the first ever film I saw at the cinema. But that trip to the grand Odeon in Lowestoft in 1969 made the biggest impression on my childhood. I was five, and was swept away by the idea of a flying car, dreams coming true, toot sweets and a child catcher. In those days of course you only saw a film once. No videos or DVDs to endlessly watch over and over existed. I had the Music For Pleasure record to sing along to. I had the Corgi toy with flip-out wings. And I had books…

I remember vividly my father coming home from Work with Ian Fleming’s “Complete adventures of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the magical car”.

But what a shock!

This wasn’t the fairground-coloured car, the shining, gleaming polished car, the fine-four-fendered friend of the film!!! This was a green dragon of a machine, dangerously powerful and smelling of oil, in audacious illustrations by John Burningham.

I sulked. I refused to read it. It wasn’t the Chitty I knew and loved…

And then I got an early reader book (“I can read it all by myself”), adapted by Al Perkins and with illustrations by B Tobey.

This time the car looked right. It had red and yellow wings and a silver bonnet. I liked it so much I even tried to cut an illustration out “to keep forever” (as it were), although I stopped when I realized I was ruining the picture on the other side…

But when I actually read it… where was Baron Bomburst? What had become of Truly Scrumptious? The Child Catcher? The scene at Beachy Head cliffs? For while the car matched the film, the story did not, following instead the original Ian Fleming scenario reasonably faithfully.

For when I did read the original Ian Fleming stories, I was astonished to realize the story was completely different. I was blown away.

Set in the Swinging Sixties, Commander & Mrs Pott (there is no Truly or Grandpa) and their children Jeremy and Jemima cannot afford a family car - Commander Pott is a failed inventor. But when his Whistling Sweets bring an unexpected fortune, they begin to look for the right car. “Not one of the black-beetles that all look the same”, declares the Commander. And when at last they find a rusting old racing car at the back of a dilapidated garage…”They all had the same look in their eyes. The look said: ‘This must once have been the most beautiful car in the world.’”

Of course they buy it and the Commander restores it. Jeremy and Jemima notice the intriguing number plate: Gen 11 – surely that spells… genii ?

In this original story the magic is no dream. It really happens. The car – an “eight litre, super-charged Paragon Panther” - painted in British Racing Green - really flies and floats and saves the family repeatedly from all sorts of tricky situations, most especially from their encounters with the dastardly Mafioso-type gangster Joe The Monster and his henchmen, who are hatching an evil plot to steal money from the famous Bon Bon Chocolate Shop in Paris. It is they who kidnap the two children, and who bring the expected James Bond type villainy into the story. The adventuresome plot, sparklingly written with a pithy wit by a master storyteller should be in every boy’s library, not least for Burningham’s fabulous and evocative illustrations.

It was hard for me, at five, to understand how fast and loose film makers play with stories. Seeing the film first made it very hard for me to adjust and accept these books. Because apart from a car and a surname (Pott), they have nothing in common.

Nowadays I love both on their own terms, the film with it’s flaws and fantasy, the book with it’s rollicking boys-own- adventure.

So how did the film become so different to the book? Ian Fleming’s story was inspired by childhood trips to Higham Park where he saw one of the original Chitty Bang Bangs (there were three) and met the owner-driver, a mysterious Count Zborowsky. His stories, written in the early sixties, were made up for his convalescing son Caspar, and were amongst the last things he wrote before his early death in 1964.

The film – produced by the James Bond film team – hired a little-known writer (and friend of Fleming) called Roald Dahl to create a script. It was not wholly successful and his original draft has never been published: that WOULD be interesting! The script was then completed by the Bond film writer Ken Hughes. And characters like Bomburst, the Child Catcher and Truly Scrumptious do have a certain Dahlian flavour about them.

I still think the original stories deserve to be filmed; perhaps one day they will. But with the stage musical and film still so firmly wedged in the public’s consciousness, it would be hard to compete. And should the car look like Burningham’s dangerous beast or the film’s sparkling and polished “Fantastmagorial machine”?