Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Midweek Musing #4— Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, crushing disappointment and why reading IS better

I'd intended these Midweek Musings to be only about living characters in children's books, yet I've had two encounters in the past few weeks with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  The movie was being shown on cable, and my wife and I decided to watch "just the beginning."  I hadn't seen it in maybe fifteen years, and I wanted a refresher.  We ended up watching the whole thing, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's narrow escape from the crusher, to the Toot Sweets, to the Child Catcher, and so on to the end.

But this time, I found something in the movie that rocked a lifelong love of that vehicle.

Now THAT'S a car.  Source:
First, a little background.  Like lots of people my age, I grew up with the Disney movie and wished that someday I could have a car like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

What was so great about it?  The early 1900's racer was exotic and sleek.  That gleaming hood!  Those scarlet wheels!  The rounded wooden back, reminiscent of the varnished woodwork on a classic boat.  Now that was a car!  No Dodge Dart or AMC Gremlin for me.

But that amazing car only got better when the red-and-yellow wings popped out of its sides, and when the purple pontoons emerged, rescuing Mr. Pott, the children and Truly Scrumptious from the ship full of quasi-Germanic evildoers who had interrupted their beachy picnic.

Growing up, I coveted the die-cast metal Corgi toy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which produced a pair of wings when you pushed a hidden button (if anyone has one of the originals and wants to make an extravagant gift out of it, I'm willing).

When I visit schools, the question comes up constantly about whether I included Chitty Chitty Bang in Bats at the Library (see below), when the bats imagine themselves in their favorite stories.  To clarify, though the car has a slight resemblance, that's Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows.  As a boy, I didn't even know there was a book.
If you look closely at the book, you'll notice the picnic basket strapped to the back of the car says "Toad Hall."
But back to the movie.

As the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang approached, I noticed something I'd missed before, something that changes everything.  I realized this:  all of the great things that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang could do were merely part of a fanciful story that the genial Mr. Pott had spun for Truly and the children as they rested, following their picnic.  It was nothing but a darned story!!! I had a flashback of a traumatizing movie we were shown in high school, based on Steven Ambrose's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.  A soldier, in the process of being hanged, manages to escape and returns to the loving arms of his family, only to be brought up short by the discovery that it is all a wish-story that his brain has concocted in the seconds before he dies.

After all of my years of yearning for those pop-out gadgets, Disney's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn't a mechanical miracle.  In the end, it was just a sleek and beautiful restoration.
Source:  Internet Movie Cars Database

It was . . . a car.

I expressed my outrage to my wife, who gave me the kind of look my college English professor, Patricia Caldwell, had given me when I admitted that I had actually attempted a self-improvement chart technique that I'd read about in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin back in high school.  The look was a combination of gentle amusement, and bewilderment that someone had not understood that that particular part was fiction.

Shaken, I decided it was time to read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  I downloaded a Kindle version, and read in the dark after my wife went to sleep.  And you know what?

I liked the car in the book much better. Why?  Because all of the cool gizmos Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has in the book are real.  And she's actually a character, not just a car.  Her license plate?  GEN 11, which Jemima points out spells genii, a plural of genie.  In the book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a kind of enchanted being.  She has moods, she thinks and acts on her own, she is loyal.  And she has British pluck.

I was also struck by how completely different the story was from the movie.

First, the story is set around 1960, not the 1920's.  So the car isn't the former racing car seen in the movie.  Mr. Pott isn't down on his luck at all—in fact, he strikes it rich by selling his whistling sweets almost immediately to Lord Scrumshus.  He buys this dilapidated car, to the delight of his whole family, including his wife (his WIFE??  Then what about Truly??  Poof—she doesn't exist).  As the children go off for a term at boarding school (!!!), Mr. Pott works on the car and ultimately rolls a moody, gleaming green vehicle out into the yard, having created a few "improvements." But he expresses mystification at a series of buttons, knobs and levers on the car's dashboard, modifications which he says, "seem to have taken place all by themselves during the night, when I wasn't there."

Source:, 42 Worst Ever Car Movies
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a car with many secrets, and strong opinions.  During one moment of frustration, she tells Mr. Pott what to do by switching on a light above one of the dashboard knobs.  "PULL," it says, and when Mr. Potts fails to do so, it reads, "PULL, IDIOT!"  He does, and away the car and family go into the sky, lifted on wings that were formerly metal fenders.

Throughout the rest of the book—and I'm not going to spoil it for people who, like me, never read it—Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's awareness and spunk make her the most amusing character in the story.  She's magical.

For years, I've told students in schools I visit that, given the choice, they should read the book first and then see the movie.  That way, the vision they have of the story will be what their brains created, not what a committee in a script meeting decided we should see.  A story filled with details that your mind summons up from your own experiences is always going to fit you better than someone else's ideas.  But reading Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has given me a glimmer of hope.  Sometimes you can salvage a story when you've seen the movie first.

While it's still true I'll never be able to visualize Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as anything other than the chrome-and-wood car that Disney depicted, it's now Sir Ian Fleming's version that I really want.

What do you think?

. . . and the less said about the Child Catcher, the better.
Source for original at left:


  1. Interesting. I always wanted the Corgi James Bond Aston Martin, another Ian Fleming tricked out car. Actually, I think he wrote "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" around the same time the movie of Goldfinger was being made.

    1. I wanted the Corgi Aston Martin, too, Peter—also their Batmobile. All three had great secret "actions." James Bond's cars are definitely cousins to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

  2. Never read the book, either, though you make it sound pretty interesting! I do like reading your intense criticisms of perennial favorites, though. If you keep the guest-blogger thing up, ask me to write something scathing about a popular book. I'm sure I could do it with my eyes closed! Signing off here as Daniel Kirk, since I can't figure out how to do it in the "select profile" section.

    1. It's not my intention to be purposefully negative about figures on pedestals in children's literature, though I HAVE done two posts that took a second, more critical look at things I'd encountered as a boy. I think it's important to re-examine our earlier thoughts and impressions. I've got some very positive posts planned for the future!

      To folks reading this blog: look forward to a thoughtful and interesting post next Wednesday from Daniel Kirk, writing as Anonymous in the comment above. You'll learn something about HIS favorite characters in children's literature...

    2. I think it's good to take a fresh, honest and objective look at the classics to see how they hold up to scrutiny, instead of just mindlessly revering them, as many are apt to do! Can't hurt to view them anew, not with the mind toward being negative, but with the intention of being really clear-eyed. I am always amazed at how my opinions change as years go by. Stuff I liked as a kid often has a clunky charm, and I honor it for what it is, but I really like how you called a spade a spade with these two classic books. I'll bet revisiting Alice in Wonderland and the Oz books would be very interesting.

  3. When you said "extravagant" I was thinking, like, four digits. Which made this seem not quite so bad:

    1. Thanks for the link, Karen— alas, that's a "Corgi Junior," which is the smaller version of the diecast car. The larger size I've seen typically goes for $300 plus...

  4. Ah, Hollywood strikes again! Only in this case it's not Hollywood at all. Disney did not produce Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang, it was British film company Dramatic Features. This confusion has persisted since the release of the film in 1968 to this day. Hoping to capitalize on the huge success of Disney's Mary Poppins in 1964, the film is full of Disney connections... It's set in England and it's got Dick Van Dyke in it. it also has Sleeping Beauty's Disneyland castle in it. Dramatic originally cast both Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andres for the film but Andrews declined and the part was offered to Sally Anne Howes. Interestingly, Howes replaced Andrews in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady. This was also the first NON-Disney picture for composers Richard and Robert Sherman... Lots of Disney connections but not a Disney project... Good thing for Walt... It received less than positive reviews and ultimately lost money.

    1. Thanks for the correction! The movie is SO Disney (for all the reasons you list) that I believed it was a Disney film as a boy and never questioned it. I did see, this last time, that it was directed by the James Bond movies' director, Albert Broccoli.