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Extremism in defense of children’s literature is no vice.

March 23, 2011

Ian Fleming: Spy, bon vivant, misogynist, children's author.

Every cinephile knows which movie was written by a Nobel prize-winner and based on a novel by another Nobel prize-winner (Faulkner, Hemingway, To Have and Have Not). But what classic kiddie film, based on a book by a beloved author, was scripted by an even-more beloved children’s writer?

The answer, of course, is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), co-written by Roald Dahl and based on the novel by Ian Fleming, who, though better known as the creator of James Bond, found a lasting niche in children’s lit with this fantastical story of a magic car, written for his son Caspar.

While I know the work of Roald Dahl, I never quite got around to reading Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, either for myself or to my own children, nor have I seen the movie — in part, I confess because the trailers for the film struck my snobbish little 13-year-old heart as insufferably cheesy when it first came out.

So I don’t know Ian Fleming, children’s author, but I know that you, sir, Frank Cottrell Boyce, are no Ian Fleming.

Who is Frank Cottrell Boyce? He’s a British screenwriter and novelist who has been tapped by the Ian Fleming estate (those bastards!) to write Chitty sequels.

Actually, based on this otherwise depresssing story from the Guardian, Boyce would probably agree with me. He said he had no idea why he’d been selected for the job: “I haven’t asked them in case it’s all a case of mistaken identity,” he said.

It might have something to do with Millions (2004), Boyce’s first children’s novel, which won a Carnegie Medal and was turned into a much-lauded (if little seen) film by director Danny Boyle.

But Boyce also said he’s been steeping himself in the original novel, which he finds is (of course) “crying out” for a sequel.

Sigh. Another, heavier sigh.

Why can’t publishers, writers and above all the heirs of famous authors leave their work alone? Most often, even when it turns out as well as could possibly be hoped, it’s a redundancy that has no reason to exist other than making money for the heirs.

We need look no further than, oh, Ian Fleming! Sebastian Faulks, a very good novelist, wisely returned 007 to the ’60s for his 2007 pastiche, Devil May Care, and he made a pretty good show of nailing the feel and lingo of the time. But as I observed in my review, anachronisms eventually dragthe thing to the bottom.

Especially missing was the tang of misogyny. Fleming hated women, and so did his most famous creation, but it’s virtually impossible for a contemporary male writer to indulge in the casual contempt for womankind that was as common as cigarette smoke in Fleming’s day.

So you’ll forgive me, Mr. Boyce, if I wish complete and utter failure upon this project. Nothing personal, I’m sure.

And while I’m in a churlish temper and no mood to be gracious or fair, let me express my dismay that filmmakers are proceeding with the fourth entry in the misbegotten Chronicles of Narnia series. This despite the relatively poor box office performance and mixed (to say the least) reviews of the last movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I object to the filmmakers insistence on emphasizing battle scenes that play a much lesser role in the children’s books. It’s an obvious attempt to turn these stories into Lord of the Rings lite. Not only is it offensive, it actually diminishes the magic to be found in C.S. Lewis’s novels.

And by the way, Lewis must be spinning in his grave (or stamping his foot in Heaven, as you prefer). He abhorred Hollywood and would certainly disown these film versions of his books.

Finally, Britain’s Michael Gove, secretary of state for education, has stirred up a bit of hornet’s nest with his suggestion that children should read 50 books a year — and not only because his remarks come at a time when the government, on an austerity budget, is threatening to close libraries throughout the county.

Gove’s ill-considered comments elicited a fine bit of outrage from the Guardian’s Robert McCrum, who says, among other witty and pointed things: “Of course our kids should read more (and better), but cramming them like force-fed battery geese is no way to promote the idea of reading as a lifelong joy.”

I completely agree, especially when he goes on: “Forced learning in literature is a mistake. How many UK schoolkids have had Shakespeare ruined for them by dogmatic pedagogy?”

But how do we encourage kids to read? Here’s a modest suggestion: Instead of forcing children to read 50 books a year, let’s force teachers and parents to read 50 books a year to them. I still remember with vivid fondness the hour my fifth grade teacher took to read us a novel each day. It had a lasting impact.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. PJ Parrish permalink
    March 23, 2011 2:08 pm

    Why can’t publishers, writers and above all the heirs of famous authors leave their work alone?

    Oh, I don’t know. I thought the VC Andrews ouevre was nicely maintained to their high standards by her ghosts.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:09 pm

      Ah, yes, you have a point there. But at least VC Andrews wasn’t a chidrens author. She was a Young Adult author — tweens love nothing so much as tales of forbidden love and incest….

  2. March 23, 2011 2:19 pm

    We had a wonderful Principal named Sarah Gibbons. She loved reading. Every Friday afternoon she would come on the intercom and read to us for 45 minutes or so. I remember Black Beauty the most. It left a wonderful memory of reading. Today I write books for children. The books are designed to be interaction books between children, adults and parents. It is called PurpleUmpkin. It is to make those memories. It is to get children and adults to smile, laugh, talk and remember. I try and promote reading for children every where I am able.

    “Reading is the gateway to your dreams. Everything you do or dream of doing in life will come through reading.” — Michael John McCann

    If you have a chance, read to a child. They may never forget that. I did not. Chauncey did not.

    • PJ Parrish permalink
      March 23, 2011 2:36 pm

      Amen. My Dad read to me; my mom taught me how to draw.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:10 pm

      Sounds like a wonderful educator. Of course, were she still working today she would not be able to read to children like that. She couldn’t afford to take time away from teaching them how to take the FCAT.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:55 pm

    I loved the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie as a kid. Of course, Old Man, I was much younger than 13….

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:12 pm

      You will always be younger than me, my child, though the percentage difference shrinks a bit with each passing year. The gap close much much more before it freezes into place.

  4. sue corbett permalink
    March 23, 2011 7:17 pm

    Hmm. I have to say that Frank Cottrell Boyce’s talent is in sharp inverse to his reknown in the U.S. Yes, he wrote Millions (after he had completed the screenplay for it, directed by his bud, Mr. Boyle) but since then he has written two more middle-grade novels, Framed, and Cosmic. These three books are probably the most winning novels for children I have read in 15 years of reviewing children’s literature. Cosmic, especially, is a masterpiece. So maybe that’s why Ian’s heirs chose Frank. And while I’m absolutely no fan of these let’s-make-another-buck-off-the-copyright heirs, I don’t see how they could have chosen better. FCB is the real thing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:16 pm

      Thanks for that endorsement, Sue. I will definitely catch up with Mr. Boyce. More and more I think some — most? — of the best contemporary fiction is in the YA category. I’m reading two books right now involving sisters on fantasy quests in swamps. One is the much praised Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell. The other is a Young Adult novel. Guess which one is head and shoulders above the other in terms of creative energy, inventiveness, wit, clever language and vivid characterizations? I’ll tell you the title of the other one in a day or two. It’s down in the car and I can’t remember it right now.

  5. March 23, 2011 8:29 pm

    You created a sudden flashback to Mrs. Cima, my 4th grade teacher, love of my life at that point. She read to the class and we were always whining and whimpering when she put the book down and told us it was time to stop. Do teachers still read books to their students? Or are they so freaked out they can only focus on teaching to the DREADED TEST.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 23, 2011 11:21 pm

      I believe you have put your finger on the KEY problem with contemporary edumacation. For more analysis by an expert commentator, see Diane Ravitch in the new issue of Newsweek at http://www.newsweek.com/2011/03/20/obama-s-war-on-schools.html. But here’s a taste:
      “Standardized-test scores can provide useful information about how students are doing. But as soon as the scores are tied to firing staff, giving bonuses, and closing schools, the measures become the goal of education, rather than an indicator.”

      To which I add: The goal of education is to teach a child how to gather knowledge and, most important, to think for herself. It’s like the old saying: Give a man a fish, and you feed him today. Teach him how to fish and he feeds himself forever. Likewise: Teach a child to take a test, and you get a test-taker — timid, conformist, dull, obedient. Teach a child to think and you get an artist, a scientist, an entrepreneur…

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 24, 2011 8:23 am

        And, let me add, a citizen.

  6. March 24, 2011 10:46 am

    I’m still trying to get past the fact that you never saw Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang! That is like one of the classic film/books of all time! Please go out this weekend and rent the movie! You won’t be disappointed my friend. I read the book, but don’t remember it as well as the movie.

    My mom forced us kids to read for an hour each day during the week. I’ll never forget the Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew Mysteries… lol. At first I was bummed as a 10 year old kid, cause I wanted to go out and play… but then I started liking it more and more and looked forward to that hour. It’s a wonderful thing, reading.

    Go get Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang!!!!

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