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Bedknob and Broomstick

Bedknob and Broomstick

So this post was supposed to have been finished in time for Halloween, but at the moment I'm about as hopelessly disorganised as Eglantine Price, so it's a tad late. However, it was Bonfire Night last night, and Mary Norton's Bedknob and Broomstick is nicely fitting for that too, so I feel like I've just about gotten away with it.

You may well now be thinking about the movie and stratching your head because you don't remember it including anything about a bonfire. And you'd be right, it doesn't. But that's the point of the Film First posts - looking at those films you love (or hate) and investigating how much they have been changed from their source material.



Loosely based on

I can't remember the first time I saw Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling like it was built into my childhood - many a rainy Sunday afternoon was spent singing along to the tunes, and I'm sure that many a mince pie was eaten whilst Miss Price battled the Nazis and perogee'd Mr Brown into a rabbit. It's one of those movies that you feel like you have always known off by heart. I even included references to it in my undergraduate thesis, which, belive it or not, was all about the secondhand book trade.

My kids first watched this film a couple of years ago, probably getting on for 50 years after it was made. And guess what? They loved it too. Because it's awesome.

The book that the movie was "loosely based on" was actually originally two separate books. Mary Norton published the first book The Magic Bedknob in 1943, followed by Bonfires and Broomsticks in 1947. They were first combined into one volume entitled Bedknob and Broomstick in 1957 by J.M. Dent.

think I'm right in saying that the film rights were obtained in the early 1960s, before Mary Poppins was made. However, the production was shelved several times because of similarities to Poppins (1964) and it wasn't finally released until 1971. Julie Andrews was actually offered the role of Eglantine Price but turned it down. She did change her mind, but Angela Lansbury had already been cast. You snooze you loose Julie.

So, for a film that is a part of my childhood, and which I know off by heart - how did the book compare? Could it be in anyway as good? Warning! Everything below this point contains spoilers for both the film (as if you haven't seen it!) and the book.


The first part of the movie is actually quite similar to the book. The children aren't refugees and they're not living with Miss Price, but Paul does see her flying her broomstick and she does sprain her ankle when she falls off it. They all go into Miss Price's workroom and she gives the children the travelling spell to keep them from telling everyone her secret. Even some of the text from the book is also quite familiar:

What is it? asked Carey.
Miss Price eyed the dish dubiously. 'It's poisoned dragon's liver,' she said uncertainly.
'Oh,' said Carey politely.
Paul pushed up close. 'Did you poison the dragon, Miss Price? Or just the liver?' he added.
'Well,' admitted the truthful Miss Price, 'as a matter of fact, it came ready prepared. It's part of the equipment.'

What's that got to do with my knob?
What's that got to do with my knob?

In the same scene, Miss Price tells Carey that the witchcraft course is absolutely confidential, and that any breach of this secrecy "entails a fine of not less than two hundred pounds and condemns the offender to chronic, progessively recurring, atttacks of Cosmick Creepus". I love that Disney gave this name to Miss Price's manky cat in the film.

The children are essentially the same as they are in the book, although they are more middle-class and less cockney. Miss Price is also pretty much the same - a slightly bumbling but kind-hearted apprentice witch.

Bedknob and Broomstick


After that, the similarities end. The book contains nothing to do with the war, fighting Nazis, or trying to find the second half of the spell book. There is no Mr Brown, no Portobello Road, and worst of all, no Isle of Naboombu. There's only a brief mention of "intrasubstantiary-locomotion", and no dancing tights or suits of armour that march by themselves. And, I have to say, the absence of all of these things does leave the book feeling slightly flat.

So what do you get instead? Well, the first half of the book (the original Magic Bedknob) focuses on the children's adventures with the bed. They do go to London (albeit in search of their mother, not Mr Brown) and end up getting taken to a police station when they can't explain the presence of the bed in the street. Then they go to a desert island (complete with lagoon), where they almost get eaten by cannibals. This part of the book reminded me a lot of Edith Nesbit - kids mucking about with magic which goes awfully wrong - and it isn't bad really. It just isn't a football match with cartoon animals, or an underwater ball.


In the second part of the book (which was originally Bonfires and Broomsticks), they give up travelling to different places, and instead try travelling through time. There they meet Emilius Jones, a necromancer from the time of Charles II. Emilius travels back with them to modern times, but to be honest, nothing much happens really. He goes back to the 17th Century, gets accused of witchcraft and almost gets burnt at the stake before the children and Miss Price arrive to save him.

Bedknob and broomstick


As a children's book, Bedknob and Broomstick isn't bad, but it doesn't work as well as similar 'mismanaged magic' books such as Five Children and It. I came away from it feeling as though Mary Norton missed a trick and that there was much more she could have done with the idea of a magic travelling bed. I guess the bods at Disney felt the same way, since the film's adventures are much more engaging on the whole.

I think the book also suffers a lot from being two separate books shmushed together - there's no overarching story that binds them, or moves the story along. The movie might at times feel like an episode of Dad's Army on crack, but at least it has a storyline which allows its characters to strive for something from the beginning to the end. The bulk of the movie is about Miss Price trying to find the other half of her book so that she can assist in the war effort, and this story is what keeps things moving. It allows her serious determination to play off against the happy-go-lucky Mr Brown. It helps us root for the characters throughout their adventures, and it means we get to revel in their success at the end. All of this is missing from the book, which really just reads like a series of unrelated larks with no real consequences.

In short, Disney really took a handful of good ideas and ran with it, and the result is much more entertaining than the original story. So if you have a couple of hours to spare, I'd go watch the movie again.


Bedknob and Broomstick is still in print and widely available! But the secondhand editions are much nicer 🙂

If you enjoyed this post, why not pop over and read some more Film Firsts?

More information on Mary Norton can be found here.

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