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Tintin, the movie: will it work?

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Mark wonders if a life-long favourite of his is in good hands...

Here comes Tintin...

It’s official! Belgium’s most famous cartoon character is getting the Hollywood treatment, courtesy of a new blockbuster film produced by Steven Spielberg. A lifelong fan of Tintin, this has been a pet project of his since buying the film rights in 1983. But whether he can do justice to the character in the new movie remains to be seen. How often has Hollywood failed in adapting their homegrown comic book heroes to the big screen?

Tintin may not have made a big impression in the States, but he is still one of Europe’s great cultural icons; his daring adventures continue to entertain children and adults of all ages, and he also has a hardcore British following. For Spielberg to try and recreate the panache of the comic books in a film aimed largely at American audiences is going to be an extremely difficult undertaking.

So who exactly is Tintin?

Tintin and SnowyThe character is a young, androgynous-looking boy reporter who spends his time travelling the world exposing various villains, espionage plots and crime syndicates. His faithful companion throughout his many adventures is his white terrier dog Snowy. Tintin is easily recognisable for his plus-four golfing pants and tuft of light brown hair that sticks up all the time.

Although nothing is mentioned about his family background, Tintin is a strong idealist who never drinks, smokes, takes drugs or gets involved with women. He doesn’t appear to work for a newspaper or even submit any news articles as a freelancer, but his fame as a globe-trotting reporter might explain how he can travel the world (and the moon) bringing his enemies to justice.

Georges Prosper Remi ('Herge')The man behind Tintin was Georges Prosper Remi AKA 'Herge'. Born in Etterbeek, Brussels on 22 May 1907, he developed a love of drawing during the World War One occupation of Belgium by the German Empire.

Herge attended the Catholic run Saint-Boniface Secondary School. As a boy-scout, he published several illustrations for the magazine Le Boy-Scout Belge. Adopting the penname Herge, his time as a scout greatly influenced his adult work.

In 1925 Herge worked as a cartoonist for the Catholic run magazine Le XXe Siecle. Inspired by the American comics of the time, He created Tintin, the young Catholic reporter forever saving the world from criminals and bad guys.

The first adventure was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets in 1929. After being serialised in Le XXe Siecle, the entire story was published as a book (or album as they were called back then) the following year. Crudely drawn, in comparison to the later albums, it set the scene for many of the early stories where Tintin dealt with government corruption and drug trafficking in different countries. Herge himself was fascinated by travel and this was reflected in all his stories.

The Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War 2 prompted Herge’s move to more simplistic adventures. The paper shortage in Belgium also made him more economic with his drawings, and this enabled him to effectively create more tension and humour. More importantly it helped him to develop his characters with great skill.

Because he worked under the Nazi regime, Herge was arrested several times for being a sympathiser although he maintained his need to earn a living the same as everyone else in wartime. Despite the blacklisting from other magazines, he found a saviour in publisher Raymond Leblanc, who set up The Tintin Magazine.

Tintin - Prisoners Of The SunBy the time of his 11th album The Secret of the Unicorn, (1943), Herge’s drawings had become more sophisticated. The album also marked his most creative period as an artist. It also prompted the popular sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944). The Seven Crystal Balls (1948) and the sequel Prisoners of the Sun (1949) secured Tintin’s iconic status in comic book art.

Unfortunately this was also a time dogged by poor health and stress, a situation not helped by a nervous breakdown, two failed marriages and psychiatric problems. His recurring nightmares of the colour white inspired Tintin in Tibet (1960).

In 1950 Herge set up Herge Studios and Tintin was now in the hands of his employees. The studio went from strength to strength with the extremely popular Destination Moon (1953) and the sequel Explorers on the Moon (1954). Along with the merchandising of Tintin based toys and products, the studio was successful enough for Herge to fulfil his lifelong love of travel.

When the pressures of his workload became too great, Herge spent increasing amounts of time in Switzerland, a country first visited as a boy scout in 1922. He enjoyed the anonymity of Swiss life and travelled extensively across the mountain region where he visited many of the local villages. Such was his love for the country it inspired one of his most famous supporting characters and produced what many fans considered his finest work, The Calculus Affair (1956).

Tintin - The Calculus Affair

As the sixties progressed there were longer gaps between albums, and although they remained as popular as ever, Herge’s later work lacked some of the spark of those earlier classics.

Cartoon characters live forever but their creators are not so fortunate. After a long period of ill health, Herge died on 3 March 1983. The cause of death is unclear although it may have been leukaemia, hastened by the HIV virus he contracted during a blood transfusion. His last book, Tintin and Alph-Art was published posthumously in 1986 but to date remains unfinished.

Tintin and Snowy always remained central to all the adventures but as the serials progressed, he soon found himself surrounded by a group of equally popular characters who made up Herge’s cartoon world.

Captain Archibald HaddockThe most famous of these characters is Captain Archibald Haddock, a ferociously bearded, bad tempered Irish mariner who made his debut in The Crab with the Golden Claw (1941). With his popular catchphrases “Blistering barnacles!” and “Thundering typhoons!", Haddock was initially a no-good drunk with a penchant for whiskey. Once established as a comic relief, the character quickly developed into the gruff voice of reason to Tintin’s strong idealistic views. Haddock later became a wealthy squire but still took part (albeit reluctantly) in his friend’s adventures.

Seeing the potential of Haddock’s more humorous aspects (especially when his whiskey-drinking lands him in trouble), Herge made him Tintin’s permanent right hand man. Such was the Captain’s popularity with young readers; a Tintin album would never be complete without his presence; he even took centre stage in Herge’s last completed album Tintin and the Picaros (1976).

Professor Cuthbert CalculusProfessor Cuthbert Calculus came next. He was a dotty but brilliant scientist, who insisted on being a bit hard of hearing in his right ear when in reality he was deaf as a post! When he made his debut in Red Rackham’s Treasure, he introduced his shark submarine, the first of his many great inventions.

The real life inspiration behind Calculus was the Swiss scientist and inventor Professor Auguste Piccard, who Herge once met in Brussels. Piccard was famous for his work in underwater and space exploration, and ever bears an uncanny resemblance to Calculus! Of course the Professor’s background as an inventor was more than useful to Herge when he developed his own character.

Calculus really came into his own with his legendary V-2 rocket used in Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. His finest hour has to be The Calculus Affair, where his sonic device almost falls into enemy hands when he takes his new invention to a nuclear physics convention in Geneva.

Hotel CarnavinReflecting his love for Switzerland, The Calculus Affair is set in Geneva. The Professor even checked in at the real life Hotel Carnavin, a place Herge often stayed when he wanted to visit Lake Geneva. Today fans regular visit the hotel. There is a life size Tintin statue on display, and Room 122, where Calculus stayed, has been turned in a shrine.

From then on Calculus stayed in the background, devoting his time to more comical inventions. Despite his more low key presence, he remained popular with fans.

Detectives Thompson and ThomsonRounding off this gallery of eccentrics are the incompetent police detectives Thompson and Thomson, identical upper class English twits who obviously went to the same police training college as Inspector Clouseau! Making their debut in Cigars of the Pharaoh (1934) their brief appearances were always memorable. Apart from the name spelling, one of them has a slightly different moustache.

The Thom(p)sons originally pursued Tintin for crimes he did not commit before becoming allies in the later adventures. Like Calculus, they came into their own halfway through the series With Red Rackham’s Treasure, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. Their bumbling antics would annoy Captain Haddock with unfailing regularity.

Although they remained very popular among fans, the Twins' appearances were less frequent in the later albums; they didn’t even appear in Tintin in Tibet and Flight 714 (1968).

Other lesser characters included Tintin’s long time villain Roberto Rastapopoulis, his henchman (and Haddock’s former first mate) Captain Allan, Bianca Castafiore the Italian opera singer (and only prominent female character in the franchise), revolutionary leader General Alcazar, Nestor the butler and obnoxious insurance salesman Joylon Wagg, whose woefully unfunny appearances numbered among Herge’s more misguided decisions.

Tintin the xenophobic tourist...?But Herge was never short of criticism for his work. His fascination for travelling was restricted by the war, so his own view of life in other countries was based on what he read or saw at the cinema. This meant he had the tendency to depict African, Arabic and Jewish characters as racial stereotypes. This resulted in accusations of racism and antisemitism, a situation exacerbated by his wartime blacklisting.

If there was a fault of Herge’s part, it was his naïve view of the world; the early books showed very inaccurate descriptions of life in Russia, America (the Wild West meets twenties gangland Chicago) and the Congo, with it’s colonial rule; The Red Sea Sharks (1958) depicted the black characters as simple-minded Uncle Toms. Herge would later rewrite the albums to make them more acceptable to changing public tastes. His second album, Tintin in the Congo (1931) received a great deal of controversy because it showed the reporter shooting wild animals in cold blood. It has only recently been translated into English.

The lack of female characters also prompted rumours that he was a misogynist. In reality they were old fashioned Boys Own-style adventure stories written at a time when girls never did such things.

But even with these criticisms, no one can deny the stories are beautifully drawn and brilliantly written. Plot, historical background and characterisation are well researched with even the most minor characters having a life of their own. One only has to look at the crudeness of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets to the very sophisticated style of Tintin and the Picaros.

Herge’s death may have effectively ended the publication of future Tintin albums, but there have been several unauthorised parodies and pastiches, many which have been withdrawn due to copyright infringement. These unofficial publications include several pornographic albums that focus on Tintin’s rumoured gay sex life (he does live with two middle-aged men, one of whom is a sailor!). The most infamous porn albums are Tintin in Thailand and Tintin in Switzerland. The latter album was prohibited in the Belgium and French courts following a plagiarism lawsuit, although it was authorised in Holland before disappearing into obscurity. These particular works would certainly be valuable to the sleazier collector of Tintin memorabilia!

Unlike his European comic counterparts Asterix the Gaul and Lucky Luke, Tintin has been somewhat difficult to transfer to film, both in cartoon and live action form. Asterix and Lucky Luke tended to rely on Tom & Jerry-style slapstick humour while Tintin was more complex in terms of subject matter character development. The readership for Tintin was probably a tad older to those who loved their Marvel and DC Comics. This is perhaps a notable factor that has probably hindered a successful screen adaptation.

Tintin and the Blue Oranges (1964)The few feature length films that are available are little more than curios. They include two rarely seen live action films, Tintin and the Golden Fleece (1961) and Tintin and the Blue Oranges (1964), both starring Jean-Pierre Talbot in the title role. These French productions were a brave stab at recreating a cartoon character in the real world but the end result is a misfire. The make-up used on the actors who play Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus isn’t very convincing and Talbot looks far too old for the role. And while the English translations of the albums are excellent, the ineffectual dubbing destroys much of the humour. Perhaps they worked better in French.

The one feature length cartoon is Tintin and the Lake of Sharks (1972). It suffered badly from the same type of shoddy animation and bad dubbing that hampered the sluggish Belgian TV series of the early sixties. Interestingly enough all three films were not based on any of the albums but on new stories.

The nearest fans have to a definitive screen adaptation is the French/Canadian series made in 1991, and is now available in a DVD box set. With the exception of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, all the albums were adapted for the series. Thankfully it follows the original stories and great care was made to recapture the style of the albums with emphasis on plot and character.

Unfortunately it doesn’t completely work. Certain scenes and characters were omitted to accommodate running time, which would annoy the real purists. Some changes are welcome, such as the omission of the simple black folk from The Red Sea Sharks, but other than his debut in The Crab with the Golden Claw, Captain Haddock’s heavy drinking has been completely removed to avoid influencing youngsters, although it takes away a great deal of the humour. Tintin’s Canadian accent gets annoying after a while, and even Professor Calculus’ deafness and the Thom(p)sons’ bumbling antics aren’t quite as funny as they should have been.

Concept art for Spielberg's take on TintinNow Spielberg is going to have a crack at the character by digitally filming The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure back to back. Jaime Bell is to play Tintin with Andy Serkis as Haddock, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the Thom(p)sons and Daniel Craig as the pirate Red Rackham.

So is this project going to be a faithful adaptation of the albums or yet another bastardised Hollywood version of a classic comic strip?

No one can deny Spielberg’s good intentions, but transferring a very popular cartoon character from Europe is no easy task, especially in a country unfamiliar with the books. Of course the books were translated into English with great success, so at least the British sense of humour is more in tune with American tastes.

A screenshot from 'The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn' (2011)

Spielberg has also decided to start halfway through the series rather than start at the beginning. Unlike say Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, where there are only a few books, Tintin has 23 completed albums of varying quality. It would be difficult to sustain a film series for that long, and Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is not the best book to start with so he’s wisely decided to begin at the most exciting part of Tintin’s career but retain elements from the early books – how he first met Captain Haddock and the Thom(p)sons for example.

But for all Spielberg’s good intentions, the money men would have their say on how things are run. Of course the albums are from a bygone age where internet, mobile phones and computer technology were nonexistent, so Tintin may be updated to emphasise that - something that did not have to be done with Asterix the Gaul or, being a cowboy, Lucky Luke. Tintin’s androgynous appearance may be played down by introducing a made-up female character, and more action scenes may be put in at the expense of plot development.

But Tintin’s popularity is so high, these changes would not be considered necessary or acceptable to most hardcore fans. By altering or updating the style and content of the albums, Spielberg may be doing more harm than good. What we may have is another ill-advised misfire even worse than the previous screen versions of comic heroes.

But having Peter Jackson as producer can only be a good thing. Like Spielberg, he is a cinematic purist and his work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong is a clear indication his involvement in the big screen version of Tintin can win over the most hardened fans.

Critical evaluation will have to wait until the film’s premiere, which is scheduled for October/November 2011. As a lifelong fan of Tintin, and one who would love to see a definitive screen version of the character, I hope that Spielberg and Jackson do Herge proud.

Only time will tell!

Albums

Many of the strips were serialised in various newspapers before they were produced in album form following several extensive rewrites and redrafts undertaken by Herge that included colourisation. The albums are as follows.

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), Tintin in the Congo (1931), Tintin in America (1932), Cigars of the Pharaoh (1934), The Blue Lotus (1936), The Broken Ear (1937), The Black Island (1937), King Ottokar’s Sceptre (1938), The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Shooting Star (1942), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), The Seven Crystal Balls (1948), Prisoners of the Sun (1949), The Land of Black Gold (1950), Destination Moon (1953), Explorers on the Moon (1954), The Calculus Affair (1956), The Red Sea Sharks (1958), Tintin in Tibet (1960), The Castafiore Emerald (1963), Flight 714 (1968), Tintin and the Picaros (1976), Tintin and Alph-Art (unfinished – 1986)

See also:

Can Spielberg and Jackson do justice to the look of the Tintin comics?

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece review

10 things that Ghostbusters 3 would need to get right

Why 'The Stand' should never be a movie

A purist's defense of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings screenplay

Could 'Mass Effect' be the first worthwhile videogame adaptation?

Top 10 most mishandled comic book characters in film

Five comics that deserve a movie

Ten reasons why a Goonies sequel will work

Why Blade Runner doesn't need a sequel


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: Tintin, the movie: will it work? Proman 2011-04-26 15:26
There is absolutely no one better out there to bring this project to the screen than Spielberg and his team. You can tell that an enormous amount of care and patience is being put into this project with no apparent shortcuts being taken. Spielberg neither rushed the project to converted it to 3D post production. Everything seems to be deisnged ahead and executed right. It's no wonder Herge himself gave Steven his blessing for this. I am very excited for the movie and cannot wait to see it.
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#2 MR J Mallon 2011-10-27 02:10
when i was a kid i grew up in new york city i remember going to this italian guys candy store and reading this comic book and it was kind of a book i could also find it some times at the library it was really fun. when i saw Steven spielberg was making it a movie . it all came back to me .. i will have to see this movie
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