Tintin Hits the Silver Screen

The reviews are starting to come in on the film adaptation, by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, of The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, the classic detective-adventure hero whose eponymous books have sold 350 million copies. Tintin’s creator was a Belgian artist, Georges Prosper Remi, who published under the pseudonym Hergé. He began improvising the the adventures of his eternally adolescent hero in 1929 at the tender age of just 22, although a mural discovered in 2007 of a Tintin-like Scout character called Totor drawn by a teenage Hergé indicates Tintin had long been on his mind.

Hergé’s boy’s-own plotting, pacing, characterisation, sense of humour and drawing style - an economic blend of the stylised and the realistic - proved popular. He continued to draw Tintin strips until his death in 1983, at times taking risks with the format’s generic conventions as audacious as his hero’s adventures. In The Castafiore Emerald (1962), for example, there is much action but there is no plot. And the final Tintin book drawn by Hergé, the unfinished Alph-Art, was a genre-defying exploration of the world of modern art.

Detail of a mural drawn by a 15 year-old Hergé of Totor, a progenitor of Tintin, via the World Scout Bureau

Detail of a mural drawn by a 15 year-old Hergé of Totor, a progenitor of Tintin, via the World Scout Bureau

The film is an adaptation of three Tintin books, The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Interestingly, these three titles were published between 1940 and 1943, in the midst of the second World War, when Belgium was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Crab with the Golden Claws was the first of six Tintin adventures written under the occupation. It was serialised in a French-language newspaper that was the official mouthpiece of the Nazis in Belgium during the war after the Germans closed the newspaper that had previously published Tintin. To avoid controversy, Hergé dropped his habit of scripting adventures based on current events and began using more exotic plot devices, such as the mystery and treasure hunt that animate The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Although his politics were on the whole humanist and mainstream, Tintin’s ideological tendencies varied from the anti-corporate left to the anti-Semitic far right. Anti-Semitic frames were originally published in the newspaper edition of The Shooting Star, another wartime Tintin adventure, but were later expunged in the book version.

After Belgium was liberated, Hergé was interrogated on suspicion of having been a collaborator. His defence was that he’d simply done his job, much like a plumber. Later, in a 1973 interview, he accepted more responsibility: “I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order. For many, democracy had proved a disappointment, and the New Order brought new hope. In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error to have believed for an instant in the New Order.”

Reviews of the film have been largely positive, praising its thrill-a-minute pacing. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, on the other hand, had a quasi-existential reaction to the film, lamenting the lifelessness of the 3D characters on celluloid: “How curious that Hergé achieved more expression with his use of ink-spot eyes and humble line drawings than a bank of computers and an army of animators were able to achieve… There on the screen we see Hergé’s old and cherished protagonists, raised like Lazarus and made to scamper anew. But the spark is gone, their eyes are dusty, and watching their antics is like partying with ghosts. Turn away; don’t meet their gaze. When we stare into the void, the void stares back at us.”

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