A different Tintin

Print edition : December 16, 2011

Inspectors Thompson and Thomson (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) and Tintin (Jamie Bell) in The Adentures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. -

Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin has failed to cheer the vast legions of Tintin fans the world over.

AS reviews of Tintin's newest filmic rendition pour in, it is clear that Steven Spielberg's 3D version, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, has failed to cheer the vast legion of Tintin fans the world over. Estimates may vary, but more than 350 million comic books of Tintin have been sold to date, proving the series' lasting popularity. While responses to the film have been mixed, the disappointment is great when one pits Spielberg's motion capture animation against the original straight line drawing that Herg used for the Tintin comic books. The disappointment is even more intense for those Tintin fans who went seeking their childhood hero whose fantastic exploits continue to fascinate them even when they are grown up.

In his review, Baradwaj Rangan, the film critic of The Hindu, writes: In short, The Adventures of Tintin, with the hero and his cohorts on the trail of treasure from a sunken vessel, could just as easily have become an Indiana Jones movie: Raiders of the Lost Barque. And it has. This is more Spielberg's Tintin than Herg's. Reviewing the film for www.rediff.com, Raja Sen writes: If I'd never read or loved or heard of Tintin before, I admittedly would not have been thus outraged (though I see no point in pretending to be ignorant or American) but even if Spielberg's film was called The Adventures Of JackJack, it would be a forgettable standard-issue action romp. A few colourful characters, some visually lush backdrops, some ha-ha gags. Nothing offensively bad, but nothing special. But it is not called JackJack, and robbing Tintin of being special is as offensive as it gets.

This dismay with the filmic version is also a time to go back and understand Tintin better and to get a stronger sense of what made the boy reporter such a perennial hit. From the time the early Tintin stories began to be serialised in Le Petit Vingtime, a Belgian newspaper, the adventure comics became popular all over the world. Of the 24 graphic tales of Tintin that were produced, 21 are popular and are easily available across most bookstores in India. All the comics have been translated into several languages internationally, including Bengali and Hindi.

Herg, a Belgian working in Brussels whose real name was Georges Remi, started working on the Tintin comic series in 1929. His first two works, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930) and Tintin in the Congo (1931), bring out the world view of the young Herg (he was 21 years old in 1929) and stand apart from his later works in their rawness. Even the style would surprise those who are used to his later works.

These two works also easily invite criticism from contemporary readers the plots are shaky, the characterisation is incomplete and colonial and anti-communist prejudices are liberally present. The Congolese are depicted as backward people who need the patronage of the fatherland, Belgium (Congo was a Belgian colony at the time). But these works set out the premise and the main idea behind Tintin: he is a boy reporter with a quiff, who is gutsy and adventurous. He is a journalist and his faithful companion is a white fox terrier called Snowy. Almost asexual, he remains the intrepid fantasy of a young boy, with his masterly ability to crack cases and his resilient resistance of the most devious of dons.

The short-book length comics that Tintin readers are used to begin with Tintin's third adventure Tintin in America (1932) when the young reporter arrives in Chicago during the time of organised crime and the Great Depression. Herg's meticulous research was becoming evident now as he creates the underworld of Chicago. Al Capone, the legendary gangster, also features in this comic album.

TINTIN AND HIS pet dog Snowy in Herg?'s comic book.-TINTIN AND HIS pet dog Snowy in Herg�'s comic book.

Tintin continuously travels across the globe in his subsequent adventures. Advances in intercontinental transportation by the early decades of the 20th century obviously make Tintin's job a lot easier. (It is ironic that Herg himself never travelled to all the lands that he so vividly illustrates in his comics. It was only later, after the publication of several Tintin albums, that he sets out to see the world.)

After every adventure, Tintin returns to Brussels where he lives at 26 Labrador Road (in his later adventures one can also see Tintin living and working out of Marlinspike Hall) before setting out for his globe-trotting adventures. America is followed by Egypt and India in Cigars of the Pharoah (1934). India, of course, is depicted as a country of thick forests, fakirs and rajahs. Herg followed this adventure with Tintin and the Blue Lotus (1936), which is set in China.

With an awareness of the work of scholars such as Edward Said, who published his seminal work Orientalism in 1978, it is easier to understand the early work of Herg. The author of Tintin was demonstrating the paradigm of his time in the way in which he understood the world outside Europe. The 1930s was a time of relative peace, considering that the Second World War was yet to envelope Europe, and epoch-changing ideas were still being discussed and formulated.

Herg wrote Tintin's adventure in China during that period, and we see a clear change in his depiction of the Other. While he persists with insulting caricatures, he also meets a young Chinese man who helps him correct his oriental prejudices. We see a vast change in his work from then on even though he persists with some of his zealous caricaturing of Jews, for instance, inviting allegations that he was anti-Semitic.

The Chinese man whom he met would refigure in one of Herg's most liked works Tintin in Tibet (1960). Herg wrote this work when he was going through a traumatic period in his life and set it in snow so that it would reflect his current mental state. India also figures fleetingly in this volume. When Tintin and Captain Haddock travel to Kathmandu on their way to Tibet, they have an encounter with a sacred cow in a medieval-looking bazaar in New Delhi.

Tintin in the Spielberg movie.-

The mention of Captain Haddock should merit a slight digression into the supporting cast who accompany Tintin on several of his adventures. There is Captain Archibald Haddock, whom Tintin first meets in his ninth adventure The Crab With the Golden Claws (1941) and continues as Tintin's constant companion in his subsequent tales. Two bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson are a constant source of comedy and slapstick humour. An almost deaf scientist, Professor Cuthbert Calculus whom Tintin first encounters in his 12th adventure Red Rackham's Treasure (1944) also adds to the general chaos at times.

A host of other characters fleet in and out of the graphic tales: there is the Milanese nightingale, Bianca Castafiore; the typical South American caudillo, General Alcazar; and the well-natured but annoying insurance salesman, Jolyon Wagg. There are several Tintinologists (an informal term for people who study Tintin) who argue that Tintin is indeed great literature. One has only to look at the suspense-filled The Castafiore Emerald (1963) to see this.

Tom McCarthy, the British novelist, is one person who has argued strongly that Tintin indeed qualifies as literature, and of great quality at that. In his book Tintin and the Secret of Literature, he shows the themes Tintin's stories generate are the same that have fuelled and troubled writers from the classical era to the present day. His conclusion is that Tintin's ultimate secret is that of literature itself.

Other studies by Tintin aficionados, such as Michael Farr, have tried to pick the stories apart in trying to interpret the themes by placing them in the context of Herg's life. Others, such as Jean-Marie Apostolides, have used their training in the social sciences to argue that Tintin was Herg's notion of a superchild. But for most Tintin fans these arcane analyses do not hold too much meaning. It is Herg's world that they turn to when they need to enjoy a great story well told.

Tintin's world is also reassuring for all those who are dismayed by the homogeneity that globalisation brings in its wake. Tintin's world is modern, and sometimes flawed if seen in the politically correct eyes of our time, but it retains a childish fascination even after several decades.

All of this should provide an idea of what Tintin means to many of his fans. Spielberg's film takes too many liberties and strays far away when it tries to bring incidents from three of the volumes together.

So while there are some scenes that are true to the comic book panels, Spielberg's distinctive touch mars the experience. The well-known director discovered Tintin only as an adult when a review compared the Indiana Jones character to Tintin. If he had discovered him as a child, perhaps he would have remembered that there are some childhood memories that need to retain their innocence and that when they are retold in 3D they lose their novelty and become impure. That is exactly what has happened with Spielberg's Tintin.

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