By CHARLES McGRATH Published: January 2, 2012
Steven Spielberg’s new film “The Adventures of Tintin” took in roughly $12 million during the past holiday weekend. This is not tremendous box office (“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” by contrast, exceeded $30 million), but it’s more than some skeptics had predicted for a movie about a cartoon character who, though beloved in most parts of the world, is practically unknown in the United States. Charles de Gaulle once declared that in terms of international fame, Tintin was his only rival. We, on the other hand, don’t even know how to say his name right. In the original cartoons Tintin, the creation of the Belgian artist Hergé, spoke French, and thus his name should be pronounced “Tanh-tanh,” and not, as the movie has it, to rhyme with “win win.”
Tintin is the antithesis of a superhero, which may account for why he seems so alien to Americans. He has an upswept red forelock, wears plus fours and argyle socks and lives alone with his dog, Snowy. He has no exceptional powers, no sexual identity and seemingly no inner life at all. Hergé began drawing the character in 1929 and was working on a full-length Tintin adventure (it would have been the 24th) when he died in 1983, and in all that time Tintin never aged, remaining a barely pubescent 14 or 15. He ostensibly works as a journalist, though we almost never see him write or file a story. .
The books are long by comic-book standards, with more pages and many more words to a page than usual. They’re genuine graphic novels, to use the current terminology, and require from the reader time and attention and a kind of childlike surrender. If the Spielberg version encourages a new American audience to read and appreciate these sweet, charming and visually arresting books, the way the rest of the world does, that may be its greatest accomplishment.
The new movie is based on three Tintin adventures that Hergé drew during World War II: “The Crab With the Golden Claws” (1941), “The Secret of the Unicorn” (1943) and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (also 1943). They are a slightly misleading introduction to Hergé’s work, which typically has a more documentary quality and dispatches Tintin to solve mysteries in exotic locales.
In the beginning the Tintin adventures were intended to show the world to Belgian children, and the series never entirely lost that globe-trotting curiosity. Other books are set, for example, in Peru, India, Egypt, China, the United States (where in 1931 Tintin runs into Al Capone) and the Moon.
For all the variety in the stories, though, there is also a formulaic similarity, with the same supporting characters reliably turning up: Captain Haddock, a blustering, alcoholic sea captain; Professor Calculus, an absent-minded, hard-of-hearing scientist; Thompson and Thomson, bumbling, look-alike, bowler-hatted detectives; the beak-nosed, shrill-voiced diva Bianca Castafiore. From volume to volume they make variations on the same jokes, and that too is part of the reassuring appeal of the series.
Mr. Spielberg has said that he first heard about Tintin in 1983, when he learned that French reviewers were comparing his “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to some of Hergé’s work. Curious, he bought a couple of Tintin books in the original French and, though unable to read them, was immediately smitten.
It’s easy to understand why. Not only is there an Indiana Jones-like quality to some of Tintin’s adventures — he’s forever discovering secret passages or getting trapped in a crashing plane — but Hergé’s drawings have an inherently cinematic quality. They look like storyboards or a movie shooting script, with close-ups, telescopic shots, jump cuts and action sequences.
Hergé, who grew up watching silent comedies, clearly loved the movies, and in 1948 even offered to adapt some of his books for Disney. The studio passed, possibly because the stories were more complicated, more grown-up, than the ones it was then making, or maybe because Hergé’s style was so unlike Disney’s. Hergé was a brilliant draftsman, and his drawings, devoid of cuteness and sentimentality, are a compelling mixture of simplicity and precise detail. Tintin’s face, for example, is just a Charlie Brown-like assemblage of dots and squiggles, but cars and airplanes are so carefully rendered that they can be identified by make and model.
Hergé’s drawings are also insistently two-dimensional, with no shadows, very little shading and not many perspective tricks. They are content to lie flat on the page. To adult fans, who have included Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the purity and creativity of the drawing is what most recommends the Tintin series. And to readers used to the original books, the most disconcerting thing about Mr. Spielberg’s film is the way it jumps off the screen.
One British literary critic, stunned by the transformation to film, said he felt he had“witnessed a rape.” The movie was shot using the motion-capture technique, which creates not only a plusher look than in most cartoon movies but also a more rounded one. It brings Tintin, who in Hergé’s conception is practically an abstraction, to a kind of realistic-seeming life in which he looks a little uncomfortable. When he speaks (in the voice of Jamie Bell), it is even more startling, if you’re used to hearing him only as words in your own head.
Hergé once said that Tintin was a projection of his inner self and his own spirit of bravery and adventure, which is true only up to a point. In many respects Hergé, whose real name was Georges Remi, was a good deal less appealing than his creation. In person he was a bland, unsociable man whose politics, in the beginning, anyway, were noxiously right-wing. His drawings for the 1931 adventure “Tintin in the Congo” were so racist that he later redrew them, and he also had to redo a later book, “The Shooting Star,” because it was anti-Semitic. It included a pair of characters named Isaac and Salomon who looked forward to the end of the world because it meant they wouldn’t have to pay their debts.
During the war, when many Belgians refused to cooperate with their Nazi occupiers, Hergé happily went to work for the pro-German paper Le Soir (the same publication for which, as a young man, the literary critic Paul de Man wrote anti-Semitic articles).
In later years Hergé mellowed a little and, formerly a strict Roman Catholic, even took an interest in Eastern religions, which may be reflected in “Tintin in Tibet” (1960), the most beautiful and heartfelt of the books. But Tintin himself, by never growing up, by never even updating his 1930s-style wardrobe, remained a timeless blank slate on which readers could project their own feelings and imaginings. It’s this innocence and indeterminacy — his unworldliness — that probably makes Tintin feel so alien to American readers, and it’s also what most recommends him.