By Katie Datko
One day that’s strongly etched in my memory of childhood is when I was first introduced to Tintin at age seven. It was a sunny Saturday in Georgetown. My dad took me to Olsson’s Bookstore and he bought me Hergé’s The Secret of the Unicorn (1943). Initially I was more fascinated by the Asterix and Cleopatra book he’d also picked up (mostly because I was in love with the colorful pages and her dresses). But after we got home and I snuggled into my dad’s lap (a rare occasion), I was quickly enrapt by Tintin.
Maybe it was the realistic way my dad read Captain Haddock’s blustery lines (similar characters they were) or Red Rackham’s red-plumed costume, but from that day on, Tintin became a personal source of inspiration. With each colorfully drawn page, I was introduced to the complexities and intrigue of a world beyond my suburban life, the fire of my desire to explore and travel stoked by a teenage boy wearing outmoded plus fours with a funny tuft of hair. To say that I’ve read each Tintin book I own about 100 times is an understatement. Some of them I can probably quote from memory.
It’s with this love of all things Tintin that I went into the North American premiere of the Spielberg/Jackson THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN with extreme misgivings. From what I could glean about the movie beforehand, key elements of the plot had been altered and spicier villains created from minor characters. My fear was that the Hollywood rendering of Hergé’s creations would alter the prescient and clever adroitness of his stories and the complexities of his plots. Even with talented screenwriter Steven Moffat (DOCTOR WHO) on the project, I didn’t trust that something as treasured as Tintin would make the translation to film intact. Instead, I fretted that I’d be treated to a one-dimensional superhero sailing off into a clichéd sunset while listening to the ubiquitous John Williams score.
I had to consciously release my expectations, breathe deeply and just let myself enjoy the film for what it was. Tintin, after all, can never really be justly interpreted on the screen. Even THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN television series of the early ’90s—dutifully created from panels in the books—somehow falls short. There is nothing to compare to Hergé’s masterful use of the gutter (the space between frames) to propel the action of the story forward. On this score, animation will always leave little to the imagination by filling in these mental gaps for us.
So, my first pleasant surprise with the film was the sets. Spielberg and company have crafted a colorful world that rings true to the comic while at the same time adds a degree of depth that drew me into the action. In this, the construction of a Tintinesque realm, Spielberg has succeeded in toto. Although at times there were scenes that could have been taken directly out of Indiana Jones, there were also some inventive action sequences. One of the most intricate was a single “take” of a chase through the byzantine streets of the fictional (most likely North African) port of Bagghar. My personal favorite was the use of creative dissolves while Captain Haddock describes his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock’s fight with the pirate Red Rackham. Executed with a crackerjack sense of timing there was an unforced and seamless transition between the stories.
Like most adaptations these days, the film takes liberties with the plot, changing original characters and collapsing the stories of three books (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure) into one mega-adventure. For me, as a Tintin purist, it is all too easy to denigrate this. Some elements of the plots have been simplified in the film and I found myself mentally fashioning more elaborate storylines based on my knowledge of the books.
But for the Tintin neophyte, the melding of these stories makes the narrative a little more accessible, following the established rhythm of a modern action film and more closely aligning with what kids in the 21st century expect. In particular, substituting the drug-running plot in the The Crab with the Golden Claws with the search for the Unicorn’s hidden treasure brought a more positive focus to the adventure.
Another update to the classic is a deeper backstory for Captain Haddock and a more well-rounded sense of who Tintin is as a character. Despite a few moments in the film when Tintin uncharacteristically shows a bit of self-doubt (a Spielberg rather than Hergé touch), the characters’ mannerisms, language and personality are elaborations that do not detract too much from the original—revised enough to appeal to a new generation of fans but not so far gone so as to be unrecognizable.
The overall verdict from the point of view of a Tintin geek is this: unless you are the most ardent aficionado hellbent on finding fault with the film, you will find THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN attention grabbing, entertaining and lively. It’s a pleasant diversion with several humorous and identifiable nods to the original. For a generation of American kids raised on 3D animation and video games who haven’t been introduced to the pleasures of reading of Tintin, seeing the film might motivate them to pick up the comic books and become immersed in Hergé’s slower-paced yet complex creations.
By returning to the source they will have a chance not only to see the world through the eyes of a master of the graphic novel, but also to learn about and gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and issues that are still relevant today. They might just be inspired to strike off on adventures of their own. All because of a teenage boy who, while now updated in 3D, never becomes outdated.
Katie Datko is an LA-based writer who has written for the L.A. Weekly, DailyOm.com and the LohDown on Science.