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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 4 NOVEMBER 2011 — Thundering typhoons! A new filmed adventure for Tintin in the modern era, and what a lot of balderdash spewed out by malcontent bashi-bazouks and nincompoops attacking the quiffed boy wonder and his companions.

I am no great fan of Hollywood adaptations, but much of the criticism launched against Steven Spielberg’s attempt to bring Hergé’s cartoon strip character to life seem heavily misplaced.

The first group of critics  —  mostly among those who do not like or do not know the original Tintin books  — argues that he and his fellow adventurers lack character and depth. The point is brought home visually through the motion capture technique which smoothes and simplifies the live actors features to give an impression of the cartoon originals.

A scene from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Credit: Paramount Pictures

That’s all true enough. But welcome to the world of Tintin. Hergé’s teetotal, asexual protagonist was never a rounded personality with much spirit of reflection or balanced personal life. He is a practically unageing, barely post-pubescent adventurer, drawn by, as and for Boy Scouts of all generations.

There are only a handful of women across the entire Hergé oeuvre, and with the exception of the occasional prima dona (Castefiore in the film, which downplays the more hectoring and domineering aspects of her personality), most are merely backdrops or supporters.

That is regrettable but hardly a fatal blow. At least for me, Tintin had other compensatory qualities: from his belief in justice to his appetite for adventure, travel and immersion in foreign cultures, something that the books could do for those of us without the benefit of such immediate Internet images or cheap air travel.

A scene from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Tintin (Jamie Bell)
Credit: Paramount Pictures

The second group of anti-Tintinites  — mostly those who love the cartoon books but seem unable to adapt to any evolution since the 1970s  — see the film as a massacre of the original sacred texts.

I still remember the excitement of the first publication date of the last true work (Tintin and the Picaros), an event less hyped but just as exciting as a more recent generation’s memories of the Harry Potter releases. But nostalgia should not be an argument against reinterpretation for a new generation.

I have some sympathy with those who rail against the insertion of modern pop psychology into the film, most notably (departing sharply from the original) when Captain Haddock urges a dejected Tintin to believe in himself. I find most irritating the fact that the film joins the endless post-Avatar bandwagon in offering 3D versions that offer little extra beyond a higher price and the environmentally damaging prospect of still more wasted specs. The sooner that obsession withers, the better.

A scene from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and Tintin (Jamie Bell)
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I have rather less time for those who argue that the film massacres the original story lines by combining three books into a single adventure, in the process not only filleting much of Hergé’s plot, but also adding in fresh scenes unimagined by the author.

I regret that the compression sharply reduces the potential for so many potential sequels. But let’s be honest: the original plots are not so perfect as to be untouchable by future interpreters. Look at the ability for creativity in re-examining the German story of Faust, whether by Marlowe, Gounod or Goethe.

Meanwhile, that still leaves fans to appreciate the very different Tintin originals, while potentially luring a new generation of readers who would otherwise not have been tempted to turn to the books in the first place.

A scene from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and Tintin (Jamie Bell)
Credit: Paramount Pictures

A truer point of comparison for Spielberg’s efforts should be previous filmed attempts at Tintin, most of which have thankfully since been forgotten and all of which were far more catastrophic (ever seen the Blue Oranges? If not, don’t). All efforts which did not derive from the original books were dreadful, and a lame "reverse publishing" effort with Lake of the Sharks should have been left to wither on the silver screen rather than in print.

The great exception is the animated cartoons, which remain excellent, true to the books and for purists will always far outstrip Spielberg’s efforts. But the director should not be condemned for trying something different.

A scene from The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I’ll certainly be a willing viewer for his next attempt, arguably the greatest and most exotic of all Tintin’s adventures, with the Inca Rascar Capac. Although therein lies a topical lesson and warning for Spielberg in the edit room, with a warning from Hergé of the moral and practical dangers of the western grave-robbers of ancient cultures. The revenge of the sun god was great indeed.

The "Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn," based on the comic book series by Belgian artist Hergé (né Georges Remi) opened in theatres in Europe on 26 October. The official U.S. release date is 21 December 2011.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.

Headline image: C. Davis Remignanti

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