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The misadventures of Spielberg

Nicholas Lezard

Hergé's Tintin is one of the great ­creations of the 20th century, which makes the dismal Hollywood film version little more than murder, says a fan.

Coming out of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin I found myself too stunned and sickened to speak for a few seconds.

That is because I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally ­senseless violence being perpetrated on ­something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape.

I use this comparison not as a provocation or to cause unnecessary offence, but in honour of a good joke made in an episode of South Park. The cartoon’s children watch the final Indiana Jones film and are so traumatised by what they have seen that they go to the police station to try to get Spielberg and his colleagues charged with the crime. “What they did to poor Indy—they made him squeal like a pig!”

The tragic irony of this is that it was Tintin’s creator, Hergé, who anointed Spielberg as his ­preferred director to make a Tintin film. He did this a few weeks before his death in 1983 after he had seen, and loved, as we all do and did, the first Indiana Jones film.

The sense of outrage is ­palpable and even after two days I found myself moved to pick up my ­shuddering, weeping copy of Hergé‘s The Secret of the Unicorn, cradle it in my arms and whisper soothingly to it that everything would be all right. But all the time I knew that, after this, it would not be; nothing would be the same again. The forces of ­marketing and global idiocy would see to that.

But I will try to make things ­better as well as I can and remind ­readers of some of the things that made

Hergé‘s original one of the ­consistently great works of art of the 20th century.

Meticulous details
The elements are simple: a boy, his dog Snowy, his gruff sidekick—a quick-tempered alcoholic old seadog called Haddock—and a deaf, absent-minded professor called Calculus. Tintin, with or without the others, rights wrongs, rescues the innocent, uncovers dastardly plots and goes on mind-boggling adventures—even, in one book, to the moon, a scientifically accurate adventure conceived about 15 years before people actually walked there. All of them are executed in cartoon form, but in a style grounded in meticulous attention to detail and respect for veracity.

The books grew in ­sophistication: Tintin’s first appearance in 1929-1930 was a black-and-white ­rudimentary anti-Soviet potboiler that was little more than propaganda. Then followed a trip to the Belgian Congo, which is childishly but still blush-makingly racist, (yet still hugely popular in the post-colonial country); yet by the final completed work, Tintin and the Picaros (1976), Tintin is sporting a CND symbol, and helping, albeit with reservations and only on condition of non-violence, a group of not-quite-explicitly leftish guerrillas gain power in a despotic Latin-American country. It’s a long learning curve.

My love of Tintin began, as almost everyone’s does, in childhood. The books were translated into ­English, but not in the order written, so for a while the chronology of the series was somewhat jumbled. In one book the cars and other urban furniture are all 1940s. In the next, technology has advanced enough to build a nuclear-powered rocket capable of reaching the moon, and then we are back to what looks like the 1930s, except that—in The Cigars of the ­Pharaoh—a desert sheikh is able to proclaim himself a fan of Tintin, even ­getting a ­servant to hold up a copy of ­Destination Moon as testament to his devotion.

No matter: any child with Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows under their belt is not going to be too fazed by the dream logic of what we may loosely call ­postmodernism—a work of art that draws attention to its own artifice.

Tintin’s adventures never left the realm of possibility. They might have been implausible—Tintin’s escapes from capture or near-­certain death might often have been on the unlikely side—but there was ­nothing in them that was ­flat-out impossible. Except, perhaps, for the brief sequence in which he learns the language of elephants in The Cigars of the Pharaoh, but that mistake was never repeated and, besides, the book itself is, ­appropriately enough given its MacGuffin, an opium dream of a story.

Immersed in the text
There is a truism that states that the very appearance of a comic strip is almost the same thing as the ­storyboard of a film—the sequence of images that is the ­intermediate stage between the script and the final product. This is certainly why comic books do, according to the ­filmmakers who use them as basis for their next franchise, scream: “Take me! Take me!”

But this is misleading. The experience of reading a cartoon is not the same as that of watching a film. It is slow, quiet and intimate and in childhood would be most typically undertaken while lying down on your stomach on the floor, the book in front of you, your legs raised perpendicularly at the knee, ankles crossed—the classic childhood pose of absorption in a text.

The images may contain stories of chase and speed, but the frames can move as slowly as you wish. And Hergé, who was as happy to have a frame crammed with words as he was to have one with no words at all, allowed the reader to be complicit with him in the speed at which the story was taken.

I would often linger over the pictures as I admired Hergé‘s famous ligne claire, the style in which ­caricature and realism superimpose themselves on each other. No one’s face may look like Tintin’s, with its rudimentary ellipsis for a head and its dots for eyes, like a teach-yourself-cartooning book’s first ­instructions on how to draw a face, but when Tintin is ­chloroformed on page 35 of The Secret of the Unicorn his right foot lifts off the ground in just the way mine would, were I to be ­chloroformed by a pair of thugs.

Being as familiar as I am with the books in English, I thought I had better have another look at The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure in French: to slow me down, for my French is not perfect, back to childhood reading speed.

This allowed me to appreciate ­better the art that, after 40-odd years of reading the books, I had begun to take for granted. Hence I finally noticed the impeccable ­triumph of comic timing in which the Thomsons, putting their bowler hats back on with the dignity that slapstick always subverts, are about to be brained by the enormous files of bogus genealogy that Haddock has just thrown down the stairs.

And finally I noticed the little joke at the beginning of the first book in which, in panels four, six and nine of the first page, we see Snowy ­scratching himself. Why? Because he is at a flea market. The corniness of the joke is obliterated by the fact that we have to work out the punchline—and even the fact that it is a joke—for ourselves.

­Astonishing findings
But there are other, deeper, darker signals embedded in the books ­themselves. For noticing these I have to thank the novelist Tom McCarthy, whose book Tintin and the Secret of Literature, using the ­astonishing findings of Hergé‘s biographers and subsequent interpretations by the French writer Serge Tisseron, touches on an almost incredible story: that the whole Tintin series is a consistent, creative, ­psychological working-out of Hergé‘s family secret: that he may well be related to the king of Belgium.

A visiting VIP—maybe the king, he did visit—would often pass by the chateau where Hergé‘s ­grandmother worked as a maid. One such visit resulted in her pregnancy and the birth of his uncles—twins who, dressed identically in bowler hats, suits and carrying canes, are so ­obviously the Thomson Twins that no doubt about the link with them

is possible. Hergé‘s grandmother was quickly paired off with the gardener, his ­subsequent grandfather.

McCarthy can give a better account of this and the subsequent coded resurfacings of this story than I can in precis. ­Suffice it to say that his book is one of the few critical works that can truly be called “mind-­blowing” and that no adult ­interpretation—and indeed ­appreciation of the books—can now be considered complete without ­having read it.

For example, I pointed out to McCarthy before we saw the film together that there were an awful lot of beds in the Tintin books, a great deal many more than you would expect in a series carrying the words “The Adventures of ...”

Tintin has a hospital-like bed in his flat at 26 Labrador Road; we see him in it while Snowy brings him the phone. The Bird brothers, the real villains of the story, may be nasty pieces of work, but they are considerate enough to provide Tintin with a nice set of sheets and blankets in which he can recover consciousness. Calculus has made himself a bed in a lifeboat in Red Rackham’s Treasure. And in The Seven Crystal Balls, the next book to be ravished and broken by Spielberg and his ­cronies, there are beds galore in which the cursed professors writhe with tormented nightmares. And so on and so on: make your own list of the beds in Tintin. It is fun.

A lack of understanding

On a personal note I would often, when feigning or even occasionally genuinely suffering from illness, read all my Tintin books in bed, matching drink for drink, in Lucozade, what Haddock in the books was doing with whisky. So what is that all about, I asked McCarthy. Easy, he said: it is because of what happened in bed between his grandmother and the unidentified nobleman.

Interestingly, it becomes clear from a few quite obvious ­references that at least one of the ­screenwriters—Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish—has read McCarthy’s book. Alas, they have not ­understood it.

There is a great deal about ­Captain ­Haddock’s ­genealogy in the film—he is the character who secretly “­carries” the Hergé ­family story in the books—and there is even a part where he says to Tintin that “you transmit your own ­signals”, an unambiguous lifting of one of ­McCarthy’s own riffs.

But there then follows a speech that Hergé‘s Haddock would never have made in a million years, full of sub-Alcoholics Anonymous self-empowerment rubbish about ­breaking through walls and ­finding your true self, which would have made any self-respecting screenwriter insist on having his or her name removed from the credits.

As it is, the film has turned a ­subtle, intricate and beautiful work of art into the typical bombast of the modern blockbuster: Tintin for morons. The nicest things one can say about it are that there is a ­pleasing cameo of Hergé himself in the opening scene and the cars look lovely.

Indeed, as a whole it is visually sumptuous and the 3D motion-­capturing transference of the ­original drawings is by far the least of the film’s problems. But the movie usefully places in plain view all the ­cretinous ­arrogance of modern mass-market, script conference-driven ­filmmaking, confirming in ­passing that, as a ­director, Spielberg is a burned-out sun. A duel between dockyard cranes? Give me a break. Oh, and the ­opening credits are nice and witty.

But this only confirms a maxim that I have recently formulated: that the closer in spirit the title sequence is to the original from which the ­subsequent film has been stolen, the more of a travesty it will be.

There may be those who think that to quibble about the ­traducement of what might be considered a work of one of the lesser arts is to waste ­everyone’s time. But it is not.

Something of great subtlety, beauty and ­artfully deceptive ­complexity, ­resonance and depth has been betrayed, and it is time to make a stand.—-

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