Tintin adapts to different audiences and cultural moments

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Reactions to Steven Spielberg's film version of Tintin, The Secret of the Unicorn, have been intense, especially in Europe, where Tintin has been a cultural marker since the 1930s. It opened there two months before here, perhaps because distributors thought they'd garner great reviews to propel their North American launch, where Tintin is less known. Instead it was called "execrable," "thuggishly moronic," "Tintin for morons," and a betrayal of great art -- just in The Guardian. This British indignation erupted over translated French comic books (true precursors to the graphic novel) by a Belgian, Hergé.

I first encountered Tintin in the streets of Paris in the 1970s, among the dazed remnants of the great uprising of May 1968. They'd been initially exhilarated, then devastated when it failed. They embraced Tintin, it seemed to me, for his eternal boyishness, linked to their own youthfulness at the time. And as a way to distinguish their leftism from the old, serious French left of the Communist party, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Resistance. They were playful revolutionaries, like the Yippies in the American New Left, who said they were Marxists of the Groucho, but not the Karl, variety. I mention this to show Tintin's adaptability to various audiences. That level of cultural flexibility may be what defines a classic, rather than inherent artistic excellence.

I'm not saying Tintin lacks occasional gravity. There's been a debate over Hergé's racism, which is present in some early plots -- set in the Congo or the U.S., but which is overcome and reversed in later books. That's a plus. Issues like racism only really matter when you grapple with them and don't just mouth the currently acceptable view. Captain Haddock's alcoholism is mostly amusing but there are dark moments when he screws things up badly, moaning, "What have I done?" And there's a vast pathos in the final panel of Tintin in Tibet, as the Yeti -- the abominable snowman -- watches Tintin's party move off across the steppe, leaving him alone again, after his brief encounter with another soul.

Tintin is a "famous boy journalist" though we never see him working on a story or doing an interview, in the books or film. The same was true of Clark Kent. It was a trope of the times. Journalists seemed cool, independent, glamorous, adventurous figures.

It's the relentless adventure that clearly attracted Spielberg. Hergé himself said, after seeing the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, that this was the director to put Tintin onscreen. There's a chase through a North African city that's as breathtaking as the grave-robbing intro to Raiders (or the opening chase in the first James Bond film with Daniel Craig). Indiana Jones's archaeology is only marginally more pertinent than Tintin's journalism. Perhaps Jones is even indirectly a result of Tintin, who long preceded him, in the subterranean fashion that pop culture and lasting art can both work their way into distant offspring. There's a teen Indie scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that's very Tintin. Spielberg's strength has always been the way he does kids and the child's view. He overreaches mainly when he strays into adulthood, with Schindler's List, The Color Purple or Saving Private Ryan.

I'm not sure faithfulness to the original matters much in an adaptation, or even what it means. The 2009 Swedish film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was very faithful to the book, but what value has that, besides releasing you from a slog through 840 pages? The new English-speaking version, set in Sweden too, sounds well done and faithful to both, which is why I haven't rushed to see it. In fact there was a Canadian TV series based on Tintin, that was restricted to using the plots in the books. Maybe that was a good idea but there have been some fine James Bond films not based on any of Ian Fleming's novels and some execrable ones that were. The clearest case for devout replication would be something like the early music movement, where the original sound had been lost or forgotten. But even that has been the source of much dispute.

So skip the reverence: One, two, many Tintins!

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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