The Adventures of ‘Tintindiana Jones’

20 11 2011

Back in February, following my first outing to the cinema for some time (Hooked to the Silver Screen…The King’s Speech – my Vue! ), I promised I would treat myself to the big screen, surround sound, luxury armchair with bargain bucket of popcorn, experience more often.

Well it’s November and I’ve made my second visit of the year!

I took my place for a sparsely populated mid-day Monday screening with a dozen or so others, mostly men ‘of a certain age’, and ever so slightly embarrassed that we had been seduced by the hype surrounding Spielberg’s latest 3D blockbuster, ‘The Adventures of Tintin : The Secret of the Unicorn’.

I’ve always been drawn to Tintin, the boy journalist from Brussels, with the trade mark quiff, who famously never filed a line of copy but managed to fall into a series of wonderfully improbable but exciting globe trotting adventures (including a jaunt to the moon) brought thrillingly to life by one of the founding fathers of bande dessinée, Georges Remi.

The Belgian comic writer/artist, creator of Tintin, simply reversed the French pronunciation of his initials (GR – RG) to come up with a pen name that is known across the world – Hergé.   

Hergé was a painstakingly meticulous in his research as demonstrated by Michael Farr’s excellent book, ‘Tintin – the Complete Companion’. In it Farr, a life-long Tintin enthusiast, takes each of the adventures in turn, explaining Hergés use of news stories of the day as real life sources for his storylines and how, by drawing on an enormous archive of press cuttings, postcards and ephemera, it enabled him to create such accurate representations of aircraft, architecture, cars, city scenes, costumes and weapons.   

One example of Hergés obsession with detail, and placing his imaginary hero in a real world, is the use of le Château de Cheverny, as a model for Marlingspike Hall, or Moulinsart in the original French version. (See post 30.9.11, ‘French Lettres!  A-Z  d’une Vacance en France’ – Tintin at Cheverny

Tintin is without doubt one of the most recognisable figures in 20th century popular fiction and has been a publishing phenomenon since his first appearance in ‘Tintin in the Land of the Soviets’ in 1929. For over half a century Hergés adventures have sold over 4 million copies a year in more than 50 different languages, world-wide.

But, according to Stephen Spielberg, the stories are not that well-known in the USA (which is of course the centre of the universe) – although Tintin did tangle with Chicago gangsters and take a trip into ‘Indian’ (now Native American) territory, as early as 1932!

Spielberg hopes that his state of the art computer animation, motion capture technology movie will introduce Tintin to a whole new generation. I hope he is right and that they will beat a track from the cinema to their nearest bookstore, not to buy the dodgy movie tie-in but the beautifully crafted originals.

To be honest, my own earliest memory of Tintin is not of Hergés books but the 1960s TV cartoon series, created by ‘Belvision’. I can still visualise the opening credits, based on the front cover of ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, Tintin sitting astride his camel, the booming voice-over, ‘HERGÉS ADVENTURES OF TINTIN’, and the title writ large across the screen.   

It was there that I first encountered the youthful Belgian sleuth and his supporting cast, the short-tempered, Captain Haddock, full of expletive outbursts –’blistering barnacles’ and ‘thundering typhoons’ and the like, the comically blundering  detectives, Thomson and Thompson, with their quintessential British bowlers and brollies, and always close at heel, Tintin’s ever faithful four-legged friend, fox terrier Snowy.  

All of them feature in Spielberg’s frenetic, roller coaster of a movie which certainly justifies its ‘Tintindiana Jones’ advertising tag-line . There is hardly time to draw breath as one action packed sequence after another jumps out of the screen.

It is undoubtedly a great romp and a marvellous visual spectacle but Spielberg has rather loosely cobbled together something of a ‘pick and mix’ story line that will have Tintin purists tearing their hair out.

In effect he has produced a compilation album, of edited highlights, taken from three of the Hergé books: ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ (from which the movie takes its name) and ‘The Secret of Red Rackham’s Treasure’.

In so doing he has also cleverly left enough material behind for an inevitable sequel which I will surely feature the iconic ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’ underwater sequences         

Tintin the movie was my first 3D cinematic experience and I have to say I was rather impressed. It was certainly a crucial ingredient which added to my enjoyment of this film.

Although it was a correct choice, and more in keeping with the original books, for Spielberg to produce an animated film rather than use actual actors, I did find the characters rather mannequin like and not as easy to relate to as the figures within the pages of Hergés original work or subsequent cartoon TV versions.

Therefore, perhaps not surprisingly, the character that stole the show for me was not  a human but Snowy, or ‘Milou’ as he is known in Belgium and France.           

Tintin’s big screen adventure has prompted a spate of TV documentaries about Hergé whose work spanned a 54 year period from 1929 to 1983. Inevitably programmes of this type always raise a question mark over the comic writer/artist, asking whether he was racist.

Tintin’s  earliest adventure, ‘Land of the Soviets’ is overtly anti-communist while his second, ‘Tintin in the Congo’ (a Belgian colony at the time it was published in 1931), depicts incoherent, chimpanzee like black Africans as figures of fun, bowing down to the white teenager and worshiping Snowy as a god!

Clearly, such a publication would be unthinkable now, but  we should try to make a considered judgement of  Hergés work set against its historical context. It is undoubtedly of its time and unfortunately depicts the way that many white people saw the world then.

There has been much recent controversy about the current availability of ‘Tintin in the Congo’, reissued as a ‘collector’s item’, for so long the missing part of the 24 book series jigsaw. However it does come in a sealed pack which carries a clear warning that the content could be distasteful to a modern reader.      

In later life Hergé frequently referred to the first two adventures of Tintin, as, ‘Youthful sins’ and made it clear that ‘if I were to do it again, they would be different.’    

From my own, white European, perspective, I find any form of racism abhorrent. I have lived and worked in black Africa. I have huge respect and love for the people I met and count many of them as close friends. I would not wish to upset them in any way. But in a free and open democracy there is rarely, if ever, any justification for banning books, no matter how objectionable we might find the content. 

Similarly we should not seek to edit white colonial history, by air-brushing away those parts that are no longer socially acceptable or politically correct.

Offensive and hurtful as the book might be, simply removing ‘Tintin in the Congo’ from the shelves is not going to wipe away the past behaviour of white colonists towards black people, they considered as inferiors. Nor is it going to encourage members of our 21st multi-cultural society, with racist tendencies, to think differently.

In my view it is better that the book remains available – with its appropriate warning , for those who  wish to read it, as a historic source document that reminds us of the shameful way in which black people were, and in some instances continue to be, treated.

I would argue that the book is more likely to lead towards increased respect and understanding of the feelings of black Africans, who have been historically demeaned in such an appalling manner, than it is to promote or provide justification for racist behaviour in today’s society.    

I fully respect and understand the views of those who may disagree.

And if Hergé was alive and working now, I somehow feel Tintin the boy reporter would be creating headlines with adventures advocating racial harmony, tolerance, and mutual respect amongst all ethnic groups, by recognising and celebrating their similarities and differences.  

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25 11 2011
‘Elevenses’ with Smiley – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy… « Pipedreams from the Shire

[…] wasn’t the full on ‘Vue’ experience in which I’d recently enjoyed ‘Tintindiana Jones’ but then the ‘70s style auditorium was perfectly well suited to the moody period visuals and […]

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