Steven Spielberg’s new Adventures of Tintin is the most technically ambitious film version of Tintin to date, but it is hardly the first time Hergé’s boy reporter has been brought to life. To help place Spielberg’s efforts into context, we turned to someone far more qualified than us, French writer and artist David Calvo. In this exclusive piece for Cartoon Brew, he takes a look at the highs and lows of prior Tintin screen adaptations and helps us understand where Spielberg’s performance capture film fits into the picture. When he’s not being a Tintinologist, Calvo is a creative consultant and writer at Ankama, where he has played a key role in developing the popular MMORPG Wakfu. He has also written numerous novels, comic books and short stories, and draws the on-line comic Song of Beulah.
The History of Tintin Adaptations: From Misonne to Spielberg
by David Calvo
It’s been a long time coming. We can read everywhere how Steven Spielberg and Hergé missed their rendez-vous, at the dawn of the 1980s, a few weeks before the Belgian comic master passed away. We’re now resigned to the American side having the upper hand. Today, we can feel Spielberg and Peter Jackson oozing in every frame of the new Tintin, childhood memories and artist’s pride perspiring behind the dual banter of the Thomson and Thomson. The star filmmaking duo have managed to bring this hot, harshly defended property to a new media. Without delving into the technical aspects of this production, adapting Hergé’s master comic book is already a daunting task. It has been done before–sometimes for the best, mostly, for the worst.
“The Crab with the Golden Claws”
The crowning jewel of all Tintin adaptations is the “The Crab with the Golden Claws” handkerchief puppet extravaganza by Hergé’s friend Claude Misonne and her husband JoÃ£o B. Michiels. Splendid and boring, so abstracted, this stop motion tour de force managed to be a scrupulous, if non-inventive, duplication of the comic, filled with wonderful voice performances, horrendous stock shots, and plagued by severe budget problems. The movie was shown only once in theaters, in December, 1947, in front of two thousand kids. The film was seized next morning by the justice, because the adaptation fees wee never paid. The movie has now achieved cult status as the first Belgian animated feature, a visionary precursor in stop motion history.
“Tintin et le MystÃ¨re de la Toison d’or”
Often cited as the worst thing you can do to Hergé, the two live-action movies of the Sixties, “Tintin et le MystÃ¨re de la Toison d’or” (“Tintin and the Golden Fleece”, Jean-Jacques Vierne, 1961) et “Tintin et les Oranges bleues” (“Tintin and the Blue Oranges”, Philippe Condroyer, 1964), deserve to have their reputations rehabilitated today. If “la Toison d’Or” fares better than the “Oranges Bleues,” it’s because of the exoticism, the touristic adventures, and the multiple references to the Tintin canon. Despite their cruel lack of any cinematic values and terrible scripts (both are original stories by André Barret), these playful, lush productions were able to pull the major feat of having perfect main characters: a Tintin superbly played twice by Jean Pierre Talbot, and two Haddock incarnations, Georges Wilson and Jean Bouise–both major French actors bringing uncanny depth to this difficult character.
Belvision’s Tintin series
The Sixties were the apotheosis of the Franco-Belgian comic-book school, and Belgian studios Belvision, founded by Le journal de Tintin editor Raymond Leblanc, had a winning streak of flair. First they adapted Tintin as a cartoon TV show. Produced by Ray Goossens, the seven serials were aired between 1959 and 1964 as five-minute shorts, for a total of 50 episodes (only “The Calculus Affair” was bundled as a feature film). Despite having brought the best animators in Europe to Brussels, the old-fashioned animation and funny characterization perks struggled to overcome the horrid scripts and schematic action. To fit the format, the albums were condensed and chopped, often badly, but the overall thrust of non-stop action and cliffhangers, typical of any serialized mystery, worked perfectly on TV. Curiously, Belvision also produced a stunning fifteen-minute industrial film, “Tintin et la SGM” (1970), to promote a Belgian mining company. (Watch a clip from the industrial film.)
The animated feature “Tintin and the Temple of the Sun”
Next, Belvision seized the big screen with two animated features, which are still a Christmas fixture in France. “Le Temple du Soleil” (“Tintin and the Temple of the Sun,” 1969) was a deeply faithful adaptation of the source material (with thoughtful alteration by comic book artist and journal de Tintin editor Greg). A more technically challenging endeavor, enhanced by a splendid soundtrack featuring a song written by Jacques Brel, the musical alter ego of Hergé. Even if the movie only focused on the second part of the two-album story arc (which will be “adapted” next by Peter Jackson), it retains a large part of the adventurous setting and rhythm. The next feature, “Tintin et le lac aux requins” (Tintin and the Lake of Sharks, 1972) is a funny, original Tintin story pitched by Greg, featured an awesome visit to Syldavia and touching characters, though lacking animation brio and depth.
Opening titles for The Adventures of Tintin
In 1992, The Adventures of Tintin, a new animated TV series aired on FR3, co-produced by France Ellipse studios and Canadian outfit Nelvana (directed by Stephen Bernasconi, assisted by Tintinologist Philippe Goddin). It had a huge success in primetime. The sheer scope forces the admiration: all Hergé’s albums are converted, except for the most controversial (“Tintin in the Congo” and “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets,” while “Tintin in America” was heavily tweaked to erase the Native American problems). Eighteen 45-minutes episodes, and three 24-minute ones, achingly faithful and masterfully executed, were produced. Maybe too faithful. Clean and respectful, lacking any hint of craziness, this adaptation got rid of most of Tintin’s quirky element–guns, politics, alcohol–to provide neutered family entertainment devoid of any risk. One of the key aspects of Hergé’s work was his perfect balance between reality and fantasy. The episodes have been syndicated many times since, cut up and chopped in every possible combination to re-create a serialized experience.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Tintin is back for the masses. Belches and zoophilic jokes aside, it is a clever twist thrusting a quaint, old-school narrative into the future. The movie texture is stunning, everything reflects the overwhelming obsession of Spielberg, including reflection itself, and the fabric gives a sense of depth and place achingly relevant in achieving that “ligne claire” dryness to every overexposed shape. The details are inspiring: the tiny, drunkards eyes of Haddock, his cartoon nose, Tintin’s hands (beautiful), the Thomson’s moustaches and greasy skin. The somewhat jumble of the script, blending two majors storyline with details from all over the oeuvre, manages to remain faithful and utterly sacrilegious at the same time. The whole movie lacks the whimsical, restrained tempo of Hergé, that, despite their short-comings, the previous adaptations managed to pull out.
This over-emphasis on heavy action set pieces, with barely a pause for the characters to breathe, is deeply troubling. Are world mass audiences hungry for more action, more technical bravado, trampling the subtle inheritance of of the most idiosyncratic saga of our time? The shiny, invisible center of Hergé’s mind is still missing from all these adaptations. The endearing success of Tintin is not one of motion, nor emotion. It is tied to the page, to the frame. Subject and Form linked in a perfect, beautiful harmony that cannot translate, giving birth to a singular expression of a universal time frame, frozen forever in a quaint space between conservatism and rebellion. We will have to wait again–this time for Peter Jackson bravado–to see if the Hollywoodization of Tintin’s quirky sensibility can exist in another space.