Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

I, Tintin

With Steven Spielberg's big-budget version of The Adventures of Tintin opening soon in a cinema near you, Greg Dixon wonders whether his boyhood friend and hero will survive the Hollywood treatment.

'He may be blond, wear poo-brown plus-fours and a girlie sky blue sweater ... and be appallingly decent and utterly bold and brave, but when he speaks, he sounds like me.' - Greg Dixon. Photo / Supplied
'He may be blond, wear poo-brown plus-fours and a girlie sky blue sweater ... and be appallingly decent and utterly bold and brave, but when he speaks, he sounds like me.' - Greg Dixon. Photo / Supplied

Invercargill, 1973. In my bedroom, the desert heat was overwhelming as I lay on my bed. I had just discovered that I, Tintin, and my faithful dog Snowy had been left for dead by thugs, ruffians and blackguards and now, wracked by terrible, terrible thirst, we must find our way across Saharan sands in search of water and help.

"The devils! They left me behind," I said to Snowy. "We've got to get out of this somehow."

I rolled from my back on to my stomach. "Don't worry, Snowy!" I thought, "you and I have survived worse than this! Remember what danger we were in in Prisoners Of The Sun! We were almost burned at the stake by Incas!"

Many weary hours later, we were still walk-ing through the dunes, when suddenly ... "There!" I yell to Snowy, "I can't believe it! ... Palm trees ... an oasis! Look Snowy! We're saved!" Phew!

And then Mum called me downstairs for tea.

From the age of about 8, I had no need for an imaginary friend. I had Snowy, my faithful dog, because I, like so many kids before me and so many after, was Tintin. Indeed, such was the hold that Herge's young reporter had on my imagination that even when I wasn't reading one of The Adventures of Tintin, I would be daydreaming about being him, whether I was sitting in class or at the dining room table, whether I was hiding from imaginary thugs, ruffians and blackguards in the long grass at the back of the school field or shopping for shoes with mum at H & J Smith. I cannot now remember - it's nearly 40 years ago - who introduced me to Tintin. Perhaps it was a friend (I do remem- ber borrowing copies), perhaps I found him lurking on the shelves in the library of Waihopai Primary, or perhaps my parents bought me the first of the 20-odd Tintin books I would eventually collect.

What I do remember is this: I was a fan at first sight.

There was - and still is - so much to adore in each of the 23 adventures. At the age of 8, I was already becoming addicted to the pleasures of vicarious adventure through our black and white television, though it seemed to take an age to warm up and come on.

But, as Tintin, I could, in colour, travel across the sands of Arabia, dive on the wreck of a 17th century galleon in the Caribbean, trudge through the high Andes or Himalayas, visit the pyramids at Giza and land on the moon - while righting wrongs and bringing thugs, ruffians and blackguards to justice!

The surrounding cast was a marvellous, colourful company of slapstick sidekicks, each with a glorious personality tic: from the hilarious, often mystifying and discursive abuse of the almost permanently angry Captain Haddock - "Billions of Bilious Blue Blistering Barnacles!" - and the absurdist, physical comedy of the Thompson twins, to the mad, deaf brilliance of Professor Calculus and the horror of the "Milanese nightingale", Bianca Castafiore, appearing from out of nowhere bellowing the Jewel Song from Faust ...

If the thugs, ruffians and blackguards were never much more than two- dimensional, there is a richness in setting and in character which makes the Tintin books so much more than something to keep an 8-year-old quiet for an hour or two.

As Booker shortlisted-novelist Tom McCarthy wrote in his 2006 book, Tintin And The Secret Of Literature, "like many of the very best writers (Shakespeare and Chaucer spring to mind in this respect), [Tintin's creator] Herge has bequeathed a bestiary of human types ... a human comedy."

Herge also, McCarthy asserts, paved the way for the late 20th century boom in the so-called graphic novel, though of course many of those had pretensions beyond mere entertainment, and were, and are, self-consciously "highbrow and demanding".

The huge irony, McCarthy writes as he considers whether Tintin itself is literature, is that Herge's books remain "both unrivalled in their complexity and depth and so simple, even after more than half a century, that a child can read them with the same involvement as an adult."

Better still, they are, for me, one of the foundation stones of my imagination and Tintin, when I wasn't being him, was a treasured childhood friend. It is for these reasons that my heart sank like the Unicorn when I first heard Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were going to put my treasured friend on the big screen.

Of course, The Adventures of Tintin are something like cinema using paper and ink. Herge, according to a biographer, Michael Farr, had a life-long fascination with the silver screen.

Born Georges Remi in Belgium in 1907, Herge grew from child to adult at just the right time to be among the first generation captivated by the excitement of this exotic new artform. Film's influence still jumps off every page of The Adventures, the first of which were published in a children's paper, Le Petit Vingtieme, in 1929. Even the covers of the books look like film posters.

According to Farr in his 2007 book The Adventures Of Herge: Creator Of Tintin, Herge found inspiration not only in film's form - after all a strip cartoon, like film, is frame-by-frame, scene-by-scene - but in its modes of story-telling and from the work and ideas of its leading stars and directors.

The Thompson twins' bowler hats, canes and moustaches were drawn - to be precise! - from Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, while their slapstick pratfalls (and Tintin's, and Haddock's, and Calculus') clearly echo those of cinema's other early comedy masters, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Alfred Hitchcock is there, too, in the pacing and suspense of the narratives. Herge also imitated Hitchcock's trademark blink-and-you-miss-it walk-on appearances by occasionally putting himself in the background of Tintin scenes.

Farr and others see the influence too, particularly in early Tintin adventures, of other cinema greats like Fitz Lang and D.W. Griffith and, in later stories, of John Ford and even Woody Allen.

It was perhaps inevitable, then, that Herge's comic book cinema would become real cinema, with the earliest attempt (in 1956) being short stop-action programmes for TV before, in the 1960s and 70s, various European filmmakers attempted animated and live-action versions on film.

As Farr says, attempts to adapt Tintin for the screen, whether using actors or animation, were remarkable only for their failure to capture either the excitement or subtlety of the originals.

"By comparison," Farr writes, "they were coarse and banal ... The Adventures of Tintin, unlike those of Goscinny and Uderzo's rival creation Asterix, could not, it seemed, be translated satisfactorily ..."

But then the adaptation of any book for the screen is a hugely risky business for any filmmaker, though I should say it's even more hairy for the fan.

It would be impossible to count the number of good novels that have made bad movies. And when one considers that both the latest film-makers to have a go have, in the past, failed to successfully put the page on the screen - Spielberg with his ghastly Peter Pan-adaptation, Hook, Jackson with his jarring and muddled version of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones - then you'll understand why I might be in a state.

However, it was Spielberg - who bought the film rights to Tintin in the early 1980s - who was Herge's choice for the director to succeed where others had failed miserably. Jackson, equally, might be seen to be the perfect fellow to be translating a cast of much-loved fantasy characters to the screen: he's the guy who made a gazillion (and won a few awards too) by bringing not one but three books to the screen with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

But as successful and enjoyable as Jackson's Rings films were - I have seen all at least twice - they are, for me, an example of exactly what's at stake: the clear danger that lurks among filmmakers' best intentions, that of debasing cherished memories.

Tintin has my voice. He may be blond, wear poo-brown plus-fours and a girlie sky blue sweater, speak constantly in exclamations ("Great snakes!") and be appallingly decent and utterly bold and brave, but when he speaks, he sounds like me. And nearly 40 years after I discovered him, he still does.

The Lord Of The Rings' Frodo Baggins sounded like me too, because I obsessively read and re-read those books in my early teens.

This is what the film-makers, no matter how faithful they are to the source material, cannot conquer. And it is one of the chief reasons that, no matter how fine or loyal the adaptation, screen versions of books can be so profoundly disappointing - well, at least to me.

The voices, the stories and the landscapes of books - particularly, I suppose, books we read as children - exist in the imagination in the same way real voices, experiences and landscapes exist in the memory. They are very precise and they are authentic.

So to give Frodo the voice of a slightly wimpy American actor, or (my impression from the film's trailer) to have Tintin sounding like a naif who's constantly out of breath (or, apparently, to give Captain Haddock a Scottish accent - sacrilege!) is seriously mess-ing with what I hold dear.

There is the matter, too, of the fidelity to the story. Quite why Spielberg and Jackson have decided to weld The Crab With The Golden Claws to the single narrative that joins The Secret Of The Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure is a question only they (and, possibly, their film) can answer.

Yet with three books to draw from, their adaptation seems to be - on the evidence of the trailers I've seen - playing merry hell with these stories, implying the film-makers have decided they know better than Herge.

They have plumped - no doubt with a 13-year-old American teenager in mind - for plenty of rollercoaster action sequences. I'm not surprised; there is nothing about either Spielberg or Jackson's work which suggests they understand the concept of "less is more".Herge understood that good story-telling is a fine balance of character and action.

Perhaps I'm being too literal, too pedantic. Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings fiddled only lightly with the original texts, but what changes he made were enough to disturb and distort elements of the story in my mind so that it will never be quite what it was.

Does that matter? Well it does to me. Of course, this could be impossibly selfish and utterly snobbish of me - not to mention suggesting I'm irredeemably pessimistic. The irrepressibly upbeat Tintin would no doubt be appalled.

Should I stay home or should I go? The reviews of The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn started trickling in a week or so ago, although the film doesn't open in New Zealand cinemas until next month.

The two websites which aggregate film notices, Metacritic.com and Rottentomatoes.com, suggest that early reviews generally have praise for Spielberg and Jackson's Tintin, with ratings of 86 and 84 (out of 100), respectively, at the time of writing.

The two major Los Angeles film industry rags, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, have fizzed about it, playing up how much of a whizz-bang trip it is, like Tintin was some Disney ride a la ride-turned-film franchise Pirates Of The Caribbean.

However, the Brits have, so far, been rather less enthusiastic. The Financial Times called it "the ugliest film ever made", but I was more interested in the thoughts of Tom McCarthy, the aforementioned author of Tintin And The Secret Of Literature.

In a long, heartfelt complaint in the Guardian, McCarthy does not try to hide his disappointment or anger.

"Spielberg's adaptation is not just a failure; it is an assault on a great body of art so thuggishly moronic as to make one genuinely depressed."

Of course Spielberg (who hadn't heard of Tintin until the early 80s when he was 35) and Jackson (who grew up with them) haven't got McCarthy or me in mind. They and Paramount Pictures are not really interested in all the kids before and after me who spent long afternoons in their bedrooms being Tintin in their heads.

You don't spend a gazillion bucks putting Tintin on the big screen for pedantic old farts. You spend it to get American kids into cinemas (who then buy the DVD and merchandise) so that you make huge profits - and a couple of equally profitable sequels.

It will be interesting to see whether they manage that. Time magazine last week featured Tintin on its cover. But only for its Asia, Europe and the South Pacific editions. In America - where few adults, let alone kids, have heard of the world's most famous boy reporter - the cover story was China's economy.

But the question remains: should I see it or not?

McCarthy, a fan, suggests other fans, no matter how young, should not.

"If your children," he writes, "love the Tintin books - or, more to the point, if they have an ounce of intelligence or imagination in their bodies - don't take them to see this truly execrable offering."

How sad. But what I can't help wondering is: would the 8-year-old me go anyway?

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn is at cinemas on December 26.

- NZ Herald

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