A look at Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin on its 10th anniversary, from someone who has been an enormous fan of the Tintin series since childhood.
2021 marks, remarkably, the tenth anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s movie The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn.
This was a project decades in the making for Spielberg, who became interested in Tintin after reading a review of Raiders Of The Lost Ark that compared his film to the books by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. But it wasn’t until Spielberg started working with Peter Jackson – a fan of the Tintin comics since childhood – that the director could realise Hergé’s character illustrations as accurately as possible.
The first of three planned Tintin movies was finally going ahead. The plan was for Jackson to direct a second movie, that to date hasn’t appeared. But the first went ahead under Spielberg’s directorship.
Instead of shooting in live-action, motion-capture technology was used to depict the classic quiff of Tintin (played by Jamie Bell), the bulbous nose of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and the slightly dissimilar moustaches of Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg). The resultant movie earned $374m at the global box office, which should have cemented those plans for more movies. Jackson’s schedule has been cited as the reason another film hasn’t happened, and it seems unlikely now to do so.
Like Jackson, I have been a massive fan of Tintin since I was a child. I own all 24 stories, including the unfinished Tintin And Alph-Art, as well as massive coffee-table books on the series. I read and reread those stories constantly as a kid. I even owned the video-game tie-in for the film on the Nintendo 3DS. Therefore, as you might expect, I adored The Adventures Of Tintin when it was first released. That adoration has remained years later. And the reason why is because Spielberg and Jackson get so much right about Tintin.
It’s worth, when considering like, look at what the Tintin character is like in the books.
He’s a young and adventurous Belgian journalist, constantly risking his life alongside his trusted dog Snowy to solve the mysteries he uncovers. His assignments take him across the world – from the Soviet Union to Egypt and even to the Moon in a rocket ship (fifteen years before Apollo 11).
He’s a smart, intrepid problem-solver, but he is also kind-hearted. Tintin In Tibet sees the journalist trek across the Himalayas to search for a friend who is missing after a plane crash. Even when others tell him his friend is probably dead, Tintin continues anyway.
Spielberg and Jackson understood the importance of Tintin’s appearance and traits when making The Adventures Of Tintin. Not only is the CG Tintin eerily close to Hergé’s drawings, but he has a distinguished journalistic career (there are references to Cigars Of The Pharoah and King Ottokar’s Sceptre through framed headlines in Tintin’s office). Furthermore, the story – written by Steven Moffatt, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish – sees Tintin go on one of his typical daring, globe-trotting ventures.
As The Adventures Of Tintin’s full title suggests, the film primarily adapts Hergé’s eleventh book The Secret Of The Unicorn. The story sees Tintin discovering a model of The Unicorn, the ship belonging to Captain Haddock’s ancestor Sir Francis Haddock. As Haddock recalls his ancestor’s battle against the dastardly pirate Red Rackham, Tintin discovers riddles that could lead to hidden treasure – and encounters forces trying to stop him.
The Adventures Of Tintin follows the book closely. It includes the Unicorn ships, the riddles hidden in all three models and the swash-buckling tale of Sir Francis Haddock. It even includes the book’s subplot, where Thomson and Thompson try and catch a pickpocket.
Nevertheless, there are some adjustments to the story. The biggest involves the antagonist, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig). In The Secret Of The Unicorn, Sakharine is a relatively minor character who Tintin initially thinks stole his model of the Unicorn. Instead, the book’s antagonists are the Bird brothers, antique dealers who kidnap Tintin to gain the hidden treasure.
However, the film amalgamates the Bird brothers and Sakharine whilst partly rewriting Sir Francis Haddock’s story. Now Red Rackham is Sakharine’s ancestor, making the latter’s fight with Captain Haddock a battle between descendants. On the one hand, this massive deviation from the source material makes The Adventures Of Tintin more conventional and standardised. On the other hand, it leads to a film that is admittedly more focused than the book.
The film also borrows heavily from another Tintin book, The Crab With The Golden Claws. This is an important choice, especially because that is the book where Tintin first meets Captain Haddock. It is also where we find some of the film’s biggest set-pieces. For instance, the scenes with the yellow seaplane? That’s in The Crab With The Golden Claws. As is the moment where Tintin uses champagne corks in his escape from the Karaboudjan. It may have been a risk to conjoin these books into one, but it provides the film with its most memorable moments. It also generates an Indiana Jones feel, which is fitting for the adaptation of a comic book compared to Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
When The Adventures Of Tintin was released back in 2011, several British literary writers decried it. Nicholas Lezard was especially critical, writing the film turned Tintin into “the typical bombast of the modern blockbuster, Tintin for morons”.
However, I disagree completely with this sentiment. The Adventures Of Tintin may be more action-packed than you would expect, and it may deviate from the books a fair bit. But these are changes you would expect from Spielberg, an American director trying to adapt this distinctively European series for an American audience.
Besides, the film stays true to the series overall. For one thing, it encapsulates the globe-trotting elements of Tintin’s travels, travelling from Antwerp to Morocco and back again. But the most important thing is that The Adventures Of Tintin captures the look of the characters and their iconic traits. Tintin as the inquisitive journalist, Captain Haddock as the lovable drunkard, Thomson and Thompson as the bumbling detectives always engaged in slapstick pratfalls. These are the characters Tintin fans have adored for nearly a century and they are instantly recognisable.
Nearly ten years after its release, The Adventures Of Tintin has almost become a rarely spoken about film in the catalogues of both Spielberg and Jackson. But it does not deserve to be ignored. In fact, it deserves its place as a fun and daring film that clearly has great respect for Hergé’s beloved series.
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