Arriving at St Pancras station’s Eurostar terminal hideously early in the morning, I met Michael Farr, Britain’s foremost expert on the boy reporter, who would be playing Haddock to my Tintin (or perhaps that ought to be Tintin to my Snowy). A friendly chap, whose career as a journalist saw him travelling to many of the locations featured in the books, Farr developed a friendship with the somewhat reclusive Hergé after dressing up their interview as an excuse to go to dinner.
Under the channel, and over breakfast Farr began my crash course in Tintinology by talking about the genesis of the character. Hergé’s brother Paul served as the inspiration for the look, while the resourcefulness, intelligence and wanderlust were, apparently, all aspects of the author’s own personality.
As we rocketed through the French countryside, the conversation focused on Hergé’s interest in film. Even into his 70s he was a passionate cinemagoer, and was, Farr explained, so impressed by Steven Spielberg’s 1971 movie, Duel that he made a point of following the director’s subsequent career. When Farr began researching his biography of Hergé following his death in 1983, he discovered among the many documents and private papers a note written by the Tintin creator stating ‘If there’s one man who can bring Tintin to the screen, it’s this young, American director’. While the note didn’t explicitly name Spielberg, Farr believes there is no doubt it refers to him*.
Another interesting topic our conversation on the train threw up was the issue of piracy. Whether the film turns out to be a roaring success or not, it’s absolutely certain that illicit copies will appear almost as soon as it premieres. This was a problem that Hergé, and his publishers were also familiar with. As the popularity of the boy reporter rose, so did demand for Tintin comics, and with a lack of official collected editions, some enterprising folk took it upon themselves to photocopy the strips, bind them together and sell them on. In addition to this there were also completely new and unauthorised editions published, apparently including, a rather interesting adventure from Thailand, ‘Tintin in the Bordello’.
Eventually, after a surprisingly short journey, we pulled into our destination. Almost as soon as we had disembarked the fondness the population of Brussels have for Tintin became clear. Walking towards the exit we were confronted with a huge picture, a scene from Tintin in America, several thousand times larger than the original illustration, hung on the wall of the Gare du Midi. Outside there was an even larger piece of Hergé-inspired public art, the rotating heads of Tintin and Snowy, atop the Lombard Building in the city centre.
The public displays of affection for the bequiffed journalist continued when we arrived at The Hotel Amigo. While the public areas had the comfortable, but restrained look of most high-end hotels, my bedroom featured a framed Snowy figurine, alongside a print of Haddock and Tintin on an overturned boat – a scene that Spielberg recreated for the film. As it turned out, each of the rooms in the hotel were similarly adorned, except one: their Tintin suite, which was still not finished during my stay, will fully immerse guests in the world of the books, with full size replicas of Thompson and Thomson’s hats and canes, The Unicorn – the model boat discovered by Tintin, and countless cuddly Snowy toys.
The Tintin tribute artwork was great to look at, but wasn’t really helping with my quest to become a Tintin expert, so we headed to a small town just outside of Brussels called Louvain la Neuve to visit the Musée Hergé. Set up after his death, the original plan had been to site the museum in the centre of Brussels. When a suitable site couldn’t be found, the trustees of Hergé’s estate looked further afield, and Louvain la Neuve, a fifty minute drive from the capital, became the preferred option. To help seal the deal, the road on which the museum would be situated was renamed ‘Rue du Labrador’ after the fictional street on which Tintin lived.
As we wandered around the museum, the historical context of the comics, the character and their creator became apparent. The first adventure featuring Tintin was published at the beginning of 1929, one of several serials that ran in Le Petit Vingtième, a weekly pull out supplement to Le Vingtième Siècle, one of Belgium’s major newspapers. His adventures continued in the magazine until the Germans invaded the country in 1940, and closed the parent paper. Due to the popularity of the character, he wasn’t homeless for long, and shortly after the closing of Le Vingtième Siècle Hergé was hired to provide strips for one of the few remaining papers, Le Soir.
This change and the effects of World War II in general had an influence over Hergé’s work. Due to paper shortages that worsened throughout the occupation, the strips became smaller and shorter. Because each strip needed to encourage readers to return the following week, this almost certainly will have affected the pacing of the overall stories. More importantly, the style of story Hergé could tell was constrained. Previously adventures with Soviets and Americans were acceptable, and German villains were commonplace. This was now impossible for fear of censorship or retribution, and as a consequence Tintin’s adventures became much more escapist. It was during this period that Hergé wrote The Secret of The Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, the books from which the film draws most heavily.
The end of the War and the liberation of Belgium was a double edged sword for Hergé. While he was no longer under any state enforced creative control, the entire staff of Le Soir were subject to sanction for the support the paper had given the Nazi occupiers. The worst collaborators were executed, but even those who did not actively support the Nazis were banned from working in the news media for several years, Hergé included.
Curiously, this temporary exile from the world of publishing (it finally ended with the launch of the Tintin comic in 1946) actually led to Hergé’s first brush with Hollywood. While struggling to find work post war, he wrote a letter to Disney, suggesting that the company make a Tintin movie. When he received no response, he wrote again. This time someone within the company responded with a curt reply, politely but firmly explaining that Hergé’s hero would be of no interest to the company.
Of course, while a Tintin film was of no interest to the House of Mouse, it was of a great deal of interest to the many millions of fans around the world, and although it’s taken over eighty years for Hollywood to film their take on the stories, there have been several previous attempts to bring him to the screen.
In the 1960s, two live action movies featuring Tintin were produced. Rather than adapting the books, the filmmakers came up with their own adventures for the character, the first sending Tintin, Snowy and Haddock off on a quest for gold, the second with them tracking down the source of some curiously coloured oranges. Around the same time, the Belgian company Belvision created an animated series called ‘Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin’. Although the episodes were based on the books, they were rather liberal adaptations, renaming some locations, removing references to alcohol, and in some cases, altering the plot of the story entirely. While both attempts may have had the best of intentions, the final products were, according to most Tintin fans, somewhat lacking, and neither the live action films, nor the Belvision series are particularly well regarded, or well remembered today.
The 1990s saw another series of animated adaptations of the books, this time produced by French company Ellipse, and Canadian company Nelvana. These were much more respectful to the original source material, and were also much more prolific. By the end of the series, all but three books,Tintin and the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo and Tintin and Alph-Art, had been produced. This series was relatively successful, and certainly the most well-known adaptation so far. Indeed, given the popularity of the series, it is likely that for many of those who will eventually see Spielberg’s movie, it will have been their first, if not only exposure to the character.
With my knowledge of creator and character now up to a more acceptable standard, we embarked on the final part of my Tintin education: Brussels. As the city is Tintin’s home, the adventures tend to begin and end there. More importantly, it’s the city in which Hergé spent most of his life, both personal and professional, and inspired many of the images used in the comic and the film, none more iconic than Tintin’s front door.
To find that front door, we were led by a guide through a maze of Brussels side streets and back alleys until we found a road called ‘Nieuwland’. Much of Brussels looks like it’s leapt from the pages of Tintin, mostly because a great deal of the city has been drawn by Hergé at one time or another, and this road was no exception, so when our guide explained that a house on this street had inspired Hergé’s drawing of the exterior of Tintin’s flat, we nodded, smiled and took photographs. In hindsight, comparing my pictures to the comics, I’m not entirely sure he was right, but it was a an interesting stop on our way to a location that definitely featured in the books, as well as the film, the Marché aux Puces.- the local flea market.
Like every flea market, car boot sale and charity shop in the known universe, the Marché aux Puces is something of a cross between an antique store, a rubbish tip and a graveyard for broken electronic and mechanical devices. Certainly the day I wandered around it, you were as likely to get tetanus as find treasure, although I suppose that’s the charm. That said, there were some highlights – appropriately enough, I discovered several very old copies of Tintin comics, as well as typewriters, cameras and remarkably enough an actual crocodile skin, but as this adventure was drawing to a close, it was a little disappointing not to discover some secret object that could set me off on a new globetrotting quest.
For Tintin, however, the market is where an adventure begins, with the discovery of a beautiful, and rather sought after model boat. The boat, as fans of the character will know, and those who have been paying attention may guess, is called The Unicorn, and the secret surrounding it is the MacGuffin for the comic, and of course for the film.
*And while there’s absolutely no evidence to support this, I firmly believe that it was written after watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.