Monday 10 September 2012

Guest Editorial: How Spielberg is Saving Tintin

By Damien

Let's begin with a little history.

It all started in 1981. Raiders of the Lost Ark had just been released in France and Steven Spielberg wanted to know how well his movie was doing among French critics.
Amazingly well would be my guess. But something in a number of reviews captured his eye. A word kept coming back. Tintin. What is Tintin? wondered the filmmaker. He soon learned what it was, and became a fan.
That part of the story is well known. What's less known is what follows.
Spielberg bought the rights for Tintin in 1982. When Hergé learned that, he was thrilled. Stunned, but happy that a director as brilliant as Steven Spielberg was willing to adapt Tintin for the big screen. The Belgian artist had seen Duel and E.T., and recognized Spielberg's talent. More than that: he recognized a soul mate in him.
This was great news for two reasons:
  1. With the budget of a Hollywood film, the stars, the music, the renowned director, Hergé could expect a final result he'd be happy about. At last. He had been disappointed with past adaptations, but with Spielberg at the helm, things would be different this time. 
  2. A Hollywood movie would finally make the albums popular in the United States. Hergé knew it was a market he still had to conquer. He was aware of that as early as 1948; that year, he sent some Tintin books to Walt Disney with a letter, hoping the Belgian reporter stories would be adapted by the Burbank studio. Needless to say, the comic book author was crushed when the books came back with a definitive "No" as an answer. 
Interestingly enough, the E.T. director was already planning a trilogy at the time. And he was also going to let another filmmaker do the second or third movie. Only it wasn't Peter Jackson then, but François Truffaut. 
Steven Spielberg wanted Henry Thomas for Tintin, and Jack Nicholson for Haddock. One thing that bothered him though: how would he make Snowy talk, like in the albums?
The script was going to be an original story by screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who had already wrote E.T.

Spielberg and Hergé spoke over the phone in February 1983. A meeting in Bruxelles between the two men was set to take place a few weeks later, but Hergé died on March the 3rd.
Spielberg came to Belgium anyway, to meet Hergé's widow Fanny, and visit the Studios Hergé. The filmmaker was still willing to produce a Tintin movie. 

But the years passed, and the option expired.

Why Spielberg was the only one capable of making a Tintin movie.

This allowed filmmakers such as Jaco Van Dormael, Roman Polanski or Jean-Pierre Jeunet to have a try at their own Tintin movie. Which brings us to one of my points: Steven Spielberg was the only one capable of making a Tintin movie. Why? I almost hear you ask. Not because other directors were not talented enough, or not passionate enough about the subject. But rather because since Hergé's death, one man was calling the shots.
That man is Fanny's new husband, Nick Rodwell. He approaches Tintin like a businessman, wanting to control every aspect of the estate. Illustrating this, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was quoted as saying "The locking of Hergé's heirs makes everything too complicated, I met them and I understood that they would get on my nerves".
Jeunet would not be told what to do with Tintin. Any artist would be bothered by that. No director would make a Tintin film in these conditions.
That's when Hergé's well know admiration of Steven Spielberg came in handy: Nick Rodwell was probably more willing to allow total artistic freedom to the man Tintin's creator himself was so fond of.
That, and Spielberg's team of lawyers know how to handle these things pretty well. This is why, in my humble opinion, Spielberg was the only one who could bring Tintin to the big screen. 

The Hollywood director bought the movie rights again in 2002, and this time, he wouldn't let go of them... 

He took his time, but after 9 years of development, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn hit theaters in October 2011. And the movie is great. Different from the books, but still honoring the characters and the world Hergé created. 

Why is a Tintin movie a good thing?

In the last 30 years, Tintin has slowly but surely gone from a popular brand, to a more dusty entity. What happened? To put it shortly, Nick Rodwell, again, is what happened. The businessman idea was to protect Tintin by any means he deemed necessary.
Hergé had left instructions. No one except him could produce a Tintin book, even after his death. Rodwell observed this to the letter, and went even beyond. When he took charge of the estate, the brand was selling a lot of toys, a lot of derived products. Some of them not looking very good.
What Rodwell did was limit the number of products on the market, improving the quality; but doing that, the costs went up dramatically. Tintin toys were no longer children toys. They were now collector’s items, which you put on your shelf.
Tintin's estate, Moulinsart SA, is now basically a museum, where you can't touch anything. Every product is subject to extreme control, has to come directly from the albums, and has to be approved by the mother company. In a similar fashion, using pictures of the characters on fan websites or in books isn't permitted. In fact, by doing so, you're taking a risk to get sued by Nick Rodwell & Co.
Ironically, since 2009, Moulinsart SA is also running a museum: the musée Hergé. Journalists invited to the opening weren't allowed to take photographs of the place, unsurprisingly. 

All this - and more – which is probably just Nick Rodwell just trying to protect Hergé's creation, is actually endangering it. 
Not only does Tintin suffer from the bad reputation Moulinsart SA has collected, but more importantly, the character is cutting himself off from new generations of readers. Tintin is still a timeless hero, but what child would want to read stories of the guy with the weird hairdo standing on the shelf, amassing dust? Kids aren’t even allowed to touch it, let alone play with it - are you serious? Nobody touches my precious Tintin collection, except for me!
And so, the kids of today would not read the books, never coming back to them as adults, never making the next generation read them.

Ah, but then came Steven Spielberg. I'm not even kidding. The Jaws director was probably the best thing that happened to Tintin in the last 30 years.
One thing that happened with this movie: people discovered, or rediscovered the intrepid reporter. People that had never heard about Tintin are becoming fans today; the books sales have strongly increased in the past few months; Tintin is popular again among kids. All that, thanks to the film.
Thanks to the film, but also thanks to all the marketing and the new derived products that came with it. The variety of it. Pretty much everybody can be interested in one of the objects sold. A kid would want to play with these cheap plastic figurines; a gamer would buy the Ubisoft title, or play on his smartphone/tablet; a collector would have to own the Weta Workshop statues...

In the end, Spielberg embodies perfectly what was needed to save Tintin: a brilliant artist and a businessman.
Nick Rodwell may be a businessman, but is far from being an artist. And when you deal with something as precious as Tintin, it just can't work.
Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, the Weta crew, the actors, the amazing writers... All involved in the film reinvented Tintin. It's another iteration, a parallel world, a new beginning... Call it what you want. It's different, and it attracts a lot of new people to the party. People who will discover and love the original work of Hergé.

All that Nick Rodwell has been fearing for the last 30 years: letting artists do what they want with Tintin. Reinventing the characters. Having creative freedom... That's what's keeping Tintin alive and well. So thank you, Mr. Spielberg.


Thanks to Damien for the great and informative article, and for lending us his Tintin expertise. Be sure to read Damien's previous article for the blog, a ParaNorman review, and follow him on Twitter.

Got an idea for an editorial or review to contribute? Run it by us at!

Not got it yet? UK readers can check out the film that Damien's talking about, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, on Triple Play from Amazon. Just click above.

No comments:

Post a Comment