10/26/2011 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 25, 2011

200 Million Books Sold. Spielberg's Movie Out At Christmas. But America Is Just Meeting Tintin.

At some point in the mid-1970s, I decided that the comic book tales of "Tintin" should become a movie, and I launched inquiries into the rights. I never got to Hergé, the Belgian cartoonist who had been pumping out the adventures of Tintin for almost three decades. It wouldn't have helped if I had. Hergé was not only mega-successful, he had a firm idea who should bring his books to the screen.

Steven Spielberg.

As it happened, Hergé and Spielberg were on a collision course.

Hergé had seen "Duel," Spielberg's first movie, and loved it; he made a point of seeing Spielberg's next films. Spielberg, he decided, was the only young American director he liked.

Then Spielberg made "Raiders of the Lost Ark." A French review of his film mentioned Tintin several times. "I had the review interpreted," Spielberg has recalled, "and they were saying that I was paying homage to Hergé and that Indy was clearly adapted from the Hergé adventures."

Spielberg read more stories of the boy detective and his smart dog. Indeed, they could be cobbled together into just his kind of movie, rich in personality, travel and adventure. Hergé died a month before they were scheduled to meet, but no matter --- his widow knew what to do, and in 1983, Spielberg acquired the rights to Tintin.

Twenty-eight years later, "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn" is ready for a Christmas launch.

What took so long?

Technology, really. People like to think that someone gets a brainstorm and then finds --- or creates --- the technology needed to make it possible. No. It works just the other way. Someone produces a technological breakthrough, and the emergence of that technology allows creative types to do great things with it.

Like "performance capture," in which a director films actors on special cameras and then renders their images digitally so they can be manipulated on a computer and translated into 3D. Which is what Spielberg has done.

In 1983, regular animation seemed too blocky for Hergé's vivid imagery. Live action seemed...wrong. And "performance capture" was just an animator's dream. The project had to wait.

Early word from England is that the film is a little...flat. Visually exciting, yes. Dramatically, less so. Sad if true, for Spielberg has cleverly built the movie on three Tintin adventures: "The Crab with the Golden Claws," "The Secret of the Unicorn" and "Red Rackham's Treasure."

These tepid assessments from England may not matter in America --- although more than 200 million "Tintin" books have been sold, they've mostly been sold in Europe. There everybody knows Tintin. In America, only very lucky children have been exposed to his charms.

So let me introduce these books to you.

Hergé --- a Belgian cartoonist named Georges Remi --- first published a Tintin comic strip for kids in the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir. As a child, Remi had been a Boy Scout, and it was the Scout code of good deeds and honorable behavior that was the foundation of his boy detective. But he was also a realist. Captaui Haddock, Tintin's colleague, both drinks and swears.

The stories move fast. "Tintin in America," for example, starts in Chicago in 1931. Tintin has been summoned to rid the city of gangsters, but when he and his dog leave the train and step into a cab, it turns out to be driven by a gangster. They escape --- but so does one gangster. Speeding to catch him, Tintin's car crashes. After a few days in the hospital, he heads into rush hour, only to have the sidewalk open beneath him. Thugs beat him. The boss says kill him.

And those are just the first five pages.

Tintin's American experience goes sour when he heads into the West, a place Hergé had never been. But it's a rare clinker. Tintin is a cool kid. His dog is smarter than a fifth grader. And the values of these tales are just the ones you want your kids to have. If, that is, they can separate you from these books.

The adventures to buy:

The Adventures of Tintin

Tintin in America/ Cigars of the Pharaoh / The Blue Lotus

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 2:
The Broken Ear / The Black Island / King Ottokar's Sceptre

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 3:
The Crab with the Golden Claws / The Shooting Star / The Secret of the Unicorn

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 4:
Red Rackham's Treasure / The Seven Crystal Balls / Prisoners of the Sun

[Cross-posted from ]

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