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Tintin: An Adventurer From Another Time?

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Adapted from a blog that originally appeared on Firstpost.com.

Charles de Gaulle famously said, "My only international rival is Tintin."

Now Hergé's Tintin will have his own rival -- Spielberg's Tintin.

The (battle)lines are drawn. What should be an homage from one master storyteller to another will instead become a battle of technique -- Hergé's ligne claire vs Spielberg's CGI. The complexity of the simple will become simply complex and the trepidation is that somewhere in that dimensional leap we may find the secret of the unicorn but lose forever the secret joy of Tintin.

Tintin, you see, was never about Tintin. Or Snowy. Or the blistering blue barnacles of Captain Haddock. Or the spoonerisms of Thomson and Thompson.

It was always about the "adventures of Tintin."

Looking back it was the ultimate adventure -- that of an intrepid reporter who seemed to have no boss, no office, no deadlines. He was always exploring a story but never had to turn one in, let alone blog or tweet or vlog about it. It was all about the pristine exhilaration of the adventure -- as unsullied and unhatched as the lines of Hergé's drawings. In that sense, it didn't matter if it was in Congo or Syldavia or the moon.

Or for that matter on my grandmother's bed on a lazy summer afternoon in Kolkata with the honk of taxis outside. I read Tintin in Bengali as well, serialized in my Bengali children's magazine where Thomson and Thompson became Ronson and Johnson and Snowy became Kuttush. I bought it in bookstores where it was carefully shrinkwrapped so that dirty fingered children like me didn't leaf through its 62 pages and devour it while standing in the store. I didn't really dream of being Tintin though, as a friend puts it, you couldn't but see a role model in a "tiny brainy guy who kicked ass." "I still speak French because of Tintin," says a Vietnamese friend. "It was a refuge from things I didn't understand in India and something special to have back at home in America when I missed our time there," says a Bengali-American friend. But I didn't shape my hair into his trademark tuft or long for a dog named Snowy.

But I did dream of adventure. For a generation that was growing up in neighbourhoods that never seemed to change, where we lived and married and died in the same faded houses with green shuttered windows, this was an almost impossible dream. I don't think I even understood at that time that Tintin was part of an escape from reality. He was about the spirit of independence and curiosity, a trait that was never encouraged in our schools which were all about obedience and memory. He was a "good boy" and an adventurer -- an oxymoron in our rulebound middleclass households.

At that time I did not know that Tintin meant "nothing" in French. He was was Herge called "the degree zero of typeage -- a typographic vanishing point." It made him the ideal adventurer -- he had no past, no family, no sexuality, no surname, no baggage. You could draw yourself into his lines and head to Destination Moon.

Now in adulthood we learn to read between the lines of Tintin. We learn that Hergé was accused of being a collaborator during World War II even though he said he was just doing a job under the occupation. The stories he produced during those years were studiedly neutral -- no Congo colonialism, or Latin American coups or Middle East intrigue (Interestingly, Spielberg selected two of the stories from that occupation period -- The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure -- for his film.) He admitted later that his Africans in Congo were portrayed according to the "purely paternalistic spirit of the time." He turned the stereotypically Jewish American villain of The Shooting Star into the more ethnically ambiguous Mr. Bohlwinkel from some fictional South American country.

Tom McCarthy's famous book Tintin and the Secret of Literature tried to decode the secret of Tintin using the template of S/Z, Ronald Barthes' analysis of Balzac's Sarrasine. Perhaps it's true that buried inside Thompson and Thomson is the secret story of the adulterous tryst between a Belgian royalty and a maid. Or that the Castafiore emerald is really about a diva's private parts -- a precious jewel past compare. Or what does it mean that so much of Tintin is obsessed with relationship between the real and the imitation: the forgeries of banknotes in The Black Island to the statue in The Broken Ear to Thompson and Thomson? McCarthy saw all that and more in Tintin where he found "Molière style social comedy" and "Dumas-style adventure" with "Conradian boxed narratives" peppered with "Rabeleaisian obscenities."

The rest of us, much less literate, just found adventure. And that was good enough.

Now that adventure has to survive its alchemy from paper to film. A comic book seems something ripe for transforming into a film, its action sequences a readymade storyboard for its celluloid makeover. But it is not the same.

As Nicholas Lezard astutely observes in the Guardian, in a vicious vivisection of the film:

The experience of reading a cartoon is not the same as watching a film. It is slow, quiet and intimate, and in childhood would most typically be undertaken while lying front down on the floor, the book in front of one, one's legs raised perpendicularly at the knee, ankles crossed; the classic childhood pose of absorption in a text. The images may contain stories of chase and speed; but the frame can move as slowly as one wishes.

But that was then. Is the "classic childhood pose of absorption" in a text still the same today in the age of the mouse, joystick and smart phone? In a world that has shrunk immeasurably, where social media connects us effortlessly across time zones, does adventure even mean the same thing? We have many ways, real and virtual, to escape reality now. Do we even need Tintin anymore?

In that sense perhaps the question is not whether Spielberg was able to capture the real Tintin. The question is was he too late? Or will Tintin, like his arch enemy Rastapopoulos, manage to give us all the slip and escape into his own adventure?