Tintin 101: What You Need to Know Before You See the Movie

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Paramount Pictures

Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and Tintin (Jamie Bell) in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

(Lev Grossman writes about books here every Wednesday. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)

Me, I don’t remember a time before Tintin. I grew up on him — those big floppy paperback editions you could practically get lost in. As a child I could already distinguish between Thomson and Thompson (check their mustaches).

But I realize that’s not the case for everybody. Apparently Spielberg himself (he told me this in an interview) had never heard of the Great Belgian Whistleblower till Raiders of the Lost Ark came out and the French critics started comparing it to Tintin.

So since Spielberg’s (and Peter Jackson’s) Tintin movie opens today, I thought I should post a mini-Tintin FAQ, because the Tintinverse can be a weird and unwelcoming place for newcomers. Here are a few things you should know before you enter into it.

1. What is Tintin’s job? He’s an investigative reporter. Even I, a Tintin fanatic, sometimes forget and assume he’s a detective, but no. It’s confusing, because he never goes to the office and he never seems to be reporting anything. Journalistically speaking, his beat seems to consist entirely of random mysteries involving all his friends. Nevertheless.

2. How old is Tintin supposed to be? I’ve heard it said with some authority that he’s 15 years old. But this raises other questions, like why isn’t he in school? Why does he live alone (in — at least in the movie — a slightly depressing studio apartment)? What happened to his parents? These questions have no answers. Some mysteries were not meant to be solved.

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3. Wait…where is all this even happening? In theory at least, Tintin lives in Belgium – the whole franchise started as a Belgian comic strip in 1929. But the books are deliberately vague on that subject. It’s not like everybody’s sitting around drinking Hoegaarden and eating moules frites. We’re definitely in Europe. Western Europe. But that’s about all you can say for sure.

4. When? Again, deliberately fudged, since the comics came out over the course of almost 50 years. If you know something about cars, you can probably date the movie that way. I don’t, but I’m guessing we’re in the 1930’s.

5. Who invented Tintin? The comics were written and drawn by Hergé (mostly — he had assistants), which is the pen name of one Georges Remi, who was a Belgian person whose main distinction in life was having written and drawn Tintin. There are a lot of theories floating around that Remi was secretly an evil person: one of the early books, Tintin in the Congo, is pretty racist, and Remi got labeled a collaborator for publishing Tintin in a Belgian newspaper while the country was still occupied by the Nazis. But I’ve read his biography, and it seems pretty clear to me that he was just a very naïve guy. It’s certain that he was very embarrassed about Tintin in the Congo later in life.

6. Does Tintin — how can I put this — love the ladies? That is not known. He does not appear to be a sexual being at all. (This question is explored in Frederic Tuten’s excellent novel Tintin, as well as Charles Burns’ hallucinatory graphic novel X’ed Out, which stars a feckless manchild named Nitnit.)

7. Does he even know any ladies? Not really. There are hardly any female characters at all in Tintin. I don’t know why this is, but it’s a major weakness of the series. The only recurring female character is Bianca Castafiore, this awful opera-singer who’s weirdly obsessed with Captain Haddock. She makes a cameo in the movie. But all of Tintin’s other friends are guys, all of whom seem to be unmarried. Basically everybody’s probably gay.

8. Which book is the movie based on? It’s actually a mashup of several of the books, primarily The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham’s Treasure, and The Crab with the Golden Claws. They decided that any single one of the books wouldn’t have had quite enough plot in it for a whole movie.

9. It’s a comic book. So doesn’t anybody have superpowers in this thing? No. Nobody has superpowers. Though Captain Haddock drinks a truly staggering (ha!) amount of whisky. Maybe that’s a superpower. And there are some bits in the books that flirt with the paranormal – I’m pretty sure there are aliens in Flight 714, though you never see them, and the business with the lightning in The Seven Crystal Balls borders on the supernatural.And at one point everybody goes to the moon.

10. Everybody’s head looks kind of big in the movie. I know. In theory it’s to more closely approximate the feel of Hergé’s drawing, but I found it a bit distracting.

11. So my real question is, what’s the big deal about Tintin? What’s so great about him? Tintin’s charm is hard to define. I tried to explain it to my daughter, who’s 7, but she found the books hopelessly boring. But I still love them, even as a grown-up. Hergé’s art is genuinely gorgeous, and there’s something irresistible to me about the quaint retro-Euro-world that Tintin lives in. But the real attraction is Tintin himself: innocent, undersized, indomitable. He’s like Alice in Wonderland: a sane mind in a world of lunatics and schemers and eccentrics. I can’t help rooting for him. If that makes me a bit of an eccentric myself, so be it.

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