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The inspiration behind Steven Spielberg's Tintin

For a long time, at least until he wrote Tintin in Tibet, Hergé’s favourite adventures of his ace reporter were The Secret of the Unicorn and its sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure, two of the three sources for Steven Spielberg’s new film (see feature, left). This gripping sequence, a detective thriller involving historical flashbacks, petty theft, attempted murder and a hunt for pirate treasure, offers classic ingredients for the cinema.
It was while researching Hergé’s biography that I discovered a note he made three months before his death in 1983. “If anyone can bring Tintin successfully to the screen, it is this young American film director…” it said, without actually naming Spielberg, who had approached him about acquiring the Tintin film rights the previous year, and whom he was due to meet in Brussels at the end of March 1983. Hergé, something of a film buff and an admirer of Spielberg’s early films, died on March 3 of that year.
To flesh out his forthcoming film, Spielberg has also included elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws, a key work which includes the first meeting between Tintin and the alcoholic Captain Haddock, 11 years after the reporter had first set out on his adventures alone except for his faithful fox terrier, Snowy. Haddock, an anti-hero reflecting the more voluble characteristics of Hergé’s own personality, was soon to become the most popular character of the series.
Hergé kept a notebook by his bed to record his dreams. This undoubtedly explains the regular occurrence of dream sequences in the adventures, including the hallucination in The Crab with the Golden Claws, in which Haddock mistakes Tintin for a champagne bottle and tries to throttle him, or Tintin’s dream that the captain confuses him with a bottle of burgundy and is about to skewer him with a corkscrew.
For Hergé, this desert-set, drug-smuggling adventure was a form of escapism following the German occupation of Belgium. He had put aside another desert adventure with a German villain – to be resurrected and completed after the war as Land of Black Gold – and stepped away from the current-affairs-inspired scenarios of the previous adventures.
The same is true of the treasure hunt of The Secret of the Unicorn, free of any allusion to the shattering world events that accompanied its unfolding in the pages of the leading Belgian daily, Le Soir, which was itself under the control of the German authorities.
For these books, Hergé developed his working methods. For the atmospheric rendering of the Unicorn, he drew on material from the Musée de la Marine in Paris and maritime collectors he knew. The unusual ship’s wheel chandelier in Haddock’s flat is taken from a postcard sent to Hergé that summer by a colleague on holiday.
As for Marlinspike, Haddock’s ancestral home, it is nothing less than the Loire château of Cheverny, shorn of its two wings, taken from a visitor brochure that Hergé had acquired. With no funds of his own to buy it back, the captain relies on the generosity of the splendid Professor Calculus who has received government funds for the patent on his shark submarine used so successfully in the search for the wreck of the Unicorn.
Cuthbert Calculus makes his debut in Red Rackham’s Treasure, trying to interest Tintin in a submarine, and he is certainly another reason for the popularity of this book. Hergé had previously shown a fascination for absent-minded professors, but now he had created a character – based on the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard whom he would observe loping along the streets of Brussels – that could not be bettered for inventions, or humour.
And for slapstick, he could rely on the blundering pair of detectives, Thomson and Thompson, remarkably similar though not actually twins. Altogether, as far as entertainment is concerned, it is a winning line-up.
  • Michael Farr is the author of Tintin: The Complete Companion (Egmont) and The Adventures of Hergé: Creator of Tintin (John Murray). He will be giving an illustrated talk at the Wigmore Hall on Oct 22, in aid of orphans in Manilla Details:
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