Hergé's History Tainting Spielberg's 'Tintin?' Not Quite

I’m a lifelong ‘Tintin’ fan and have read every one of the Georges Prosper Remi (pen name Hergé) books multiple times, including his crude earlier works like ‘Tintin in the Congo’ and his unfinished ‘Tintin and Alph-Art.’ Like any author who worked for decades, Hergé’s ‘Tintin’ series reflects the values and perspective of its time, for better or worse, including his portrayal of minorities and people of different ethnicity or religious backgrounds.

There’s no question, for example, that ‘Tintin in the Congo’ is rather embarrassingly racist by modern standards, but recently critics have begun to attack the new, as yet unreleased ‘Tintin’ movie, complaining that Hergé was a horrible person and that watching the new Steven Spielberg motion capture film ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ is like “being raped” (in the words of the Guardian’s literary critic Nicholas Lezard). That’s a bit much.

In fact, as Contact Music reports in that piece, there are people complaining about the racist and antisemitic overtones of some of Hergé’s works and bringing up the issue of whether he was a Nazi collaborator during World War II, as if it makes any difference to how we’ll react and appreciate (or dislike) the newest film to star the young boy reporter.

Allow me to explain: Hergé was Belgian, Belgium was occupied by the Germans during World War II, and he wanted to continue his work, so while he did assent to getting approval from the Nazi censors for his work (since he would obviously have had no choice) a close examination of the stories he released during this time show a distinct anti-totalitarian bias that suggests to this fan that he was hardly a “collaborator” in any sense. Though, to be fair, there are some troubling images in ‘The Shooting Star,’ which were later revised post-German occupation.

We live in a time of heightened awareness of bias and discrimination, which is a very good thing. What we can’t do, however, is go back and change history, nor does this particular critic believe we should ban, censor or re-edit older works because they don’t reflect our current values. You know what I’m talking about, these are the people picketing screenings of the brilliant ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ because Mickey Rooney plays a racist Asian character, the people who have caused Disney to permanently withdraw the awkward but still entertaining ‘Song of the South’ due to its portrayal of blacks, the people who think that we should either ban or edit classic novels like ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ because of their use of the N-word.

Yes, they’re painful, but they’re all part of our collective history for better or worse. How much smarter to live in a society where we see these racist, antisemitic, sexist characterizations and discuss them rather than sweep them under the proverbial rug.

As a Jewish man, I’m definitely sensitive to antisemitism, and I can attest that having read every single ‘Tintin’ story there’s nothing I’ve come across that makes me feel that Hergé was any more or less antisemitic than anyone else working during the decades he produced the ‘Tintin’ tales.

Which certainly leaves open the question of remakes and prequels/sequels. A remake that’s completely true to the source material should doubtless have a similar tone. Then again, shot-for-shot remakes like the pointless 1998 version of ‘Psycho’ bring nothing new to the screen and while they might be consistent with the values and perspectives of the original film (in this case Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant 1960 original) they are hardly to be considered art or even original storytelling.

And so I have to come down on the side of remakes and subsequent films in a narrative history being updated to match the current mood, sentiment and values. Sometimes it works, other times it completely misses the mark (I’m thinking of the non-Commie-scare 1978 remake of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ a pointless exercise).

And so it goes with ‘Tintin’ and his first big screen adventure (sort of. Turns out that the entire series has been animated by a collaboration of animation houses Ellipse (France), and Nelvana (Canada), but somehow that didn’t engender any complaints). The ‘Tintin’ franchise is extraordinarily successful, with the stories available in more than 50 different languages, ‘Tintin’-themed gift stores throughout the world and continued interest globally.

You might have a completely different response – in which case I encourage you to add a comment below. My hope is that we can side step the controversy and instead help thousands of people become new fans of the boy reporter ‘Tintin,’ his dog Snowy and the colorful cast of characters that make the adventures so delightful.

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