'Adventures of Tintin' film avoids comic books' racist past

african kings

The Adventures of Tintin has received mixed-to-favorable reviews, with critics applauding its eye-popping visuals and some fans berating the film for not capturing the complexities of the original comic book stories. Nevertheless, there has been some consensus: Steven Spielberg’s first foray into 3D animation “sensitively” tackles the racist undertones of Georges Remi’s (who published under the name Hergé) twentieth-century classics.

Created by Belgium author-illustrator, Hergé started the Tintin books in 1929 and published 24 titles up to his death in 1983. The series, less well known in the United States, is one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century, with more than 200 million copies sold in no less than 50 languages.

Despite this, the earliest stories are slated for grotesque racial stereotypes and even fascist leanings, including caricatured portrayals and non-Europeans.

The most scathing criticism falls on Hergé’s second title in the series called Tintin in the Congo (1931), where the intrepid reporter and his canine sidekick visit Belgium Congo to report on the situation there. The book is littered with pro-colonial attitudes, patronizing as well as degrading language and imagery.

In 2007, the Commission for Racial Equality in Britain, said Tintin in the Congo makes Africans “look like monkeys and talk like imbecilities.” A black woman in the book, for example, bows to Tintin, proclaiming that, “White man very great. White mister is big juju man!”

Steven Spielberg, who nabbed the rights to the series just after Hergé’s death in 1983, gets around this by deliberately basing his movie on a trio of apolitical works published in the 1940s: The Crab With the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Besides, any sequences in the volumes with racist undertones are carefully erased.

The prolific director seems keen not to repeat mistakes of the past, when the action-packed 1984 movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was criticized for its one dimensional portrayal of India and Hinduism.

Political correctness, though, comes at a price. Hergé’s weltanschauung is often built around racist stereotypes. But there are little, if not any, racially identifiable characters in the Tintin movie. A Japanese man, for instance, who figured prominently in The Crab With the Golden Claws has been cut out.

So in the interest of sensitivity, Spielberg ends up with a fast-paced action movie in a more monochromatic world. Film critic Andrew O’Hehir writes that the film, “struggles to drag Hergé’s aesthetics and worldview into the 21st century.”

Herge’s supporters, nevertheless, say his work was a product of his time, a bygone era, when Europeans looked down on other races, especially African colonies. Tintinologist Harry Thompson, for instance, argues that Tintin in the Congo should be viewed in the context of European society in the 1930s and 1940s, and that Hergé had not written the book to be “deliberately racist.”

This certainly leaves open the question of remakes and prequels/sequels. Should a remake that’s completely true to the source material have a similar tone or is appropriate to “whitewash” themes that do not fit into the values of modern day society?

The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, is already a global blockbuster, approaching $240 million at the worldwide box office, even before it headed to U.S. theaters on December 21. Indeed, the Hollywood director’s already announced he is planning a trilogy.

Spielberg’s commitment to Tinton is also an ambitious plan to introduce the American public to the cartoon character, which already has a cult following in Europe. So far it seems to be working, with the animated blockbuster earning a respectable, though not impressive, $9.7 million over the Christmas weekend.

The question is whether Tintin can crack the American box office and capture the imagination of the US audience who unlike the Europeans are unfamiliar with the original classics. Another issue is if Americans will be as forgiving as film buffs across the pond, once they fully appreciate that Herge’s work is embarrassingly racist by modern standards.