Tintin: Mad about the boy

It was Hergé's dying wish for Spielberg to bring his great creation to life on film. But as it opens next week, diehard fans say he's ruined it. Rob Sharp reports

They call themselves "Tintinologists": those who delight in every detail of Hergé's fictional young reporter.

So ahead of Hollywood's film version of the adventurous Belgian's story, premiering in Brussels tonight, the adaptation of the graphic novel series faces not so much criticism as fanatical uproar.

Press screenings of Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which opens in Britain next week, have prompted one critic of the £82m movie – which uses cutting-edge "performance capture" technology – to compare it to "witnessing a rape". Other earlier reviewers have panned it as an "airless pastiche" and "painful" – strong words for a story about a man with a quiff looking for buried treasure.

"People get freaked out if people change anything they came into contact with as a kid," said a Tintin fan and author A L Kennedy, who is set to review the film for BBC Two. "From what I've seen in the previews the film does look a little blurry. Hergé always had such a clean line." She said there was an element of annoyance towards Spielberg because he is "well-off and famous". "The film-makers were almost already on a sticky wicket. The original was so beautifully drawn, I'm not sure how you would render that".

Inspired by Hergé's "palette" of characters, stories and designs, Spielberg has teamed up with the Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to create a predictably Hollywoodised Hergé, focusing on action instead of the Belgian's trademark humour, employing the vocal talents of Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis and Daniel Craig.

Spielberg used the same special effects company responsible for James Cameron's Avatar, utilising updated motion capture techniques. The director says he turned to such technology "because it most resembles the hand-to-paper art of Hergé", but reviewers lament its stifling effect on the books' personality.

"I do think it lacks a bit of heart," said the author Naomi Alderman, who is also reviewing the film. "That's partly to do with the characters: Captain Haddock is a caricature, Thomson and Thompson are comedy figures. I did sigh a bit when I saw there were only two females, and they have five lines between them, but that's the fault of the source material."

Meanwhile Jean-Claude Jouret, a former manager of the Tintin estate, told AFP this week: "There's a risk that Spielberg's vision will undermine Hergé's. It's undoubtedly good business but perhaps it won't help the long-term preservation of his work."

Such vitriol grates with the warmth normally reserved for Hergé, born George Remi in 1907. He began publishing Tintin's adventures in a Brussels newspaper in 1929, and the strips were an instant hit. By the peak of his fame, his work had been translated into 60 languages.

He published 24 books in total, ending with Tintin and Alph-Art, half-completed when he died in 1983.

It was around this time that Spielberg, who'd heard reviewers compare his 1983 film Raiders of the Lost Ark to the work of the Belgian author, rang him up. "He just committed, at that moment, that he wanted me to be the director to turn his stories into films," says the director, though Hergé's biographers intimate that the process was somewhat more fraught with legalities.

You can see why Spielberg would have been instantly attracted to the universality of Hergé's world. "His work is very loveable. Once you discover it you become very attached," said Michael Farr, author of Tintin: The Complete Companion. Apart from Tintin's determination to solve puzzles, he has few other defining characteristics, and his facial features are barely more than three lines and two dots. He is vague and can appeal to anyone. Often working from photographs for his detailed backgrounds, Hergé's influential drawing style was even given its own name: "ligne claire", or clear line.

Nick Rodwell, the head of Moulinsart, the company that controls the image and rights to all Tintin merchandise told The Independent yesterday: "Tintin is a great myth of the twentieth century. You can read the books when you are 14, when you are 38, and you can appreciate different things."

Responding to criticism of the new film, he said: "They have created their own interpretation, in the same way different theatre directors interpret Shakespeare. If this movie brings people back to the books so much the better. To be in a position to have Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg taking it on – it's good for Belgium and it's good for the work." He added that scholars went on to create the New Testament "because they weren't happy with the Old Testament."

If previous Tintin adaptations are anything to go by, his grandiose talk stems from some successful precedents: the 1991 animated TV series The Adventures of Tintin aired in at least 17 countries, Hergé's Adventures of Tintin, a theatrical adaptation staged at London's Young Vic, played to sell-out audiences, and the movie franchise will roll on.

Second and third films are in the pipeline. "Hopefully I will be Tintin for a while," said Bell yesterday. "If audiences really embrace it, I will be doing it for the rest of my life – I could be 45 and still be doing it."

One boy and his dog: Tintin's exploits

1929 Tintin and Snowy appear in Le Petit Vingtième, a supplement of Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle.

1930 Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is published as a book.

1931 Tintin in the Congo, Hergé's most controversial tale, is published.

1938 Tintin visits Britain for the first time in The Black Island.

1941 The Crab with the Golden Claws sees the introduction of Tintin's companion Captain Haddock, left.

1961 Following a small Belgian film from 1947, the first major appearance of Tintin on screen is in Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece.

1976 Tintin and the Picaros is the last complete Tintin book to be produced.

1983 Tintin author Georges Remi, right, who used the pen name Hergé, dies aged 75.

1986 An unfinished work found after his death, Tintin and Alph-Art is published.

1991-92 The Adventures of Tintin television series runs.

2008 A 1932 ink and gouache cover design forTintin in America sells for €650,000.

2010 A bronze statue of Tintin with Snowy sells for £108,705 at a Paris auction.

2011 The Adventures of Tintin is released in cinemas on 26 October.

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