‘Tintin’: A boy and his dog meet a sea captain
Posted in: Movies
Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd is a longtime “Tintin” fan. He has been writing a series of posts on the heritage of the character. This installment explores the bookshelf epic’s many costars and companions.
Tintin, the Belgian boy reporter, did not travel alone. From the very beginning to the very end he was accompanied by his dog, Snowy, and as the years went on, he collected other friends and kept them: a bibulous sea captain, a pair of lookalike detectives, a hard-of-hearing inventor, an Italian soprano.
Snowy: For his first eight adventures, Tintin’s sole sidekick was the little wire fox terrier (or, as creator Hergé once described him, “approximately” a wire fox terrier) English readers know as Snowy. His French name, Milou, came from the nickname of Hergé’s first girlfriend — or from Belgian motorcycle champion Rene Milhoux, according to descendents of Rene Milhoux — and he has had many other names around the world: He is Kuttush in Bengali, Spokie in Afrikaans, Struppi in German, Spunte in Czech and Terry in Danish and Norwegian.
A lively little mutt, whatever his pedigree, his habit of sticking his nose into inconvenient places or disappearing to fetch a bone will sometimes provide the axis of a narrative twist, of a gag, or both. He is more of a homebody than his master and more sensible of danger, but he also mirrors his qualities of loyalty and bravery and rescues Tintin from many a tight spot. He has a taste for alcohol, as well, and will lap up whatever is spilled or unwatched.
Throughout the series, and throughout each separate adventure, Snowy is Tintin’s most constant companion: Even when he is not directly involved in the action, he is usually at Tintin’s feet, his stance and expression intensifying his master’s or at times providing a counterpoint. They do not always agree, Tintin and Snowy, but when they are separated, it is usually an occasion for anxiety. In the early books, Snowy is quite talkative — he speaks in words but is intelligible only to himself and to the reader — and also someone for Tintin to talk to, if not with. In later books, with Captain Haddock and others along to do that job, and answer back, Snowy becomes less vocal and more “realistically” doglike; but he is never dispensable and always a star.
Captain Haddock: Captain Haddock, the series’ unbilled costar, arrives in the ninth “Tintin” adventure, “The Crab With the Golden Claws,” one of the books adapted for Steven Spielberg’s big-screen mash-up “The Adventures of Tintin.” (Avast: Mild spoilers dead ahead.). A brawny, bearded merchant mariner in a roll-neck sweater marked with an anchor, he is, as we meet him, dead drunk; it won’t be the last time we see him so, but after this book, he’ll never again be as powerless over himself or as dangerous to the safety of his new best friend.
He is Tintin’s opposite, in many ways: loud, headstrong, impulsive and quick-tempered where Tintin is moderate, thoughtful and cool. When Tintin wants to go, Haddock often wants to stay, and when Haddock wants to go, Tintin might want to hold him back. But they are two halves of a whole, id and ego. Haddock shares some of Snowy’s grumpy skepticism. The textual math seems to indicate that he’s more than twice Tintin’s age, and he brings experience to certain situations — he knows how to run a ship, in any case — but they are essentially peers, with the edge going slightly to Tintin. Haddock is given to elaborate curses made from a dictionary’s worth of perfectly acceptable if often obscure words; it’s from the drawings and lettering we know their import. “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” (for the French “Mille millions de mille milliards de mille sabords!” which translates as something like “A thousand million thousand billion thousand ports”) is his catchphrase.
Hergé does not reveal Haddock’s first name, Archibald, until the final completed story, “Tintin and the Picaros” (1976), but Spielberg spills it early. Though the writer did not at first expect him to play such an important role in the series, Hergé came to regard Haddock as his favorite: “He has so many flaws,” he wrote a friend, “that I recognize him almost like an intimate friend, a brother, a second self.”
Professor Calculus: The third most important human in “Tintin,” eccentric genius Cuthbert Calculus — whose French name, Tournesol, means “sunflower” — joined the series in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (1943), the sequel to “The Secret of the Unicorn” and partially the source for the Spielberg film. Calculus, however, and all the business that surrounds him in that story — he invents a shark-shaped submarine for use in dangerous tropical waters — do not appear in the movie. Nearly deaf and continually mistaking what is said to him, he often reacts with inappropriate delight, nonchalance or anger. In the household of which he becomes a part, Calculus is the peculiar uncle but also in a way a child to be protected and kept track of. Two separate stories revolve around his being kidnapped.
Thomson and Thompson: In French, they are Dupont et Dupond. Called X33 and X33b at the time of their debut, in “The Cigars of the Pharaoh” (1934), and never afterward, they are twins with different names, identical except for their nearly identical mustaches — a visual joke with the air of an existential puzzle. The two detectives (from Scotland Yard in the English translations, from the Sûreté in the original) are always seen together, usually in some closely shared pose and attitude, and Thomson will often repeat or mangle something Thompson has just said, prefacing it with “To be precise…”
Present, if only for a cameo, in most every Tintin tale, they first appear as his pursuers — he is suspected of trafficking in drugs — and in a few subsequent stories will, under orders, arrest, or attempt to arrest him, although they are part of the family. Hergé said that he created them to to explore an idea of duty that outweighs friendship, though he might as well have said he invented them to explore the idea of falling downstairs. There is hardly a staircase or gangplank down which they do not tumble, a step they fail to miss. As investigators, they are not completely inept, but they are here to get things wrong more often than they get them right. They wear bowler hats and black suits except for when they don some sort of outlandish native garb or professional costume under the impression it will help them to blend in. (Hergé’s father and uncle were twins who dressed alike — and wore bowler hats — though he has claimed not to have been thinking of them when he created the Thompsons, as they’re collectively known.)
Bianca Castafiore: Bianca Castafiore, “the Milanese nightingale,” appears first in “King Ottakar’s Scepter” (1939), the eighth Tintin adventure. Preceding Haddock and Calculus in the series, she is the strip’s only major female character and, apart from her maid, Irma, the only repeating female character, period. The work of old Boy Scout Hergé, “Tintin” takes place in a land without women, except as extras and background. (Hergé once claimed that the reason he used so few women characters was to avoid ridiculing them — and also that, while people laugh when a man falls in the street, it isn’t funny when a woman does.) Castafiore is a widely celebrated soprano and also, one feels, not a very good one: Our heroes, at least, face her singing with a mixture of amazement and distress. As divas go, she is relatively gentle, and is a friend to the household, which she feels free to invade. She would seem, if only by default, a romantic match for Captain Haddock, and in “The Castafiore Emerald,” tabloid reporters mistakenly believe them engaged — this is as close to romance as “Tintin” ever gets. But Haddock, whose name she always gets wrong, flees — or attempts to — at her approach. (Calculus, on the other hand, is a little sweet on her.) Her own name translates from the Italian to “white chaste flower.” She’s in the movie, though she appears in none of its main sources.
And our lessons shall end here. There is much more to know of Tintin and his adventures across the 20th century, and many more characters to meet — arch-villain Rastapopoulos, Nestor the butler, neighbor Jolyon Wagg — but that is the voyage of discovery waiting for you on the colorful printed page. By all means, go see that great big, noisy motion picture — I will, despite my doubts — but do not let it obscure the handmade thing behind it — the real thing — that deserves your attention and time. Your investment will be rewarded handsomely, and perpetually.
— Robert Lloyd
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