How Spielberg Handles the Racial Problems of the 'Tintin' Books

Anxiety over race and foreign cultures underlays some of the most vivid moments in Herge's comics, a dynamic that Spielberg, understandably, nixed for his new animated adaptation

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has an energy that few other Steven Spielberg films have managed. That's not despite the film's screwed-up portrayal of Hindus as one-dimensional savages; in large part, and queasily, it is because of it. The Orientalist fever dream of a nightmare East gave Temple of Doom a vicious, bloodthirsty kick—a slimy loathing more visceral than Jaws or the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist. In pulp racism, Spielberg encountered material that couldn't be smoothed over by Hollywood pixie dust. Even Schindler's List ends in hollow uplift, but Temple of Doom simmers in its own hate. Spielberg was, rightfully, embarrassed by the film, and took care Not To Do It Again.

Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin bears the marks of that lesson. While the film's 3D motion-capture does make everyone look disturbingly plastic, the deeper uncanniness in Herge's comic-book world is largely ignored. Spielberg provides spectacular ship-to-ship battles, requisite car chases, and improbable fights between construction cranes. But he left out the thing that made the Indiana Jones films most like the Herge books. That is, racism.

Herge's own racially problematic history is hardly a secret. The first Tintin volume, Tintin in the Congo, is so chock-full of blackface caricature and stereotypes that it's not even in print in the U.S. Herge himself (after a painful flirtation with fascism) tried to distance himself from such representations in later years. Some of these efforts were fairly convincing, such as his sympathetic portrayal of interracial friendship in Tintin in Tibet—a friendship inspired by Herge's own relationship with a Chinese art student named Cheng Chong-Chen. Other gestures were less successful, as in his retroactive replacement of caricatured black villains in many of his volumes…with stereotypical Arab villains. (These latter changes were made in some cases at the request of Americans, who did not want children to see blacks and whites—even villainous blacks and whites—mixing together.)

In any case, the fact remains that racial fears, first embraced and then disavowed, provided a great deal of the power of Herge's books. One of my favorite sequences in all the Tintin volumes, for example, occurs in The Seven Crystal Balls. Herge, drawing in his preternaturally immaculate "clear-line" style, shows us Tintin's bedroom. The window is open, and a cadaverous Incan mummy sneaks into the room, raises a crystal ball above its head, and throws it to the ground, where it crashes with an incongruously un-ominous "zzing".

Just as in Temple of Doom, the vivid waking nightmare here is definitively a racial nightmare. The Seven Crystal Balls and its sequel, Prisoners of the Sun, are filled with ancient Inca magic and a contemporary American Indian conspiracy. Herge has sympathy for the Indians (their graves have been robbed), but he's also fascinated with and terrified of their otherness. And it's from that terror of otherness that many of the most imaginative moments in the volumes spring. Race panic provides the depths of anxiety that swirl and boil beneath Herge's perfect, placid surfaces.

Those depths are, unsurprisingly, carefully removed in Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin. The plot (based loosely on a number of Tintin volumes, including The Secret of the Unicorn and The Crab With the Golden Claws) does wend its way through exotic desert locales, but they're mostly just used as window-dressing. The Arabs barely have speaking parts. Their otherness isn't scary or ominous or even (as not infrequently in Tintin) funny. It's just a nifty backdrop for a chase scene.

The chariness of race is hardly the only way in which Spielberg diverges from Herge. The film's special-FX-laden bombast is miles away from the cartoonist's carefully anticlimactic slapstick. And, as Matthias Wivel says, the decision to turn Haddock from "hopeless drunk to hero" complete with "cookie-cutter self-help narrative" is as irritating as it is predictable. In comparison to these unforced missteps, the removal of Herge's racial anxieties are understandable and even necessary. I do love Temple of Doom, but I can't really root for more of its kind. If it takes Orientalism to make a good Spielberg film, then I'm willing to settle for more crappy Spielberg films.

Still, it's worth noting that the effort to avoid racism does have its own pitfalls. Herge's world was often built on racial stereotypes, but that meant that he had to have lots of exotic folks around. Jews, blacks, Indians, and Asians all featured as bit players and sometimes central figures in Herge's work. In Spielberg's film, on the other hand, they are simply erased, like the blacks in Tintin's American editions. I don't believe there is a single African or African-American character in the film. Nor are there Jews who are ethnically identifiable as such (though the villain, Sakharine, may be a winking caricature of Spielberg himself). A Japanese man who figured prominently in The Crab With the Golden Claws has also been cut. In the interest of sensitivity, Spielberg ends up with a more monochromatic world.

Herge had a complicated history with racism—sometimes reveling in it, sometimes repudiating it, sometimes erasing it. It would have been nice to have seen Spielberg try to grapple with that complicated story. Using Tintin in Tibet or even The Seven Crystal Balls as a main source for the movie would have been riskier, but for that very reason might also have been more rewarding. But of course there was never really a chance that Hollywood would do anything of the sort. Instead, Adventures of Tintin is what you'd expect: a competent Hollywood stunt-fest. It's neither racist nor anti-racist, but simply bland.