Interview with a Tintinologist

Michael Farr is an acclaimed British Tintinologist who has written several books on Tintin and his creator, Hergé. Michael helped lead our inaugural Destination Tintin tour – Jordan and the Rose City – which followed in Tintin’s footsteps to Petra and Wadi Rum. We spoke to Michael recently about his love of Tintin and about the upcoming film ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.’

Hi Michael, thank you for joining us. Just to give our readers some context, what is a Tintinologist?

Well I think anyone who loves Tintin is automatically a ‘Tintinologist’ of some kind. When you first read Tintin, one falls in love with the characters, the action, the humour and the art of it. And this affection for the books continues on into adulthood. It’s something that’s pursued – I’m just an extreme case! I first read Tintin in its original French when I was four years old, and I was lucky because Tintin wasn’t published in England at that time. Inspired by Tintin I went on to become a journalist, and later on while working in Brussels had the good fortune to meet Hergé and get to know him and discover some of the secrets. Then, having travelled as a journalist to many of the places that Tintin went, I was able to become a Tintinologist full-time.

When did you realise that Tintinology was something you wanted to pursue?

I remember reading the first page of The Shooting Star as a child, and it’s a rather frightening, rather haunting first page. There’s quite a lot of foreboding in it, and I think from that moment I was totally engrossed in the world of Tintin. I was able to hang on to this fondness for Tintin because later on, as a journalist, I found myself in so many of the same places that Tintin was in. But you don’t have to be a journalist to experience these things; there are so many situations in which one might see ‘the Tintin moment.’

I suppose those moments resonate with travellers too.

Yes, for journalists and travellers in particular it’s easy to identify with Tintin. This is the wonderful thing about On The Go Tours, because when we went to Jordan in Tintin’s footsteps – though Tintin doesn’t actually visit a place identified as Jordan, he used it as a principal source for Tintin’s Middle Eastern travels – you can really feel the Tintin experience. You can locate Tintin geographically, you can actually experience the adventure.

The rose city of Petra

Having met and known Hergé, how do you think he would have felt about the upcoming film, and as a Tintinologist, how do you feel about it?

He would have had mixed feelings I think, because in his lifetime there were various attempts to recreate Tintin, both as live-action and as animated cartoon, and in my opinion – and I think in his opinion – they were singularly unsuccessful. However, Hergé was very keen on the cinema, having first been exposed to film by his mother in occupied German-occupied Belgium as a young boy in the 1914-18 war. It was there that he saw the first silent films. He was captivated by the cinema from that point, and one can even see the influence of the early Hitchcock films in Tintin’s adventures; particularly in The Black Island for instance. Later in life, Hergé discovered the films of the young Steven Spielberg. The first one he saw was Duel, and he was very impressed by it. Coincidentally, in the late 70s, Spielberg discovered Hergé across the Atlantic and was similarly engrossed.

So we have this parallel discovery of these respective works, and right when Hergé was desperately ill, he got a letter from Spielberg, asking him about the possibility of buying the rights to Tintin. Hergé was enthusiastic, but was bed-bound. A date was set for a meeting late in March of 1983, but Hergé sadly died on March the 3rd.

I was going through Hergé’s papers for a biography I did on him a few years ago, and found a note he wrote 3 months before he died, in which he noted ‘If there’s one person who can bring Tintin to the screen, it’s this young American director.’ (Referring to Spielberg.) Spielberg then bought the rights after Hergé’s death, but felt that he couldn’t do the books justice and he allowed the rights to lapse. He then came back in 2000, and after much negotiation acquired the rights once more in 2002, feeling that with the new technology available he could finally do the work justice.

Of course, Tintin is now known throughout the world, with the books translated into more than 70 languages. But the Americans have always had a different way of utilising the strip cartoon format. The Europeans and Americans had a common source in the 1890s when the strip cartoon was first developed in America. However, when the Americans pursued the strip cartoon, they went in the superhero direction – which was quite different. Most people didn’t know about Tintin, apart from some East Coast intellectuals and artists like Andy Warhol. So he really wasn’t known nationwide. Of course, with Spielberg making this new film, this will certainly change.

We were talking about Tintin’s adventures in India recently, and of course we offer a Destination Tintin tour to India. What do you think fans can expect from the subcontinent?

A lot! Tintin goes to India twice, first at the end of Cigars of the Pharaoh, when he ends up running out of fuel and crashing his little plane in India. (Incidentally, Cigars of the Pharaoh is drawn with such fine detail; seeing the tombs, ruins and treasures in Egypt really will bring the book to life.) Tintin travels to India a second time in Tintin in Tibet. In order to get to Tibet, he flies to Delhi, and has a wonderful tour of Delhi where you can see the Red Fort and other sights. There are very good pictures of street life in Delhi. Then he flies North to Kathmandu, and there are more wonderful scenes of local life there as well. Hergé did a lot of research for the Indian journeys – I have found letters he exchanged with the chief European representative of Air India, who sent him catalogues of all the latest airplanes Air India used, and the uniforms the cabin crew wore at the time. It’s a very authentic picture of India at the time.

It’s a shame that he didn’t travel very much and relied so heavily on the research.

Yes it was a shame, though he did manage to travel toward the end of his life; too late for most of the Tintin books unfortunately. I’m sure he would have signed up for the On The Go Tours if he had the chance!

What projects of yours can we look forward to?

We’ve had a more comprehensive look at Hergé’s artwork in ‘The Art of Hergé‘, not just Tintin but all of his artwork, stretching from work he did in advertising to other characters that he invented. These were going on in parallel with Tintin. What we’ve done is condensed his artwork into 3 complete – rather large – volumes. The first two have already been published, and I’m now finishing off Volume 3, which covers the period up to his death. This final volume is due for release in September. And then ‘Tintin: the Complete Companion’ is also being re-published.

Please see the links above for more on Michael Farr’s work. For more information on Destination Tintin, please visit the On the Go Tours homepage. ‘The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn’ is released in cinemas on the 26th of October 2011.

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