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Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Review)

In the lead-up to the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, I’m going to be taking a look at Hergé’s celebrated comic book character, from his humble beginnings through to the incomplete post-modern finale. I hope you enjoy the ride.

The Secret of the Unicorn is the basis of the upcoming live-action adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin, as directed by Steven Spielberg. It will form the basis for the film, along with The Crab With the Golden Claws and the second part of this adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure. While Cigars of the Pharaoh fed into The Blue Lotus and Tintin in the Congo led into Tintin in America, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure represent the first real two-part story in Hergé’s series, and you can feel the writer appreciating the opportunity to spread his adventure over two volumes of the series.

Set sail for adventure!

I’m going to be entirely honest here, and confess that I am not a huge fan of The Secret of the Unicorn, despite the relatively high standing it holds in the estimation of many Tintin fans. I can appreciate the strengths of the story (and there are many), but it honestly feels like a prelude to something larger, rather than an adventure of itself. There’s something downright cheeky in the way that Tintin turns to address the reader in the final panel, breaking the fourth wall to inform them, “But of course it won’t be easy, and we shall certainly have plenty of adventures on our treasure-hunt… You can read about them in Red Rackham’s Treasure.” It almost makes me feel like the entire story I read was just set-up for another story down the line.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Hergé opting to tell two-part adventures. In fact, I am probably more excited about Peter Jackson’s possible adaptation of The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun than I am about Spielberg’s take on The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure (and I am very excited about that). It’s just that it feels like not a lot has been accomplished in this story. If your adventure is big enough to warrant being split into two full-sized adventures, it needs to feel large and expansive. As much as I appreciate the skill Hergé demonstrates here, there’s no reason that several of the setpieces and plot points here could work just as well (if not better) condensed.

Haddock tells a cutting story...

On the other hand, I appreciate what Hergé is doing here. This is, after all, one of those handful of stories where Tintin really doesn’t go anywhere particularly exotic. It’s relatively buttoned-down and everything is kept remarkably low-key. In fact, it allows Hergé to focus quite a bit on the past, with a rather large section of the book devoted to Captain Haddock narrating the story of his distant ancestor. As with King Ottokar’s Sceptre, it’s nice to see Hergé adding texture to his fictional world, and it’s a lovely way of giving us a sense of rich history to everything. It demonstrates the artist’s skill at building up the Tintin universe, and it’s a nice little pulpy adventure, all told. It’s a nice touch, and I can see why Spielberg and other fans are drawn to the story, but there isn’t too much going on around that lovely sequence.

Hergé seems to be hoping to construct something of a slightly more conventional mystery (Snowy even cites Sherlock Holmes) than we might expect in a Tintin story. In fact, the reveal of the culprits behind the evil scheme comes complete with copious amounts of exposition about how and why they did what they did – and you can see minor hints and foreshadowing on re-reading the book. However, it doesn’t really work, because there’s no real way for the audience to keep up with Hergé and deduce what’s actually going on (beyond the basic idea that somebody wants all three Unicorn models), which makes the long conversations with the guilty parties all the more awkward.

Dog gone Tintin, getting himself into another fine mess...

That said, I do appreciate the skill Hergé demonstrates, particularly during the sequence where Tintin is kidnapped. That storyline seems to eat up most of the second half of the book, and could probably have been tightened up a bit, but Hergé has enough skill to keep it interesting and engaging. It’s fun, and it’s hard not to smile as Tintin uses the power of physics to break out of the dungeon, or during the sequence with the dog. I also like the care that Hergé put into to crafting his story, with a lot of plot points carefully set up, only to pay off down the line. The pickpocket is a great example, as is the other mysterious bidder for the model ship.

Still, it feels a little awkwardly paced and I can’t help but feel like it was just marking time until the real adventure begins. Fortunately, Hergé’s subsequent two-parters would tend to be a bit stronger in execution.

2 Responses

  1. I always thought the last panel of the first book was meant tongue-in-cheek.

    • I don’t doubt it, but I just really don’t like The Secret of the Unicorn. Of course, everybody has their favourites – I like Flight 714 and Tintin and the Picaros, for instance – but it just feels like a lot of set-up for an adventure that pays off down the line. I think Seven Crystal Balls does a lot better in making the set-up seem like its own story, and so does Destination: Moon.

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