A little while back, in my bande dessinée Discord server, we sat down and watched The Adventures of Tintin (2011), directed by Stephen Spielberg. I hadn’t watched this movie since it came out in cinemas, so I was delighted to see it again and evaluate it once more, this time with my newly acquired expansive Tintin knowledge on hand. I’ll also soon be playing through the video game version of it on my Twitch, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this adaptation will bring to the story.
After we had watched the film, we discussed it together, and one point that kept coming up was how uncomfortable the portrayal of Haddock in the film made us. This discomfort stemmed from exactly how much of a pitiful character Haddock actually was in this movie, despite him also functioning as the comic relief character. He was portrayed with genuine mental illness and grief as well as a life-destroying addiction that was being used to control him. He was also a slapstick comedy character. By and large, we agreed after watching the film that these two things did not gel together well.
Of course, if I’m going to criticise this, I first need to go back and discuss Haddock’s original portrayal in the comics. As I note in my essay on his introductory comic, watching Haddock there is distressing because he’s a drunken mess being tortured by someone he thought was his friend. Tintin finds him and must reluctantly team up with him, simply because Haddock tags along and is useful to him. The story doesn’t seem to hold back in portraying him as a destructive and annoying presence due to his alcoholism and his seeming lack of desire to be alive. In later books, his alcoholism remains a character flaw rather than a symptom of mental illness and a dangerous addiction, which makes sense as it is in line with contemporary understandings of addiction.
For a modern audience, or at least one with a better understanding of the mechanisms of addiction, Haddock’s introduction in the comics can be hard to read. He does, however, have his situation improved, and over time shows great feats of bravery and works hard to reclaim his family heritage. Considering the time period and the author’s background, it’s a storyline that makes a lot of sense, and the enduring popularity of Haddock as a character is a testament to that.
However, The Adventures of Tintin (2011) wasn’t written by Hergé way back when, it was written by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish around and after 2007, with Steven Moffat writing the bulk of the original script, which was then refined in turn by Wright and then Cornish. I’ve had my problems with Moffat’s writing in the past, but since Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and two other writers were involved, I’ll keep my scathing comments out of this one.
In this film, the writers introduce Haddock by explicitly showing us exactly how bad his life is when Tintin walks into it. Sakharine and Allan are tormenting him by fuelling his addiction, which seems to stem from some long standing grief over losing touch with his family lineage that causes substantial effects on his physical and mental health. It’s not a light-hearted plotline, and in fact it hits substantially harder than other emotional plots in the film. I would go so far as to call Haddock’s emotional turmoil the primary driving point of the film, since it’s so intertwined with the villain’s motivations and the various locations of the story. I genuinely like this, because it feels like a good response to how un-seriously Hergé always took his crippling addiction, and is more in line with modern understandings of alcoholism and trauma.
Haddock’s role as comic relief is also good, although I won’t say it’s great. He bumbles, he jokes, his timing is good, and he becomes a good foil to Tintin’s polished, youthful perfection; this is, of course, what he has always been in the comics. However, I feel as though the movie goes a little too far out of its way to have you laugh at Haddock, rather than with him. Rather than help Tintin crash-land the plane, he burps into the fuel tank, in a moment of unreality in what is otherwise a decently realistic film. In the original book, he finds Sir Francis Haddock’s diaries and reads them; in this story he simply hallucinates. His failings in the original Crab With The Golden Claws piss Tintin off, but Haddock’s powerful resilience and balls of steel make him a useful ally, and he only improves over time. In many ways it feels like Tintin is keeping Haddock around in The Adventures of Tintin simply for his knowledge about the Haddock family.
Haddock’s emotional climax is the scene where the two are standing on the docks at Bagghar, and Tintin starts to lose faith until Haddock gives him a rousing pep talk. According to the conventions of storytelling, this pep talk should incorporate what Haddock has learned thanks to Tintin across the length of the story and intertwine elements of things Haddock already knows about himself and Tintin, showing growth and the building of their relationships. Instead, the talk is intentionally shambolic and gives more weight to the idea that Haddock is much worse off than we previously believed, and does almost nothing to convey the idea that Haddock has grown or changed in this story, although it does drag in a few cheap laughs. This moment could really have tipped the scales so that I would like Haddock’s portrayal, and instead it left me in the dirt.
The writers of this movie wanted to have their cake and eat it too with their portrayal of Haddock, reaping the benefits of comedy and tragedy, but the balance feels off to me. These types of characters can absolutely exist, for the record. In Into the Spider-Verse (2018), an animated movie I enjoyed very much, Peter Parker is suffering from depression and has gone through some real shit but still manages to fill a role as one of the better sources of comedy. In Up (2009), which is mostly a lighthearted and hopeful story, one of the main characters is an elderly man still strongly grieving the death of his wife. Elementary (2012-2019), an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, balances many aspects of the main character including mental illness and drug addictions, although I won’t say it’s a comedy.
It’s very possible to write a modern character for whom addiction, grief, and mental illness are an integrated part of a broader character, although it’s also important in each of these depictions that the viewer is rarely laughing at the fact that the character is in pain. Peter Parker in Into the Spider-Verse is the butt of multiple jokes about how he behaves due to his depression (such as being messy or eating badly) but these are portrayed as relatable, human things (which are funny because we are all guilty of them), unlike that really weird scene in the plane where Haddock drinks a bunch of medicinal alcohol and then burps into the motor. Either Haddock’s alcoholism is sad and a sign he’s broken down, or it’s a hilarious plot gaffe. Make up your mind.
Indeed, this lack of focus leads to a slight feeling of dissatisfaction in the climax of Haddock’s arc. Sakharine has been manipulating things behind the scenes in an effort to hunt down the treasure and get one over on the last surviving Haddock, due to old family beef. But as far as we are aware, Sakharine has only started his plot in this generation to try and find the treasure, and located Haddock in order to keep a hold on him. There’s no real reason given why the Haddock family and fortune fell apart aside from alcoholism maybe. Yes, Sakharine has wronged Haddock over ancestral beef, but the idea that defeating Sakharine is the solution to his problems doesn’t sit right. After all, he must have already been in a weak position as a Haddock for all of these events to unfold, and the story goes to very little effort to work on that.
Haddock’s victory in this story is laying off the booze a bit, steeling himself, and taking out Sakharine, but none of these things feel like they really address what was portrayed. Yes, Allan and Sakharine brought him to his knees, but what happened before then? It feels more like they exploited an already weak man, and the issue then lies in the lack of effort the story puts into addressing his pre-existing weaknesses. This movie attempts to have us laugh at Haddock’s humorous moments, and grimace sympathetically at his difficult moments. Instead I grimaced at his humorous moments, felt horrified at his difficult moments, and left the movie feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Call me a heartless cad if you like, but considering that I’m a big Tintin fan and was pretty immersed in the rest of the movie, I reserve my right to complain about this specific point.
To wrap things up, I’d like to say that by and large, I enjoyed the 2011 Tintin movie. If I were to tweak its writing, I’d make sure to keep in mind that Haddock is the emotional heart of the film, and make sure to balance the various aspects of his personality more carefully. This story was close to being really good, but it’s hard to ignore how badly disrupted the plot and emotional arc of the story seemed due to the inconsistencies in Haddock’s writing, and while this essay has no chance of retroactively changing the film, I hope it has at least asked you all to reconsider some of the ways in which mentally ill or addicted characters are written.
Catch me same time next month for the latest part in my Asterix series! I’ll be streaming and active on social media between now and then.