Q&A with Tintinologist Benoît Peeters

Benoît Peeters with his son Archibald

With Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin in American theaters for over a month now, in this country there is a renewed interest in all things Tintin, including the life and work of the creator of the comic, Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. Recent reviews in The New York TimesWashington Post, and elsewhere of the English-language translation of Benoît Peeters’s seminal biography of the man, Hergé, Son of Tintin, brought a few question to mind, so we posed them to Mr. Peeters. (JHU Press manuscript editor Michele Callaghan translated Mr. Peeters’s answers from the original French.)

Q. Did you know Hergé ?

A. I knew Hergé a little in the last years of his life. My first meeting with him dates back to April 29, 1977, when Patrice Hamel and I interviewed him. He spent more than two hours answering all the exacting and bothersome questions—often naive and sometimes downright impertinent—that we asked him. I remember his ready availability, his curiosity about us, his bursts of laughter. I went on to write an analysis of The Castafiore Emerald, volume 21 of The Adventures of Tintin (which would later appear under the title Lire Tintin, les Bijoux ravis), and I thought that was the end of my involvement with Hergé. But he then offered my name to a Scandinavian publisher to write a comprehensive book about his work, which eventually became Tintin and the World of Hergé: An Illustrated History (Le Monde d’Hergé). It was for this book that he gave me what would be his last interview on December 15, 1982.

Q. What did you learn about Hergé while writing your book ?

A. The most important discovery I made was that he was a much more complex individual than I had first imagined. Rarely had there been such a gap between the grandeur of  a body of work and the colorlessness of its author. The public Hergé, the person of interviews, was frequently wearisome in his sincerity and boy-scoutness. Smooth, almost absent, he seemed to disappear behind his characters. But under it all, there was another Hergé. That Hergé, not always likeable, often hard, and frequently tormented, seemed passionate in a different way.

Drawing by François Schuiten.

Readers of Hergé, Son of Tintinrealize that it is not meant to be a fawning biography. I try to analyze his personality in all its complexity, with its contradictions. I try to understand, for example, how he was torn from his original convictions, the ideological veneer of his environment, and how, through his work, he came to give birth to something unexpected. Yes, Hergé actually seems to have been the son of his work for a long time. The Adventures of Tintin guided his own evolution. Only in later years did the paths of Tintin and Hergé begin to diverge. Until then, as he told me in his last interview, he really put his life in Tintin.

Q. Was Hergé involved at all in Steven Spielberg’s movie?

Hergé in 1937. Private collection.

A. Steven Spielberg’s interest in the Tintin books dates to 1982. Hergé was already very ill then, so Spielberg made contact with his publisher, Casterman. The two communicated through Hergé’s secretary, Alain Baran. A meeting was scheduled for March 1983 but Hergé died several weeks before it could take place. I heard that the two men spoke for a moment on the phone. Hergé was a big fan of Spielberg, especially the movie Duel. He said right away that Spielberg should have creative freedom. Hergé knew that the movie wouldn’t be “his” Tintin but hoped it would be a good film. Knowing Spielberg was making a Tintin movie was one of Hergé’s last joys, because he had always been disappointed that there was not more interest in his characters in the United States. In the eighties, Spielberg had written an original script. He had the wisdom to realize that it did not work. But re-creating the books literally would not have worked either. By creating a bridge between The Crab with the Golden Claws and The Secret of the Unicorn, Spielberg has invented a story that belongs to him, even if it is actually nourished by the minute details of Hergé’s books.

Q. What do you think of the movie?

A. Though it’s not my kind of film, I find it honest and think they have succeeded in their own way. In making this film, Spielberg has given a gift to Hergé, whose work is partly cut off from new generations. And overall, he has succeeded. It is obvious that Spielberg has a sincere admiration for Hergé and a real desire to make the movie an homage to him. One can certainly criticize Spielberg for sometimes substituting frenetic activity for meaningful action. But he has to live within the demands of making movies for teenagers in a country that is not that familiar with Tintin. There is in the film some of the brilliance known to all readers of Hergé—for example, Spielberg’s treatment of  the tale of Captain Haddock’s ancestor. This passage embodies the whole art of comic strips. It’s beautifully done, and would have delighted Hergé.

Comics writer, novelist, and critic, Benoît Peeters is one of the most highly regarded Tintinologists in the world. His biography of the Tintin creator, Hergé, Son of Tintin, is now available from JHU Press.