#ThinkpieceThursday – The Adventures of Tintin: Another Spielberg Misstep

tintin-movieIt’s hard to understand how a seasoned storyteller like Steven Spielberg can make such basic mistakes in both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.
The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the script won’t add up to very much.

Let’s look at the simple issue of who is the protagonist in Tintin. The protagonist in a story is the central character whose actions set off the chain of events that pushes the story forward. So far so good.  Tintin buys a model ship that holds a long-hidden clue and sets off a chase for treasure. The protagonist must have a physical goal in the story that he or she actively pursues.  The goal for young Tintin is clear enough, solve the mystery and find the treasure. This is what TinTin wants.

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: to stand up for one’s beliefs, to become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a better friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.

To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concern. One of the most common problems with scripts that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing.

This is the case in Tintin.  There is plenty of external conflict in the chase. There is a good amount of relationship conflict in the centuries old feud between the Haddocks and Rackhams.  But there is no inner conflict for Tintin. There is nothing the boy needs to over come in himself in order to succeed.  He falters for a very brief moment late in the film but is immediately cheered up and on his way without missing a beat.

Captain Haddock goes from being an irresponsible drunk with low self esteem to someone who sobers up and rediscovers his own self-worth.  He is no longer intimidated by his illustrious ancestor and realizes he has courage too.  Tintin, like the young  protagonist in War Horse, is as plucky, courageous, determined and resourceful in the beginning of the film as he is at the end of the film.

At the climax of a film the question is, who makes the biggest sacrifice? Who pays the biggest price? Who undergoes the most powerful personal transformation. That person is the protagonist. It doesn’t matter how big a star or how well known a figure is “supposed” to be the protagonist.  It doesn’t matter how much screen time the “supposed” protagonist has.  If some other character makes a bigger personal sacrifice, is more powerfully transformed or pays a bigger emotional price, he or she is the protagonist.  If a secondary character plays this role the film will disconnect emotionally. That is the case with Tintin.

Perhaps the character worked better in a comic strip where Tintin acts more as a narrator/journalist telling someone else’s story.  But this is a movie and the requirements are different.  Mistaking which character is the protagonist is one of the most common reasons why a film doesn’t work emotionally for the audience. Spielberg should know better.

4 Comments

  1. Reply Mary Huckstep 23rd January 2012

    Laurie, thanks a bunch for putting into words something that was bothering me about this flick, but something I couldn’t quite figure out until I read your article. And I agree with your analysis 100%. If the basic story structure isn’t sound, then the whole film suffers — no matter how funny the jokes are, or how clever the plot twists might be. DUH! mh

  2. Reply Laurie Hutzler 13th February 2012

    Thanks Mary– Always great to hear from you!

  3. Reply Arno 5th September 2012

    Dear Laurie,

    the lack of a need, a dilemma, internal conflict and character development seems to be a mayor attribute of pulp and pulp influenced fiction.
    Tintin was compared to Indiana Jones quite often even before this movie was made. Indiana’s Want is the Ark, his manifested Need Marion? Is there a Need? To me Raiders worked.
    What about later examples such as Sky Captain?

    Thanks!

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th September 2012

      Thanks for the question. Power of Excitement stories are generally big roller coaster rides. http://www.etbscreenwriting.com/nine-character-types/power-of-excitement/ The main object for these characters is getting in and out of traps. Power of Excitement characters rarely learn much of anything. I would be fine with that if the story was structured so that TinTin is actually the protagonist. But there is someone who DOES learn something and who makes a real emotional sacrifice. That defines him as the protagonist. There is no such competing person in the Indiana Jones movies. Those movies work better.

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