Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Tintin’s Tiny Motivation

Another movie I finally got caught up this summer was Tintin. This was nowhere near as bad as John Carter or Green Lantern, but it was almost as disappointing, because in this case I’m a much bigger fan of the source material. What made it especially frustrating is that they picked three great books to adapt and they were very faithful, except for one small change in the sequence…which ruined everything.

The movie combined these three Tintin graphic novels:

In the first, boy reporter Tintin stows away on a freighter to expose some heroin smugglers (he’s a little more hardcore than the Hardy Boys) when he runs into a drunken lout named Captain Haddock, who has had his ship hijacked out from under him. They retake the ship, then go on a long adventure that takes them from ship to lifeboat, to seaplane, to desert, to army base. In the end, they break up the heroin ring, but Haddock is still battling his personal demons when the story ends.
The next book in the saga begins with Tintin walking through a street market where he sees a model of a ship for sale. He instantly senses that it would help Haddock feel better, so he buys it…but he’s soon surrounded by shady characters who will pay any price to get the ship away from them. He won’t sell, since he bought it for his good friend.

Sure enough, Haddock has a connection to the ship: It’s a replica or one sailed by his ancestor. When they find a clue to a treasure inside the model, they’re off on another 2-book adventure. In the end, they find Haddock’s long-lost family fortune, which finally ends his troubles.

The screenwriters wisely chose the Haddock epic as the strongest hook to hang a Tintin movie on, and it made sense to streamline the adaptation by cutting out the tangentially-related heroin-smuggling plot. But they made a fatal error by moving the street market up to the first scene as the “inciting incident”.

This time, it’s the model that leads Tintin to be on that hijacked freighter where he meets Haddock. As soon as they meet, we get all the action scenes from the original trilogy of books… but they’re now meaningless.

What a difference a little motivation makes! In the books, it all made sense: in the first book, he’s an investigative reporter on the trail of a heroin ring. In the second, he’s trying to do a favor for the troubled man who saved his life. In the third, he helps that man restore his fortunes so that he can stop being a miserable drunk, and gets another good story in the process. What a hero!

In the movie, it all falls apart: he buys the model for no reason, then turns down the offers of money for no reason, then follows the clues he finds in the model for no reason. We hear people say that he’s a reporter, but he never mentions it, and he’s not tracking down a story…in fact, his only motivation seems to be to get Haddock’s treasure for himself. But if he needs money so badly, why didn’t he just accept the fortune he was offered in the first scene??
Now obviously, I’ve read tons of Tintin comics, so I know who he is…on the page. But even I am not going to walk into a movie theater and cut this character any slack. When the lights go out, all that matters is what’s on the screen. And even though I love the comics character, the movie character struck me as unmotivated, greedy, and ultimately loathsome. And all because they flipped the order of one sequence. I’ll say it again: Heroes can only solve huge problems if they have a huge motivation!


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Would you believe that I applied lessons from this blog while watching "Tintin?" Bored off my can despite the visual inventiveness and action, I puzzled over its inertness. Then came the lightbulb: "Oh wait, there's no reason for any of this to happen! No wonder I don't give a crap!"

So you have my thanks. As does "Tintin," for hammering home the lesson of the value of motivation.

Matt Bird said...

I love it! Now if only Spielberg read the blog...

j.s. said...

Well, I'm still kind of surprised that that this blog is such a well-kept secret and that Matt isn't already a highly paid consultant at a place like Amblin or Dreamworks. I'll admit that I first came here via Script Shadow, but as soon as I started reading Matt's posts I knew I'd found something special. I've said it before and I'll say it again now: Cockeyed Caravan has taught me more about writing and storytelling than any other teacher, peer or book I've ever come across.

Matt Bird said...

Thanks so much, J.S. Actually, I have slowly begun the process of turning this all into a book, and I'll post a reader survey soon to ask for everybody's much-needed help in figuring out what the general thesis of all this is. I'll be running some ideas by you all soon...