Brow Beat

The Case of Captain Haddock’s Alcoholism

A still from The Adventures of Tintin.

If you’ve been reading reviews of The Adventures of Tintin, the new motion-capture kids’ adventure flick from Steven Spielberg, you’ve probably encountered numerous opinions concerning the movie’s pacing, its look, its faithfulness to the Belgian comic from which it was adapted, and so on. If you’ve been reading about the movie on certain Internet forums and parenting blogs, however, you know that many people are discussing an entirely different topic: how the movie handles alcoholism.

Tintin’s principal partner in his adventures is one Captain Haddock, a sea salt whose most prominent personality trait is his utter dependence on alcohol. This is how Belgian cartoonist Hergé wrote the character, and Spielberg remains faithful to that depiction. Haddock not only craves alcohol of any and all kinds—at one point in the movie he drinks the medicinal stuff, since it’s the only sort available—he seemingly needs it to function. A momentary bout of sobriety in the desert does prompt one plot-propelling recollection by Haddock, but the Captain doesn’t really come through until Tintin’s dog, Snowy—also a bit of a lush; more on that below—slyly furnishes him with some booze while he rests in a makeshift hospital bed. As a reviewer in the Willamette Week has written, “Booze is to Haddock what spinach is to Popeye, something that should raise the ire of AA types.”

And indeed it has—though you might substitute “AA types” with “Americans,” who seem to bring this up more than people in other countries do. Sam Adams, who recently reviewed two Hergé biographies for Slate, pointed me to a third, Pierre Assouline’s Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin, which reveals that when the Tintin books began appearing in America, Hergé’s publishers demanded that he “attenuate the text here and there” to reduce Haddock’s drinking, in an effort to satisfy “puritanical American morals.” Hergé went ahead and “eliminated all images of Haddock drinking straight from the bottle,” telling one reader, “The blacks have been whitened, and Captain Haddock has to refrain from guzzling his drink.” (A PDF of this chapter from Assouline’s book is available online.)

He didn’t eliminate Haddock’s love for booze, however—and from time to time Hergé appears to have fun at teetotalers’ expense. In an installment called The Shooting Star, Haddock is presented—with apparent irony—as the president of the Society of Sober Sailors. What’s more, alcohol does indeed sometimes function in the books a bit like Popeye’s spinach. Slate’s resident Tintin fanatic, Daniel Engber, told me that when he read the books as a kid, alcohol always seemed like some kind of “fairy dust,” something that “worked like a magical potion.” This was reinforced by the occasions on which Snowy, Tintin’s dog, got drunk—scenes also noted by Jean-Marie Apostolidès in The Metamorphoses of Tintin or, Tintin for Adults. Apostolidès argues that Haddock allows Tintin to “open up to an inner world of fantasies and desires,” embodying, along with Snowy, a kind of primal, animal Id. (As Nathan Heller notes in Slate today, Apostolidès also sees “every bursting Champagne bottle” as a symbol for “the man-child’s repressed homosexual desire,” so take that for what it’s worth.) 

All of which might seem a bit far from Spielberg’s usual style; film critic Richard Brody, in his own interesting take on The Adventures of Tintin, calls Spielberg an “Id-free filmmaker.” But over at Yahoo!, Jason Cangialosi makes a compelling case that while we think of Spielberg as “a Boy Scout with a big budget,” he has, in fact, provided some of cinema’s “best booze scenes.” Best might be a stretch, but Cangialosi persuasively points to E.T.’s eponymous hero and, especially, Quint in Jaws as forerunners to Captain Haddock. In all these movies, Cangialosi writes, “a little booze-chugging fuels the adventure and awakens the heroic spirit.”

Where does all this leave parents? With plenty to talk about with their kids, I suppose: Some of the film’s fans see Haddock as the perfect opener for a heart-to-heart about drinking. Parents of young children can also hold out hope that the Tintin movies become a franchise, and that Spielberg (or a successor) eventually tackles Tintin and the Picaros. In that one, the final Tintin adventure, Hergé not only skewers alcohol advertising (“Are you depressed? Does the day seem long? We have the answer. Loch Lomond”), he also includes something like disulfiram: A recurring character named Professor Calculus invents a pill that makes alcohol taste horrible to anyone who has taken it. Among his test subjects: Captain Haddock, who takes the pill and stops drinking.