It seems like I’m really going wild with the “books to TV/movie” reviews lately. Game of Thrones, The Night Circus, Swamplandia, The Wild Things… This time it’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick that has received the movie treatment, a book that I loved the first time I read it. Hugo Cabret is a dynamic and unique book, composed of both Selznick’s words and illustrations.
Totaling over 500 pages, the novel begins with this introduction from one Professor H. Alcofrisbas:
The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever.
But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.
Hugo’s life revolves around clocks. He lives in a train station in Paris and winds the clocks daily, a skill that he has inherited from both his father and uncle. He watches the toyshop across the street from behind the face of a clock in the train station, frequently stealing small windup toys from the counter in order to remove their springs and mechanical parts to use for his own devices. An older man owns the shop, and Hugo notices a young girl who frequently accompanies him at his work. However, on the day that Hugo tries to steal a windup mouse, the owner catches him. The man doesn’t just take back the toy that has been stolen. He steals Hugo’s notebook, entranced by a drawing that he recognizes and notes that, upon looking at it, he feels like the ghosts of memory have found him again.
The drawing in the notebook is of a mechanical man, windup insides exposed, the replica of the actual figure that Hugo guards inside the train station. Hugo’s father once found the figure at the museum he worked at, noting, “It’s a windup figure, like a music box or toy, except it’s infinitely more complicated. I’ve seen a few before, a singing bird in a cage and a mechanical acrobat on a trapeze. But this one is far more complex and interesting than those.” The secret of this one, this automaton, is that it has the ability to write. It holds a pen, and Hugo believes that one it’s wound up, it will write a message. The mechanical man became an obsession for Hugo’s father, and one night he locked himself in the attic of the museum to work on it, succumbing to a fire that engulfed the museum. Hugo is left to live with his uncle, a clockmaker also, yet, at the beginning of Hugo Cabret Hugo’s Uncle Claude has disappeared, leaving Hugo to tend to the clocks of the train station on his own. Now, living alone, it falls to Hugo to continue the work on the automaton. He believes that before his death, his father may have recorded a new message for Hugo alone.
Repairing the automaton brings him in contact with the young girl, Isabelle, and Georges Melies, the toyshop owner. Both attend to the shop, and Hugo begins working there in order to facilitate the return of his notebook. In this way, Selznick weaves together the areas of clockwork, 1930s film, and pre-WWII Paris. Hugo finds out that Isabelle has the key that is needed to wind the automaton, and his relationship with her and Georges Melies progress until he is able to attain the key from Isabelle and watches the message unfold (with an annoyed Isabelle by his side).
But, rather than a message, the automaton draws a picture, one that Hugo discovers is from a Georges Melies movie. The book breaks in half at this point, because, as Alcofrisbas notes, “stories lead to other stories, and this one leads all the way to the moon.” The second half of the story revolves around Melies, and one of the most beautiful sections of the book includes a collection of his illustrations. Melies, haunted by his works in the film industry, does not want the “ghosts” of his past creativity coming back. He tears his pictures apart and shouts, “How could this be mine? I am not an artist! I am nothing! I’m a penniless merchant, a prisoner! A shell! A windup toy!” The two children endeavor to bring Melies back to appreciating his own art. This includes the beautiful chapter, “The Invention of Dreams,” where Hugo takes the subway to the Academie du Cinema Francais and is given an introduction to Melies by Etienne, a friend of Isabelle’s.
The novel ultimately draws Etienne (who loves Melies’ films and thought that the filmmaker was dead), Isabelle, and Hugo together to help Melies return to his art. The mysterious origins of the automaton are revealed. The intricacies of heartbreak, loss, and shutting the door on the past are threaded throughout the separate experiences of Hugo, Isabelle, and Melies. The visual images capture character while the story fills in other details. Watching the images zoom in on Melies the first time that he is introduced to the story show a hopelessness and loss in his eyes that is not explained or explored until much later in the novel. The fact that both Isabelle and Hugo have lost their parents is lessened when they find each other. Art and looking towards creativity (and reading! Isabelle frequents a small Parisian bookstore that Hugo begins to visit, and the spine by spine illustrations of close space and too many books are magnificent) seem to be Selznick’s answers, both of which are carefully laid out in a series of artistic forms in the book. Not only does Selznick use words and images, but he also calls upon the crafts of clockwork and filmmaking that round out other options for expressing creativity. This creativity brings respite to the characters in the story and allows them to push their pain into something tangible, meaningful, and beautiful.
Again, Selnick’s Wonderstruck just came out a few months ago, but I still prefer Hugo Cabret. Hugo Cabret shows how art can be created out of a painful and isolated place, but that it enacts a sort of connection and beauty that shows a transition from one form to the other. It is a brilliant work of art in itself, using this medium to express something important about creating. I haven’t gone to see the movie yet, but I’m really looking forward to seeing where it takes the book, and if Selznick’s thread of creativity stays in tact.