Monday, April 25, 2011

The Magic of Film: A Review of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Sometimes I have to dig around to find a new book; other times, new books just fall into my lap. That's what happened with The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (first cousin once removed to Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick, according to The Internet Movie Database). My college library has a room devoted entirely to children's literature because of all of the education majors. It's a quiet place to work (complete with bean bag chairs) and my friend Ben and I were doing homework in there the other day when I happened upon this book. It was literally just lying on the edge of the shelf like it was begging me to take it home with me. The cover caught my eye and when I flipped through it, I saw pages and pages of beautiful illustrations. I was definitely not going to pass up a book like this.

Synopsis: Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocks--like the gears of the clocks he keeps--with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the train station, Hugo's undercover life and his most precious secret are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo's dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

With 284 pages of original drawings, and combing elements of picture book, graphic novel, and film, Brian Selznick breaks open the novel form to create an entirely new reading experience. Here is a stunning, cinematic tour de force from a boldly innovative storyteller, artist, and bookmaker.

Review: This. Book. Is. Amazing. At over 500 pages, I thought this book would take a while to get through. I found, instead, that it was a very quick read. Not only was the story engaging, but the book was designed in such a way that it could be flown through in a few hours.

I'm going to preface this review by saying that I'm not a visual person. I don't like graphic novels because I tend to just read the words, forgetting all about the pictures...which are kind of the point of a novel being graphic. It's for this reason that I'm not sure I'll ever read Neil Gaiman's Sandman books. So, I went into Hugo Cabret a little tentatively. I figured that the pictures would bog the book down or would be superfluous, but this wasn't the case at in. In fact, as the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words and these pictures spoke 284,000 extra words in addition to the text.

The basic premise of this novel is that young Hugo Cabret has been orphaned and is living in the clock keeper's apartment in a train station in Paris in 1931. His uncle, the clock keeper, has disappeared, leaving Hugo to keep up his work so that no one will discover that he's there and send him to an orphanage. The only things he has left of his past are a notebook that his dead father left him and a mechanical man, one of the automatons that magicians used to create for their magic shows. This automaton is seated at a desk with a pen in his hand and Hugo knows that if he can just fix him that it will reveal a secret message to him, probably from his father. Hugo begins stealing mechanical toys from the toy shop in the train station in order to use the parts to fix the automaton.

One of Selznick's illustrations, which shows Hugo and the automaton.

Hugo gets caught and the old man who runs the toy shop makes him pay back what he's stolen by doing work for him. Through a series of thefts and misunderstandings, Hugo finally gets the automaton to work. The message it reveals to Hugo and the old man's goddaughter, Isabelle, begins a whole new story, which involves discovering who the old man really is and helping him to find himself again.

Selznick's story is vibrant and his characters are likable. His illustrations, however, are what really make the story tick (ooh, clock pun). Rather than being drawings of things that he has already talked about, they are scenes that he is not describing, such as a chase scene or a series of drawings that are being looked at. It's hard to explain fully, so I highly suggest reading the book so you can see for yourself, but the illustrations complement the book nicely and are so beautiful and detailed that it's almost like you're watching a movie.

Speaking of movies, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is slated to be released as a film later this year. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it features Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Christopher Lee, and (rumored) Johnny Depp. Um, I don't know how this film could be any more awesome.

Speaking further of movies, film plays a huge role in this novel. I can't tell you why without ruining the second half of the novel, but because of this, Selznick intersperses film stills from films like Safety Last and A Trip to the Moon throughout the book. Old film buffs will like this book and it may help to spur people who aren't a fan of silent movies to go check some of them out.

The famous clock scene from Safety Last!, starring Harold Lloyd.

I loved this book for its intricate plot, its subtle character development, and its gorgeous illustrations. This is truly a tale for children of all ages.

Favorite quote: "I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means that you have to be here for some reason, too." (p. 378)

The Invention of Hugo Cabret gets five out of five stars.



  1. Hi Gabe,
    Glad to hear you enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret! I'm reading it in French at the moment, and the illustrations are magnificent! Although I'm a huge graphic novel fan and always have been, I'm glad you were able to enjoy the book despite your concerns over the images. I do wonder if the film will be good, though, as these types of adaptations seldom are, but yay for Hugo Cabret! ;-)

  2. I didn't realize there was a French translation. I may have to track that down. This would be a great book to read in French. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    I'm guessing the film won't be 100% amazing, but I could see if being pretty decent.