Saturday, November 19, 2011

Books We Love: “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

Book Review by Maggie Hames
Okay—this book was released in 2007, but it is poised for a major revival with this Wednesday’s release of the film version—called Hugo—directed by none other than Martin Scorsese (in 3-D yet). But this book stands on its own as a wonderful and unique hybrid of chapter book, graphic novel, and cinema storyboard. Any reader over the age of ten (including you!) will enjoy this book. I hope the many joys of this book don’t get lost in the film hoopla, because The Invention of Hugo Cabret deserves to be savored for its own sake.

It tells a story of 12-year-old Hugo Cabret, the son and nephew of horologists, better known as clockmakers. When Hugo is sadly orphaned, he lives behind the walls in the forgotten spaces of the Paris train station and keeps up the work of his uncle, tending to the station’s many clocks. The character of Hugo is part David Copperfield, part Oliver Twist, and more than a little Harry Potter, though the “magic” here is the magic of clockworks; not only the clocks that fill Hugo’s days, but in a clockwork automaton, a restoration project of his father’s. The automaton will form the connection between Hugo and his salvation. In the mean time, Hugo is forced to keep many sad secrets in order to survive, and the story unfolds as a series of secrets revealed.

Oh, and there’s more than a little bit of magic in the optical illusion helped along by persistence of vision we know as motion pictures. In fact, it’s fair to call The Invention of Hugo Cabret a love poem to the movies. I’m not giving anything away when I tell you it features a character based on film pioneer George Méliès, who really did open a toy stand in Montparnasse Station after his film company went bust. Magician-turned-filmmaker Méliès is best known for his film from 1902, A Trip to the Moon, and features an image of the Man In the Moon, hit in the eye by a space ship. Suffice it to say I have only scratched the surface of the genius of Méliès.

The book’s illustrations are double-page spreads that mimic the 1:1.33 ratio of earlier cinema. And the book has an interesting way of building tension in a cinematic way: pages that lead to an exciting reveal contain only a few words. Turning the page feels like an edit in a film. And certain sequences of the story are told through illustrations that read as storyboards, in black and white to boot, a choice that honors the look of early cinema. The book design wraps each spread in a black frame, the unmistakable frame from a strip of film.

Hugo’s story is one of almost unbearable loss, sorrow, and survival that (of course) ends joyfully. Life is infinitely cruel then kind to this lad and he earns every morsel of happiness. He ultimately saves himself by saving others. I loved the hopeful way he looked at his life, when he explained to his friend Isabelle how clockmaking formed the basis of his personal philosophy: “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 you have to be here for some reason, too.”

This book would make a wonderful holiday gift. It’s a book to treasure, and I bought mine on Amazon just a few days ago and it’s a first edition(!). The film version may sink or swim, but the book is simply wonderful; a moving tribute to the moving picture, a heart-warming story of a boy who finds a home, and the story of an older man who, Promethius-like, finds an exciting new beginning.

While you’re shopping for holiday gifts, I’d also suggest a dvd of Méliès films. His work is sure to delight anyone on your list. You can find the films of Méliès in any number of collections. A good place to start is The Magic of Méliès.


  1. Thanks! I'm interested in seeing the movie, but now I want to read the book first!

  2. The book is great. Very moving. And if you love old cinema, It's heartening to see silent films get their due. I wonder if this will usher in a revival of interest in Melies.