Monday, November 07, 2011

the invention of hugo cabret

I've had this book on my shelf for about a year, but never got around to it, as it seemed to be the sort of book to immerse oneself in, and I wasn't yet ready to dedicate the time. Knowing that there is a movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese in the offing, and that my daughter and I most definitely plan to see it, finally prompted me to dive into The Invention of Hugo Cabret and I'm so glad I did. It's unlike any other book out there. Not strictly young adult fiction or a children's book, but not a straight novel, either. It has the feeling of a picture book and even a graphic novel at times, but it isn't exactly either of those formats. It is a fairy tale about a resourceful young orphan who lives in the interior spaces of a Paris train station (Montparnasse) in 1931.

Twelve year-old Hugo lives alone, undetected, continuing the work of his missing uncle, which is to keep all of the many station clocks in good running order. But Hugo's life in the shadows is about to come to an end, as he is pulled out into the open and into the lives of a young girl, Isabelle, and her godfather, Papa Georges, who runs a toyshop in the train station.

Hugo inherited a love for all things mechanical from his father, and luckily, also the skill to fix anything and make it work. He finds an automaton that his father was trying to repair, and decides to fix it on his own, convinced that somehow he will discover a hidden message from his father.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is also about magic and a love of early cinema and the work of Georges Méliès. Many young people who will read the book and see the movie will be hearing about Méliès for the very first time. Hopefully, after being introduced to his work they may retain the sense of wonder and magic that his movies possess. His most well-known film was A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune], made in 1902, with its famous image of a spaceship poking the man in the moon in the eye.

Author and illustrator Brian Selznick has really done his homework on Méliès. He has also combined some tried-and-true elements of classic children's books — an orphan, a magical toy, a fantasy world — to create some beautiful imagery, both in his graphite drawings and in his prose. I can't wait to read this again with my daughter, or just flip through the drawings, skipping the prose, like a flipbook.

The story verges on the dark side at times, the illustrations giving it just the right mood and feeling. At one point in the story, while Hugo and Isabelle watch a film together that features an amazing chase sequence Hugo thinks to himself that "every good story should end with a big, exciting chase." Selznick is as good as his word, and many of the most interesting and exciting passages in The Invention of Hugo Cabret are told strictly through images, like film. It's a deceptively simple story, but its ideas and themes stay with the reader long after the end title.

Some films by Méliès:

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