Earlier this year a colleague of mine told me about a film she had seen, called Hugo. “It’s about a boy at a train station in Paris, and his fox”. “Oh”, I said rather unenthusiastically. A week later I went and saw the film with a friend, immediately realising my mistake when a clock appeared prominently in the film’s opening sequence. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of anthropomorphic foxes I was imagining, I loved the film and have now read the book that Martin Scorcese’s film was based on: The invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.
For those unfamiliar with either the book or film, Hugo is the orphan child of a clockmaker. He has been living with his uncle at the Gare Montparnasse; his uncle’s job is to make sure the train station’s clocks run accurately, and Hugo becomes his assistant. For the last few months his uncle has been missing, and Hugo has continued with his job, terrified of being found out and sent to an orphanage. In his spare time he works on the automaton his father was fixing when he died. This automaton is a mechanical humanoid, who holds a pen; Hugo becomes convinced if he can make the automaton work, he will receive a message from his father. But to find parts he is reduced to stealing from the toy shop at the station, which brings him to the attention of Georges, who owns the shop, and his adopted daughter Isabelle.
The book is full of black and white drawings, intermixed with prose, with both telling the story. All are printed on black bordered pages; it makes for a beautiful book. Often the pictures are used for scenes with action in them: a walk through Paris at night, Hugo at work with cogs winding, and a memorable chase through the station, showing both the dodging through crowds, and a close up of the fear in Hugo’s eyes. The book however, makes rather lofty claims about this being an ‘entirely new reading experience’. While it combines elements of novel, comic and picture book, I don’t think it is so original to be ‘entirely new’. All of the pictures are full page, and often not that detailed. Unlike reading a comic where you often have to pay attention to small pictures to follow the plot, Hugo can be read quite rapidly. At times it is a bit irritating (namely propping this book up in bed) to have to turn page after page quite so quickly.
The book is split into two parts: the first tells of Hugo and his automaton, and the second of Georges, who is revealed to be the filmmaker Georges Méliès and creator of the automaton. The mystery behind the automaton leads Hugo and Isabelle into the mystery of Georges’s identity and why he has kept it secret. I do wonder how many children reading the book will be able to appreciate the despair of a once great, and famous man, who believes the world has forgotten him. Perhaps it is therefore appropriate that Selznick focuses largely on Hugo, but it is also a shame as I thought the book lacked the emotional punch Méliès’s story could have provided. The story the book tells is actually quite similar to Méliès’s life; he really did spend time working as a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse before his achievements in film were recognised.
This book isn’t nearly as original as its publishers claim it to be; it sticks with all the clichés of children’s literature - orphans, mysterious artefacts, grumpy adults hiding a heart of gold. It lacks the humour that Martin Scorcese wisely introduced into the film by fleshing out minor characters. Nevertheless The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a charming book, one that I’m sure will be enjoyed by children (and adults) for years to come.