Of the handful of new movies I saw last year, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was easily my favorite. I spent most of the movie entranced: by the story, the characters, the lighting, the depth of the picture. The one word I had for it: beautiful.
I had not, however, read the book. So I decided to check it out of the library to start the new year, venturing into the children’s section for the first time since I was in elementary school. I even had to ask the librarian where the Caldecott winners were shelved. Just as the movie, it is a charming delight. The one word I have for the book: cinematic.
The design and illustrations are both beautiful and integral to the story. Although it’s been ages since I’ve read any of the Caldecott winners (outside Christmastime rereads of Polar Express), so that I cannot compare against other contemporary illustrated books, I am not surprised that The Invention of Hugo Cabret became the first novel to win the prestigious illustration award. In keeping with the idea of movies–the history of early French cinema is important to the story–the title pages, main and chapter, have the form of old silent film title cards. And the illustrations, which tell as much of the story as the words, often seemed created with film in mind, as the viewer is pulled in from the broad scene to the narrow, focused detail:I do wonder if Selznick was writing with an eye towards film; it seems to translate so well to the medium. Some of the illustrations even come straight from early silent films.
The story itself tells of Hugo, a young orphan, who lives in a secret apartment above the Montparnasse station in 1931 Paris and secretly keeps the clocks running. His only consolation in a lonely life is an automaton, discovered by his late father, and in need of serious repairs before it can share with Hugo its secret message, which he believes is from his father. In his quest to fix the machine, Hugo meets Isabelle and her godfather, Papa Georges, whom Hugo has been stealing mechanical parts from to fix the automation. The story that follows is of the consequences of his thefts and secrets, of his growing friendship with Isabelle, of the message the machine that delivers, and just what Papa Georges had to do with French cinema.
And now I must confess a terrible scandal for a book blogger: I loved the movie more. Admittedly, I perhaps am swayed by having seen the movie first, and the movie does follow a good bit of the book closely, the changes mostly those required to fit it to the movie format (condensing events, for example). But what really stands out for me in the movie is the way characters barely mentioned in the novel, all of whom work in the train station, are fleshed out, and given small little stories. They aren’t important–a newspaper vendor attempting to chat with a café owner as her dog barks, the station inspector trying to work up the nerve to speak with the flower vendor–but they ground the story, setting it in a world that seems very real, no matter how fantastic Hugo’s automaton might seem. This isn’t to say that Selznick’s novel doesn’t work–it does, very well, and I do find it enchanting. In this instance, I just happen to give the book-based film the edge over the cinematic book.
For anyone who is curious about real-life automatons, this website has the story of an early automaton, complete with pictures and video. Very interesting!