Thursday, March 1

The Invention of Hugo Cabret


Written and Illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic 2007

One word: Storyboard

It wasn't until the news got out just before the Academy Awards that director Martin Scorsese was considering as a future project that it occurred to me; Neither a graphic novel nor a picture book, what Brian Selznick has done is nothing short that reinvent the connection between movies and books and the process of adaptation.

Consider the process. A writer gets published, a studio buys the rights, deals are made and talent lined up, a screenwriter (or two, or four) reformat the story to fit the conventions of moviemaking, a director has storyboards drawn up, then the film is shot and edited. With Hugo Cabret Selznick has already laid out the film's look, what the characters look like, and pretty much cut out the screenwriters. Someone's going to have to write the screenplay anyway, in this case John Logan (because budgets are determined by breakdowns that are based on the written page) but in the end the film's success relies on the director's ability to capture the spirit of the book as so clearly illustrated. That's one way to get final say over what you book will look like on the big screen!


It might strike some as odd that the man behind Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Gangs of New York, The Departed, &c. would consider the project until you remember that he also adapted (for better or worse) The Age of Innocence, Is working on a film about Teddy Roosevelt, has made documentaries of musicians (Dylan, The Band, and one pending on The Rolling Stones) and is as great a film historian and preservationist as he is a director. I'm not gushing, I'm trying to remain hopeful because my personal feeling is that if you're going to try and adapt something as richly visual as The Invention of Hugo Cabret you'd want someone who was both incredibly talented and thoughtful.

That said, let's see what else I can add to the din about the book itself.

Not to sound crass, because I truly do love this book, but The Invention of Hugo Cabret couldn't have timed the market any better. With the recent dialog concerning graphic novels, the Printz award for American Born Chinese and the Sibert for To Dance, book publishers starting graphic imprints and comic book publishers hiring book editors, the time really is perfect for a book whose story is shown more than it's told.

Hugo, orphaned son of a clock keeper in the Montparnasse train station, lives a multi-layered secret life. Rather than report his father dead he continues to maintain the clocks at the station in order to remain living in the workroom behind one of the clocks. He also needs to stay in order to complete work on a fabulous machine his father had been tinkering with, an automaton salvaged from the wreckage of a museum fire. Being a driven, resourceful 12 year old boy he has taken to stealing food and bits of wind-up toys in order to complete his father's work. Most of what he takes comes from a toy seller in a stall at the station, an older man with a secret past of his own that connects him both the the automaton and the history of film itself. At first caught as a common thief, the toy peddler takes Hugo on as an apprentice, which allows Hugo to earn money and supplies enough to keep working. All roads lead to all secrets being revealed, where the toy peddler is "discovered" by film students to be a former magician, the creator of the mysterious automaton, and the father of French (and practically all) cinema, Georges Melies.

Selznick should take a bow for pulling together so many unusual (and unconnected) historical threads and making them into such a compelling work of fiction. I was going to add "for children" at the end of that sentence, but I suspect that most adults will wind up getting as much out of this that it really shouldn't be limited to it's intended audience. Melies did, indeed, drop out of the film world he helped create, did end up a toy peddler at the Montparnasse train station, was rediscovered by the french film society in 1932 and was treated like a national treasure until his death six years later. I can't speak to his actually creating automata, but it wasn't unusual for magicians of that era to employ both real and faked automata in their stage productions (The Turk being the most famous of the latter).

But the best invention by far is Hugo's, and by that I mean Selznick's. It isn't the automata itself, as the final narration eludes to, it is Hugo, the boy, who invented himself into the person he became.

By all means, read it and enjoy it before the market becomes flooded with cheap imitations.
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