“If you've ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around. This is where they are made. ”
It's not often I can sit down with a 533-page book after dinner and have it finished before bedtime. Most of the story in The Invention of Hugo Cabret is told through highly detailed pencil drawings, interspersed occasionally with narrative to fill out the story. It tells the story of a young boy, Hugo, who is left alone in the world with only an automaton discovered by his father, and with Georges, the grumpy old owner of a clockwork toy shop. Hugo, trying to repair the automaton, steals toys from Georges for the clockwork parts. Unlikely as it seems, this simple story becomes a history of early French cinema.
It is the 1930s and Hugo is left an orphan after the death of his father in a fire. He is taken by his uncle to live at a train station in the centre of Paris, where he learns to maintain and repair the station clocks. One day his uncle fails to return from a drinking binge, and Hugo is left alone to fend for himself. By chance, he stumbles on the damaged automaton his father had been trying to restore, and takes it back to the station, the only link he has to his father. Hugo discovers a link between his automaton and the early French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Amongst Méliès creations was A Trip to the Moon, credited as the first science fiction movie (see below for this movie on YouTube). Méliès had been thought dead and his work mostly forgotten. Hugo resurrects his work and his reputation, by discovering the link between his automaton and A Trip to the Moon.
The drawings are essential to the story, and as you flick through, they feel almost like a silent film, especially in action scenes such as when Hugo is being chased across train station. The drawings give an immediacy to the scene, a feeling that could not be captured by merely describing the chase. The book’s cinematic feel is captured by the excellent movie adaptation made by Martin Scorsese in 2011 (see trailer below).
The history this book tells is mostly based on fact - Méliès made his last film in 1912, had been forgotten and financially ruined by the 1920s, and did end up running a small toy shop at Gare Montparnasse. A journalist became interested in him which led to a revival of his work, and ultimately, he was honoured with a gala retrospect in December 1929. I would say that except for those interested in the history of cinema, Méliès has again mostly been forgotten which adds to the feeling of discovery in this book as the story is revealed.
It's hard to describe just how beautiful this book is, or how well the story is conveyed by the drawings. It's something you can really only experience by reading the book. Although aimed at children, this is a book that I think everyone would enjoy, and indeed, I think everyone should read it.
The Georges Méliès film that is linked to the automaton Hugo restores
Trailer for Scorsese’s movie adaptation from 2011
Brian Selznick surrounded by his books, illustrations and a model of the automaton from The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Some illustrartions from the book