Brian Selznick’s 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a real surprise. Printed on thick paper and beautifully typeset, in its 534 pages there are just over 26,000 words and more than 150 wonderful illustrations and photographs. As words and pictures overlap in telling the story, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a re-imagining of what a book can be, as well as a reminder of what a treasure a hardback is to hold. In fact, it’s a great choice to demonstrate to the digital generation that not everything is better on screen.
So how does Martin Scorsese’s on-screen version compare? The 2011 film Hugo, now in cinemas, is a star-studded affair. Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz shine in the leading roles of Hugo and Isabelle, while Ben Kingsley plays Georges Méliès and Sacha Baron Cohen the Station Inspector. And like the book, it is a thing of visual beauty.
The story is set in 1931. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is left orphaned when his clock-maker father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire. His drunken uncle (Ray Winstone), who is Timekeeper at the train station, takes him in before disappearing himself. Soon young Hugo is maintaining all the clocks while living within the walls of the Paris station, acutely aware that if he is found alone he will be sent to an orphanage. There is one thing keeping him going – the automaton, a complex wind-up robot that Hugo’s father had been working on before he died. Convinced that if he can fix the machine, it will reveal a message from his father, Hugo sees the automaton as his saviour.
It is not until deep within the book that we realise this is not just Hugo’s story, but that of the history of cinema. Suddenly, the use of illustrations like camera stills makes sense. With each black and white picture, the camera scans, surveys and moves in on its subject. Remember too the scene setting in the introduction: ‘before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city.’
Scorsese, like Selznick, is in love with technique and his homage to cinema is evident from the first scene. Both film and book are as much about their craft as they are about the adventure. It’s not a case of style over substance; in a story about how to make mechanics into magic, laying bare the style is the substance. Scorsese’s Paris is rich in atmosphere, the roaring train station brought to life through a strong supporting cast (including Emily Mortimer, Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths), endless crowds, noise and commotion. In this, the filmmaker has the edge. Yet, he can’t capture the loneliness of the empty streets with the same quiet intimacy as the illustrator.
As much as Scorsese is looking back to the birth of film and ‘the inventors of dreams’, he is also looking forward. With this picture he applies the latest digital techniques, using 3D effect occasionally with awesome results. As a family movie, this picture is not suitable for the youngest audience, but otherwise offers a fine balance in entertaining adults and children alike. The fictional story is complemented by a historical account of the film-maker Georges Méliès, a source of both interest and inspiration. The sense of the magic of the movies is alive in every scene. This is an almost perfect matinee movie, made to bring wonder and light to a dull Sunday afternoon, and release us out into the winter evening ready to set the world alight.
You couldn’t fail to be intrigued by Selznick’s novel either. Billed in the 9-12 age range, the use of images to break up text makes it ideal for less enthusiastic readers who still like a grown-up adventure story. Yet it is equally a pleasure for their parents – who doesn’t like the feeling of whipping through 200 pages in an hour? The Invention of Hugo Cabret is itself a true invention: a unique little gift to the imagination, and a call to arms for would-be magicians, artists and dreamers everywhere. Naturally, a film about film doesn’t have quite the unique edge as a book created as if through a camera lens. Hugo is not a one-off, but it is a visual delight and a worthy accompaniment to the book.