Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick

This is a marvelous sort of book, a Pandora's Box of illustration and text combined in perfect union. I must thank my friend Jean in Colorado for having sent it to me. I've been meaning to write about it for a while now.

I have the movie, HUGO (it arrived in the little red envelope a couple of days ago), which is based on Seltzer's book but I haven't watched it yet - didn't want to be influenced away from the feel of the book. Wanted to write about the story without having the movie version interfere.

Hugo Cabret.

In fact, the book itself is like a movie and the story is very much about the movies - the days of the early movies (the story takes place in 1931) when the industry was still feeling its oats and dreams were part of the film-making and film-going experience. Awe was still a fresh notion..

Brian Selznick's book is part graphic novel, part written text and like nothing you've ever experienced.


The story centers on Hugo Cabret, a destitute boy who is, indeed a dreamer - an orphan, part thief, part opportunist, part mechanical genius and at heart, a young boy very much missing his lost father..

He lives within the walls of a Paris train station having been taken there by a reprobate uncle after Hugo's father's death in a terrible museum fire. A death for which Hugo occasionally blames himself. For it was at his eager request that his father had been working late in the attic/storage room at the museum and become trapped in the fire.

Hugo and his father.

Mr Cabret had made an amazing discovery - a broken down automaton - a mechanical man whom no one at the museum remembered - the thing had never been put on display. The man was created in the action of writing and once fully functional, it should have been able to write something on a piece of paper. Hugo and his father are intrigued and determined to bring the automaton back to life again.

Hugo's drunken uncle works at the train station winding the many large clocks around the building. He has a musty old room there and that's where he brings Hugo after the boy's father's death.

Winding one of the many station clocks.

But the uncle's drinking gets the better of him and one night he goes out and fails to return. With no where else to go, Hugo takes over the job of winding the clocks (he'd carefully watched his uncle do his work) and pretends his uncle is still around.

Hugo in the vast train station.

It is a precarious existence for if the station inspector should discover the truth, Hugo would be thrown out on his ear - forced to live in the street.

Hugo and the automaton.

From the ashes of the museum fire, Hugo had secretly rescued the damaged mechanical man and brought him to the room at the train station, determined to continue his father's work. Hugo is convinced that when the automaton becomes functional, it will write Hugo a message from his father.

The train station toy shop.

To that end, Hugo has been stealing bits and pieces of mechanical toys from an old toy shop in the train station. The shop belongs to a grumpy old man named Georges.

One morning Hugo is caught stealing and the old man pockets Hugo's small sketch book filled with drawings and schematics - Hugo's most precious possession. Trying to get the workbook back is no easy task.

Papa Georges

Eventually Hugo becomes caught up in the life of the rather mysterious old man, his goddaughter, a young girl named Isabelle, and the stuff that dreams are made of.


Papa Georges - as Isabelle calls him - has a long lost and forgotten past which the message written by the mechanical man (Hugo does get him fixed) will, unexpectedly, bring back to life.

Hugo and Isabelle looking out at the city of Paris from behind a clock face.

This book is all about the magic, the mystery of movies and of the dreams that made them.

As much as I love the story, it is the brilliance of the many halftone illustrations that captured my imagination. The story is revealed in movie-like images - some parts revealed in just drawings alone, minus any text; as in a mad chase sequence near the end.

Hugo fixing a mechanical mouse.

If you look closely,  you can see the multitude of cross-hatching pencil lines which go into making up each individual drawing. I can't over-emphasize the brilliance in execution of these splendid drawings which pace the story, adding atmosphere and a kind of frenetic energy.

Near the end, there are also actual scenes from a very early silent movie created by the real life movie magician and early pioneer, Georges Melie. I'm sure all of you know at least one scene from one of his early movies, A TRIP TO THE MOON. The face of the man in the moon with a rocket poking him in his right eye. That was a Melie creation.

Papa Georges, Isabelle and Hugo. 

Yes, that is who old man turns out to be. But you have to read and absorb the book to get the full story.

To see more of Selznick's glorious illustrations from the story and learn a bit about automatons, please use this link.

By Georges Melie

Thanks again, Jean, my dear friend, for sending me this wonderful book.


  1. The drawings remind me of Chris Van Allsburg's work. I've wanted to read this book long before it was a movie ever since I saw it's attractively designed DJ in a Borders store (back when there were Borders - seems so long ago). Your visual review and the attention it got at the Oscars (a slew of techinical awards, right?) has placed it on my TBR list. And that means someday within the next three years I'll get around to reading it. HA!

  2. Wonderful review!! I loved this book, and am not going to see the movie. I heard they changed it a bit, and though sometimes that doesn't matter to me, in this case it does. I wrote a little about the book here, if you'd like to read it:

  3. THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. What a lovely gift. The drawings alone, make it a book to cherish. Loved them.

  4. Now I have to see the movie, What a fantastic Artist. yvonne

  5. Actually, John, it won't take you long to read it even if it looks like a giant chunk of a book. A lot of it is illustration.

    I didn't immediately think of Chris Van Allsburg, but now that you mention it...Though Van Allburg, I think, uses a different technique. He is a bit tighter in his approach. I think.

  6. I should have known you'd know all about this book, Nan. :)

    I really enjoyed it and loved the whole idea behind it.

    I have the movie here so I'll watch it when I have a moment, but I don't see how it can equal the book at all.

  7. Dave, yes, I was thrilled when I received it, though it was a while back. Jean is such a sweetie.

    Don't you love the illustrations? They're really wonderful.

  8. Yvonne: Yes, he is amazing. I was taken aback by the strength of his talent.

    When I first heard about the movie I was disappointed that they weren't going to use Seltzer's drawings.

  9. Hi, Yvette,

    I've seen the movie, and I don't think you'll be disappointed!

  10. We'll find out soon. :)

    A friend of mine said that every artist should own a copy of the book. I hope you have one, Mark. It really is quite splendid.

  11. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'll definitely wait until I read the book. I'll have to get a copy!

  12. Oh Lauren, I think you will love it!

  13. This sounds like a fascinating book! The drawings seem like a wonderful story board, that a movie director would follow. I'm definitely going to read the book before seeing the movie.

  14. Good for you, Pat. I think that's the way to go. :)

    Let me know what you think.

  15. Yvette, although I haven't read THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET yet, Team Bartilucci saw the film at the landmark Roxy Theatre in Northampton, PA today, and it blew us away! At the risk of sounding cliched, we laughed, we cried, we cheered, and we were generally wowed by everything about the movie; its Oscars were well-deserved! Reading your review of the book today, I loved the art as well as the story, and I look forward to adding the book to our library soon!

  16. Isn't the art wonderful? I haven't seen the film yet - though it's sitting here patiently waiting. :)

    Perhaps tonight, if I can just stop reading for one night.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the movie. I think you'll love the book too!


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