Illustration from The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Just time to give you this review by Ian Beck of Brian Selznick’s children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, already covered by an earlier post, in The Times. The inventively-illustrated book pays homage in its style to silent cinema, and Georges Méliès is a central character.
TO THE CASUAL EYE this is a daunting doorstop of a novel, a solid brick of 534 pages aimed squarely – and a little heavily – at the child reader.
Open the book, however, and something magical happens. Brian Selznick, who is well known in the US as an illustrator, has created a new and exciting hybrid, part novel, part picture book.
The narrative, written in simple, fable-like prose, is interrupted at crucial points by pages of eerie and heavily atmospheric, soft black-and-white tonal drawings. These move the story forward cinematically, then the words take over again, picking up exactly where the pictures have just stopped. It is like the exhilarating moment in a musical when a song seems to rise organically from the spoken drama; here the sequences of pictures suddenly rise like monochrome music. Instead of the action being described, we suddenly see it.
The early history of film is bound up, not to say embedded, in this moving story of Hugo Cabret, a 12-year-old orphan. The book opens with a wordless sequence of drawings. Beginning with a small image of the moon framed against a black page, exactly like an image from a silent film.
With each turn of the page, the images zoom out until the moon shines over the rooftops of Paris (deliberate echoes of René Clair and the golden age of French cinema), then the pictures widen further and our eye is taken into the city and among the crowds until we pick out young Hugo making his way through the caverns of the station that is his home.
It is 1931 and Hugo lives in a hidden chamber somewhere in the Gare du Nord. He spends his time caring for the clocks in the station, winding them and cleaning them. He feels an affinity with clockwork, and carries with him a mysterious notebook given to him by his father. The notebook has clues to the construction of a mechanical man, an automaton, which was damaged in a fire at the museum where Hugo’s father worked and perished.
Hugo believes that if he can repair the automaton, a seated figure holding a pen over a piece of paper, it will write him a message from his father.
He needs mechanical pieces to complete his work and attempts to steal them from a toyshop in the station. He is caught by the old man who runs it, and loses his notebook. But Hugo is helped in his task by Isabelle, the old man’s goddaughter. Through a combination of their abilities, they manage to make the figure work. It does indeed write a message, but it is not from Hugo’s father, and only deepens the mystery.
The substance of the story concerns the pioneering days of fantasy film-making, in particular that genius of the early silent cinema, Georges Méliès, who made the iconic 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, in which a rocket lands in the moon’s eye.
The story is an engaging meditation on fantasy, inventiveness, and a thrilling mystery in its own right. No knowledge of early cinema is necessary to enjoy it, but for those who do know just a little, the rewards are even greater.
Selznick should be applauded not only for extending the form of the illustrated book, but also for mining such a rich and neglected seam for his storytelling. If this book encourages a wider interest in the lost world of silent cinema, that would be a job well done. But it is also to be hoped that this new hybrid form will be developed in further ways by other authors and artists.