‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’, the book that became an Oscar-winning movie



Here’s a review of a book that was made into a movie that most of you have probably seen — ‘Hugo’. There are zillions of black and white illustrations in the book, even though its a novel for young adults. And I loved it so much, I haven’t had the courage to go see the movie! It’s like the picture book ‘Polar Express’ by one of my favourite illustrators, Chris Van Alsburg…the book had this gentle, haunting and very quiet bed-time story quality to it. So I happily trotted off to the movie expecting to come out full of warm cosy feelings. Instead I was rocked off my seat and taken on such a frightening roller coaster of a ride, it almost felt like a horror movie to me.

It all began with another book. When well-known American illustrator Brian Selznick read a book called ‘Edison’s Eve’ by Gaby Wood, it got his creative juices flowing. Wood’s well-researched story about ‘automata’ began with a report on Thomas Edison’s attempt to make a wind-up doll that could talk. In this day of micro-chips and cheap talking-dolls, you’d probably laugh that the brain who invented the incandescent lamp, wasted his time with a wind up doll. But back in the late 1800s, the silicon chip hadn’t been invented and everything that moved on its own had to be wound up first, so clock-makers (or horologists) were considered the most high-tech dudes.

This book about well-known automata that survived in museums, had an entire chapter on George Melies, a French film-maker who’d made the first science fiction movie called ‘A Trip to the Moon’ in 1902. He also had a collection of wind-up ‘dolls’ made by a famous French magician called Houdin. A bulb went off in Brian Selznick brain. He remembered seeing Melies’ film when he was a kid. He decided he wanted to write a story about George Melies, his collection of automata AND the history of film, before Hollywood. And he did. By January 2007, he’d completed ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’.

Hugo is a young orphan. His mother died when he was an infant, but his loving father, a clock-maker, took care of him well – teaching him all that he knew about horology. When Hugo’s father dies in an accidental fire at the museum he worked in, Hugo is taken in by his drunk uncle, who’s in charge of winding up the clocks at Paris’ central railway station.

Soon Hugo’s uncle disappears. Petrified that he’ll be turned out of the room he lives in deep in the bowels of the station, Hugo meticulously winds all the clocks, hoping the authorities won’t realise his uncle is missing. But apart from this boring job, Hugo is fired by a dream — to somehow make the wind-up ‘writing man’ that he salvaged from the charred ruins of the burned down museum to work. Since his father too had been trying to repair this automata before his death, poor Hugo decides that whatever the ‘writing man’ eventually does write, is bound to be a message from his dead father.

So in pursuit of this dream, Hugo takes to stealing little wind-up toys from the toy shop in the station, recycling their parts into the insides of the ‘writing man’. He gets caught of course. But read about how he befriends Isabelle, the shop owner’s ‘niece’. The shock he receives when he realises who the owner really is. And the mysteries both Isabelle and he unravel when they finally get the wind-up ‘writing man’ to pen down his message.

This is a fat, fat book but 284 pages of it are beautiful black and white illustrations. Apart from Hugo, this book is also about the history of cinema; and a reminder that though Hollywood seems the Mecca of the film world … it all started in France! It was the Lumiere brothers who invented the ‘cinematograph’ — the first projector throwing moving pictures onto a screen for an audience to watch.

Martin Scorsese bought the movie rights in 2008. His film ‘Hugo’ came out in 2011 and went on to win a record 11 nominations for the Academy Awards, eventually winning 5 Oscars.

The book is hard to find and bloody expensive to own, so if your school/local library doesn’t have it, borrow ‘Hugo’ the movie from your local VCD/DVD library.


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