Jan 20, 2012

Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

book cover of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: Brian Selznick [Website] 
Standing: Stand alone novel
Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction
Published: March 1st, 2007 by Scholastic, Inc.
Format: Hardcover; 533 pages.  
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

The scene opens in 1931, Paris, the moon shining down over the city.  Hugo Cabret leads a reclusive life of thieving and clockwork, keeping the clocks of the train station where he lives operating as normal.  He’s alone, living in an apartment in the walls of the station after his uncle has disappeared.  Hugo was working as his apprentice after becoming orphaned, now he continues to make his uncle’s rounds, collecting paychecks he cannot cash and hoping no one notices anything amiss.  He knows if he’s caught, he’ll be sent to an orphanage, and Hugo cannot let that happen because he has a secret.  Hidden away, Hugo has salvaged an automaton and is attempting to fix it using sketches and notations left in his father’s notebook.  The automaton sits at a desk, pen in hand, and Hugo is certain that if he can get it to work the automaton will have a message for him.  In order to fix it, Hugo needs parts, and his resource for them is the mechanical toy shop run by an old man in the station.  Unfortunately for Hugo, the old man catches him stealing, and takes from Hugo his father’s notebook.  Hugo must employ the mercies of the man’s young ward, Isabelle, to help him recover his possession and finish his work on the automaton.  What will the message from his father be, and why does the old man in the toy shop seem so haunted by Hugo’s notebook?

I’ll admit that, as often happens, this book more-or-less flew below my radar until I saw that Martin Scorcese was adapting it to film.  My interest was perked, and when I finally saw the trailer for Hugo, I knew I had to read it before I saw the film:

Now, I’m one of those people who only goes to see a movie in the theater a couple of times a year, and waits for the majority of films on DVD before I watch.  Also...I hate 3D.  Seriously people, can we get over this trend?  It’s terrible.  Very rarely do I feel that 3D enhances a film (as in the case of Avatar that would have been unwatchable without it), and most often it just annoys me to see shots that are intentionally constructed for that 3D wow moment with no regard to the story, and less for the non-3D viewer.  I find it hard to believe that 3D television sets will ever become the household norm, and quite frankly for those of us who wear glasses, it is annoying and uncomfortable to be expected to put 3D glasses over our own and enjoy something in total discomfort /end rant.  What I am saying here is, I know this movie came out in November, but I still haven’t seen it, and am quite looking forward to it (without 3D glasses that is).  I cannot help but question how my knowledge that the book would be made into a movie affected my enjoyment level of a book about movies.   

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a novel in a format I have not previously read, where the bulk of the book is told in pictures, and the words are relatively few (so much so, that I was shocked to see that this is even available as an audiobook...how does that work?).  This makes The Invention of Hugo Cabret an incredibly fast read, despite its bulk, and I sincerely hope its girth does not frighten away potential readers.  It is a touching story based in part on the life and work of early silent filmmaker, Georges Méliès.  It is the marriage of story and format that make this book work, the pictures moving the story along the same as a silent film, giving readers a touch of the wonder and experience that was felt by early viewers--a wonder that is nearly impossible to capture in an age where we have all grown up seeing images on screen.  As Georges Méliès was able to look at the format of film and see a world of opportunity to enchant and make dreams come to life, Brian Selznick was able to replicate imagination in a format of his own.  

illustration from The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick illustration from The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The format does have its drawbacks, however, namely its ability to develop the characters.  Hugo appears to be a character that is easy to care about, as many others in the story seem to take to him immediately, but I found it hard to get invested myself.  He, Isabelle, and the others seemed to lack a certain depth that is needed to build attachment.  I am not saying that characters always need to be likable from the reader’s perspective, but they should be able to arouse some emotions so that we are more drawn into the story.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret lacked this, but I cannot help but remain hopeful that this is remedied in the film version.  The trailer for Scorcese’s film makes the story look magical.  It appears to be a story about adventure, friendship, and love.  While this was a decent read, certainly worth the short time it takes, I find myself shocked to say that I expect to like the movie better.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  100% that I’ll be watching Hugo once it releases on DVD, but a significantly lower chance that I’ll be reading Wonderstruck, Selznick’s latest book written in the same format. It would probably be worth the time, but I'm not rushing out to get it.

Recommended for: Steampunkers (this isn’t really a steampunk book, but with all the tinkering it’s very reminiscent of one), fans of old films, and people who enjoy illustrations that tell a story.

Real life repercussions of reading this book: You may convert your garage/attack/living room into a workshop for automaton building. Your significant other/parent/roommate may not appreciate this.


  1. This is so weird. A student just returned this book to me this morning and before I came to get my daily dose from your blog I started secretly reading it below my desk-it's Friday, don't judge me!! It's so interesting and it really is a quick read! Also as a side note I have to say that I am one of the unlucky, and I get TERRIBLE nausea inducing migraines when I watch 3D :[

    1. Nice timing! And dude, I don't judge, as you said--it's Friday. I am sorry to hear that your violent reactions to 3D are born out of an actual physical reaction and not just scorn, but I'm also glad I'm not the only one who won't watch 3D. =)

  2. I loved this book, and I'll probably end up watching the movie because of the kids. I have read a few reviews on this book, on of them being on The Book Report, which I actually listened to, as it is a radio show, but you can also hear it online at, http://bookreportradio.com/.


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