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July 9, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Unlike good whisky, good art often consists of a blend of different styles, and a (re)combination of previously used constituents. When I read that The Invention of Hugo Cabret combined elements of novel, picture book, graphic novel and film, my curiosity was piqued.

After “A Brief Introduction” which places the events in 1930’s Paris, the story begins with a series of deftly rendered black and white pencil drawings, zooming in on a bustling Parisian train station and finally capturing a shot of Hugo – up to no good – spying on the proprietor of a sweet stall, from his perch behind a station clock.

From here, Selznick alternates between written text and more pencil drawings to outline the events of the story. All of the characters are initially introduced by pictures but, to my relief, dialogue is included in the text (rather than in comic book style speech bubbles).

The overall effect is of reading film – not as a script, but rather a magical transformation of projector reel into words and pictures, with the sensation of being in an old cinema – enhanced by the wide black margins and short segments of text set in the middle of each page.

Film, as it turns out, is what the story is all about. The book is a love affair with early movies, in particular those of the director Georges Méliès – the creator of some of the first moving pictures, and the innovator who realized that movies need not depict the real world but create dreams, and transform fantasy into visual reality.

Selznick’s strengths definitely lie with illustration. The story, with its simplicity and attempt at mystery, will appeal to the younger readers at whom the book is aimed. But it is the visual/artistic aspects that carry the work. One of the most surprising and poignant moments is when, after many pages of text and illustration, a black and white film still is suddenly interspersed. Details like these, along with the reproductions of Méliès’ original sketches, are enough to make up for the unconvincing plot and characterisations.

BRIAN SELZNICK

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