Brain Pickings

The Invention of Hugo Cabret


What 1930 in Paris has to do with Avatar, orphans and broken machines.

Earlier this week, iconic director Martin Scorsese announced that his next film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, will be shot in 3D. While the news didn’t necessarily get us wildly excited (we’ve seen that the combination of big-name director and 3D bling does not superb cinematic storytelling make — sorry, James Cameron), it did remind us of the brilliant book the film is based on.

Set in the 1930’s, Brian Selznick’s visual masterpiece The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a stunningly illustrated 533-page book inspired by the magical films of Georges Méliès. It tells the story of a Parisian orphan whose life changes when he meets a bookish girl and finds a curious broken machine. But here’s what makes the book extraordinary: Rather than merely illustrating the story, the images — illustrations, sketches, vintage movie stills and photographs — actually help tell the story, replacing words in the textual narrative.

I began thinking about this book ten years ago after seeing some of the magical films of Georges Méliès, the father of science-fiction movies. But it wasn’t until I read a book called Edison’s Eve: The Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Woods that my story began to come into focus. I discovered that Méliès had a collection of mechanical, wind-up figures (called automata) that were donated to a museum, but which were later destroyed and thrown away. Instantly, I imagined a boy discovering these broken, rusty machines in the garbage, stealing one and attempting to fix it. At that moment, Hugo Cabret was born.” ~ Brian Selznick

Part novel, part graphic novel, part silent film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is an absolute gem with as much storytelling appeal for kids as aesthetic allure for adults. It’s positively one of the most beautifully crafted and brilliantly illustrated tomes we’ve ever come across, a true pinnacle of storytelling innovation and creative bravery.

Finally, when doing the research for this piece, we discovered this wonderful student short film adaptation of the book. Enjoy.

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