In Brian Selznick’s Caldecott Medal–winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, protagonist Hugo muses, “Machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.” Director Martin Scorsese’s film treatment, Hugo, evinces this philosophy from its opening sequence, in which a complicated clockwork system is turns into an equally bright and busy time-lapse shot of nighttime Paris.
As in the novel, we’re introduced to orphan Hugo in 1931 Paris as he’s caught stealing mechanical toy parts from a train station’s toy shop. The owner puts him to work to atone for his theft and to earn back a notebook full of diagrams that the toy seller confiscated. A series of flashbacks reveal how Hugo came to live in the train station, as well as why he needs the diagrams and materials: before Hugo’s father died, they were restoring a damaged automaton together, and Hugo feels compelled to complete the repairs. The toy seller’s goddaughter, Isabelle, is at first suspicious of Hugo, but, intrigued, invites herself into his quest to fix the automaton. The two uncover the surprising connections among Isabelle’s Papa Georges, the automaton, and early cinema.
Scorsese (and his vast, experienced crew*) deftly translate Selznick’s illustration-dependent narrative to the screen. By using the novel’s illustrations as a storyboard, Scorsese gives our journey through the tale plenty of familiar visual landmarks. The film is faithful to both Selznick’s original characters and to the historical people and places appearing alongside them. Extended sequences without dialogue correspond to Selznick’s wordless spreads, allowing the images breathing room and demanding movie-goers’ close attention.
I opted not to see Hugo in 3-D, but even in two dimensions the film’s atmosphere is almost tangible and highly sensory. Hugo’s hidden refuge is a steamy warren of narrow tunnels, coal chutes, and ladders inside the walls of the train station. In the station proper, a hectic tide of travelers and a more leisurely regular crew of musicians, food vendors, and flower sellers lend a carnival-like quality. As appropriate for a story concerned with photography and film, expert use of light and shadow amplifies tension and emotion.
Stakes are considerably higher here than in the novel. Some high-drama additions to the story line, such as Hugo’s prolonged nightmare sequence and his death-defying dangle from a clock tower, seem to be included merely to showcase the potential of 3-D effects.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Hugo is seeing Georges Méliès in action, from his early career as a stage magician to a moviemaker who creates elaborate fantasy films. We’re invited into Méliès’s all-glass filming studio, brimming with magic and mystery even as the secrets behind the illusions (e.g., filming through an aquarium for underwater scenes, cutting film to make objects appear and disappear suddenly) are revealed. While Selznick includes iconic stills from Méliès’s films in the novel’s visual narrative, Scorsese is able to integrate the films themselves in all their hand-tinted glory—most notably A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Along with Méliès’s movies, we get the opportunity to experience other milestones in cinema history, such as The Arrival of a Train at Ciotat (1895), the first motion picture, and Safety Last, which Hugo sees with his father (and to which Scorsese alludes in the nail-biting clock tower scene).
Thirteen-year-old stars Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz, both already accomplished actors, ably embody protagonist Hugo and precocious sidekick Isabelle. Butterfield is expressive, by turns determined and tentative. Ben Kingsley is resplendent in his portrayal of magician-turned-moviemaker Méliès, striking a perfect balance of gruffness and grandfatherliness. Helen McCrory as his wife/star actress/business partner Jeanne convincingly sheds her anxious exterior to recapture the grace and confidence of her youth.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s Station Inspector Gustave is a much more prominent figure than his nameless counterpart in the novel. He appears a straightforward villain at first, and a rather bumbling one at that. Gustave seems—especially during long, slapsticky chase scenes as he pursues Hugo—like an extra cog in an otherwise elegant mechanism. But as information about his past and personality come to light, Gustave develops into a somewhat more dynamic, even sympathetic character.
The ensemble cast is replete with distinguished British character actors. Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, both Harry Potter franchise veterans, depict an elderly couple’s blossoming romance. Jude Law’s appearance as Hugo’s father is brief but full of warmth, and Christopher Lee as Monsieur Labisse is a helpful (if a bit curmudgeonly) bookseller whom Isabelle has befriended. One of the cast’s few American actors, Michael Stuhlbard, portrays the charmingly oddball film historian Rene Tabard. And while not a cast member per se, the automaton (in fact fifteen automatons with subtly different expressions and functions*) lends an impressive, enigmatic presence.
With its cinema-centric storyline and highly visual format, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is ideal source material for film adaptation. Scorsese’s many astute directorial choices establish Hugo as a worthy—at times, magical—companion to Selznick’s novel.
*For contextual information on Méliès and early cinema, special effects secrets, behind-the-scenes pictures, and cast and crew bios, read Brian Selznick’s Hugo Movie Companion: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture. Selznick covers the development of the adaptation from page to screen in roughly chronological order, with plenty of trivia tidbits along the way. A fun extra: Selznick’s account of filming his cameo for the final party scene.