The Intricate, Cinematic World of 'Hugo Cabret' In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, author and illustrator Brian Selznick uses a striking combination of text and drawings to tell the story of Hugo, an orphan in Paris, and a reclusive genius from the early days of silent film.
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The Intricate, Cinematic World of 'Hugo Cabret'

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The Intricate, Cinematic World of 'Hugo Cabret'

The Intricate, Cinematic World of 'Hugo Cabret'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The story "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" unfurls like a miniature silent film, even though it is a book written and illustrated by Brian Selznick.

Mr. BRIAN SELZNICK (Author, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"): The first thing that you see is basically a black page with a small screen, almost like a movie theater screen that's far away. And we see the moon. And then you turn the page, and the screen has gotten a little bit bigger as if we are getting closer to the screen and the moon is a little bit further away in the sky. You turn the page again - the screen is bigger. And now, we're over Paris.

NORRIS: For a young reader's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" is a bit unusual. It's three inches thick and more than 500 pages long. More than half of those pages are filled with finely detailed pencil drawings. Selznick is a well-known illustrator. In this book, he uses an experimental form. He says the pictures pick up where the prose leaves off and propel the story forward as we hear as the opening sequence continues.

Mr. SELZNICK: The sun is now rising over Paris. And you can see a train station. And then, when you turn the page, we have come to the front of the train station - the sun is higher. And then for the next about 15 pages, we then move through the doors of the train station into the crowded train station, where we spot a boy. We see a close-up of him on the next page. And then he goes down a hallway and stops next to an air vent in the wall and mysteriously disappears inside the air vent.

NORRIS: That boy is Hugo Cabret, an orphan. He lives in that train station in Paris. And in the illustrations that follow, we meet the story's other main characters - a young girl, Isabel, and her godfather, who runs a toy booth in the train station. Hugo has been stealing windup toys from the old man's store. He is using the parts to fix something very special, something left behind when his father died.

Mr. SELZNICK: His father was a clockmaker. And the father also took care of the clocks in a local museum, and discovers this automaton up in the attic of the train station. And automaton were these very, very complicated windup figures that could do things like write or draw. You know, very complicated clockwork figures. And there's a fire in the museum, eventually, which kills Hugo's father. Hugo, when he finds the burned remains of the automaton, of this machine, he comes to believe that if he can fix it, it will write him a message from his father.

NORRIS: Hugo Cabret lives in the walls of the Paris train station. And he develops a relationship with this old man who works at that little toy store. It's really a booth inside the train station. This is a grumpy old man. And it turns out that this grumpy old man is someone actually quite famous in history - George Melies.

Mr. SELZNICK: Yeah. George Melies was a very famous French filmmaker. Hew made the first science fiction movie ever, "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902. And he made over 500 movies in the course of his career. But he fell on hard times and lost his movie studio and spent the last several years of his life working everyday of the week in this toy booth in a train station in Paris. And I once actually saw a drawing that Melies did of himself chained by the neck to the toy booth in the train station. So I imagined it was something he quite hated.

NORRIS: The story is really about Hugo Cabret, but it is very much the story of George Melies. Why were you so fascinated with this filmmaker?

Mr. SELZNICK: I saw "A Trip to the Moon" many years ago. There was something about the way that movie was made that really fascinated me. Melies had started off as a magician. And when he discovered the art of film, he basically translated his stage shows to moving pictures. And then, eventually he discovered what could happen when you stop the film and remove things, and then start the film again so it would look like things would disappear.

And so, all of these special effects to us now look very crude, but they've got a kind of crude magic to them. And as soon as I saw this movie, I just got intrigued by who it was who made this. And then eventually I found a book called "Edison's Eve" that was written by Gaby Wood. And it was about the history of automata. And there was a whole chapter in the book about George Melies.

And it's said that Melies owned a collection of automata that he had to donate to a museum when he lost all of his money and they promised to take care of them, but they were put up in attic and they were destroyed and thrown away. And it was when I read that that I first imagined a boy climbing through the garbage and rescuing one of those automata, and that was the beginning of Hugo Cabret.

NORRIS: The drawings and the descriptions of the clocks and the automata are so precise. I should say, Brian, it actually inspired my daughter to take apart a clock, her grandmother's old wind-up clock, so she can see the inner workings of a clock.

Mr. SELZNICK: That's great.

NORRIS: I imagine you as a child being totally fascinated with wind-up toys, and clocks and magic. Am I right?

Mr. SELZNICK: I love magic, but I was an extremely bad magician. And I remember very specifically my fingers not being able to do what I wanted them to do. When it came to building models or to doing very fine things with my fingers, I remembered the frustration of not being able to do that. And I ended up meeting a man who's a mechanical genius. And he very carefully read the manuscript and gave me advice on what it was like to fix clocks and machines.

And it's something that he had been doing since he was a kid, like Hugo. And the way he talked about sort of leaning his head to the side and listening to a machine, and waiting for it to sound right and to feel right. All of that went into Hugo's character.

NORRIS: So Hugo, in some sense, sounds like he was the child you aspired to be?

Mr. SELZNICK: Yeah. I haven't thought about that. But yeah, in a way, what he is able to do. But then of course, he is, he's slightly frustrated because he's able to fix anything, but then he begins to feel like there has to be something more than just fixing things. Fixing things is very satisfying, but he begins to think about what it means to also create things. Where does that difference lie?

NORRIS: There is this point where Hugo is almost existential when he thinks about machinery. And on page 374, I'm wondering, if you wouldn't mind reading from a portion of the book, where Hugo has the sort of epiphany about machines and their meaning.

Mr. SELZNICK: Yeah. That's right here.

"'Did you ever notice that all machines are made for some reason?' he asked Isabel. 'They're built to make you laugh like the mouse here, or to tell time like clocks, or to fill with you wonder like the automaton. Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do.'

"Isabel picked up the mouse, wounds it again, and sat it down.

"'Maybe, it's the same with people?' Hugo continued. 'If you leave your purpose, it's like you're broken.'"

NORRIS: Hugo is a very wise young boy.

Mr. SELZNICK: He has a lot of time to think.

NORRIS: Brian, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. All the best to you.

Mr. SELZNICK: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: That was Brian Selznick. His book is called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." You can see some of Selznick's illustrations and watch George Melies film "A Trip to the Moon" at our Web site,

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