Hugo Cabret: A two-sided story

The first phase of the moon and a starry clockwork dream: both equally enchanting entrances to the opening of both a graphic novel and a film of dreams. The Invention of Hugo Cabret,by Brian Selznick, and Hugo, a film retelling the story of the novel, directed by Martin Scorsese, are equal in both beauty and composition. With the graphic novel enticing readers with graphics of detailed dexterity and the film bringing to light the history of the place where dreams are made, these two takes on the life of Hugo complement each other with fine storytelling.

The plot of both the novel and film remain the same with only some details being lost in between the two. Set in 1931, the story centres around a young boy named Hugo who lives in a tucked-away apartment inside a train station after his father dies in a fire and his uncle abandons him for the likes of alcohol and the land of the dead. With horology in his blood, Hugo takes on the job of his uncle which was the keep maintenance of all the train station clocks. However, this isn’t the thing that keeps Hugo’s heart thumping; it’s his deep desire to fix the automaton left behind after his father’s death, as he believes it contains a message from his father. In the process of finding all the right parts to “heal” his automaton, Hugo stumbles upon  problem after problem involving a bitter, old man and a station inspector. However this chain of events leads to multiple characters finding themselves.

Scorsese’s film Hugo sings to all the senses. It hums to our hearts, whispers to our souls and crescendos in our ears. Using an expressionistic style, Hugo has been created in a way that pays justice to the wonderful novel it is based on.

One of the major differences I noticed upon watching the film after I read the graphic novel was the method of which the ambience was created. The Invention of Hugo Cabret used graphics made out of only blacks and whites, the pages were made out of stiff, black card and the images were detailed, layered, pencil and charcoal drawings. These features of the book sprouted an atmosphere of mystery, adventure and even suspense. However, the film Hugo used varying amounts of colour in its scenes, different types of lighting and a sort of sepia layer placed over everything. Combining these features creates one film that gives an old-fashioned feel, with underlayers of, again, mystery and adventure. I think that the way Scorsese has interpreted the book to create a film like this was extremely clever, and even though contrasting techniques were used along the way, both the novel and film reach the same endpoint.

Moreover, the film and the graphic novel convey their messages in very different but very appropriate ways. The graphic novel uses images and text that blend together to create a smooth storyline. It uses descriptive but simple language to support the characters, repetition to reinforce the main messages and visual techniques, such as colour, shots and white space. The film, on the other hand, uses exaggerated special effects, diagetic and non-diagetic sound and layers of plot to reaffirm the messages of the novel. However, what these two mediums of story-telling have in common is their use of symbolism and motifs, which I think is what is central in the building of the characters and plot. For example, the film just wouldn’t have achieve such a success if the motif of the clocks was left out, as they represent how “Everything has a purpose, even machines”, which is what Hugo wakes up each day believing.

There is one strength that the Hugo film has gained from, not over, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and that is the extra layer of plot that I feel the film really needed. The graphic novel features Hugo Cabret in every chapter, whether he is assisting another character’s role or he is by himself, which I enjoyed. However the film contained little sub-plots not involving Hugo which added to the touching end result. Watching the station inspector try to act on his admiration for the train station florist gave the viewer a view of a kinder, gentler side of his personality, which brushed away at some of his harshness. This, personally, helped me feel something other than hatred towards the station inspector, and grew feelings of sympathy which had a result of connecting with an otherwise mean character. The graphic novel also doesn’t have the sub-plot of the old man and woman, who can’t interact due to the woman’s dog. Again, this added a much-needed layer to the film and helped everything tie together to make the film feel complete.

Even though the graphic novel does not have those layers combined into the storyline, it still remains brilliant. If The Invention of Hugo Cabret had these extra stories to tell, the energy for the whole book would feel divided, and therefore the story would be a bit rushed, the life of Hugo wouldn’t be able to be explained properly and the messages, as a result, wouldn’t be able to be conveyed as effectively.

The one factor that sets the graphic novel and film, as a whole, apart from other graphic novels and films of today are the rich messages that each scene and each image carries. By delving back into the past of a filmmaker and retelling the rich culture of film, both Selznick and Scorsese have been able to transport their readers and viewers back in time in order to recognise the importance of the preservation of film, beauty and dreams.

Through the emphasis placed on gears turning to create something beautiful, the automaton’s work, the novel and film make viewers feel their purpose and feel their meaning. What I adore about the graphic novel and film is that they give you the opportunity to decipher the meanings and messages yourself. Selznick and Scorsese did not shove the messages in your face, but let them gradually make its way to your heart. This feeling is then supported by extremely moving endings. The last phases of the moon in the novel represent both the change in Hugo and the change in the viewer, and the solitary thoughts of Isabelle evoke a feeling of belonging in the story.

Overall, the differences between the film and the graphic novel don’t take away anything from each other but only strengthen each of their features. Both convey depth of meaning and are able to tug gently but firmly on the heartstrings of their viewers. With the storylines being both subtle and powerful, Scorsese and Selznick evoke feeling within their viewers and leave them with a strong sense of awe, wonder and purpose.

So, as the clock strikes nine, I must go as I have a purpose to fulfil, just as The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Hugo have taught me.

One thought on “Hugo Cabret: A two-sided story

  1. This is a beautifully-written comparison of the two texts. You have a strong and confident personal authorial voice, and I particularly enjoyed your evocative imagery. You have worked hard to create a sophisticated comparative response, and you are very thoughtful about the ways that each composer brings the ideas of their text to the reader/viewer. Congratulations, this is an outstanding post. Well done!

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