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Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Hugo” (based on the book, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET) December 5, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, Brian Selznick, Georges Melies, historical fiction, Hugo, Martin Scorcese, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

“Hugo”—movie release date November 23, 2011—is based on the historical novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a “graphic novel,” a thick book of over 500 pages but because of the many images and the large print, actually contains a simple story that reads quickly. The filmmakers of “Hugo” made considerable changes and a significant addition, though the basic story of Hugo Cabret, his discovery of a “broken” elderly man, and Hugo’s “fixing” of that man, remains. I’ll start this post with a general discussion, including a discussion of the big changes, and then list other differences of note. 

“Hugo” starts out with images of trains, clocks and Paris, letting the audience know immediately what this movie will be about, and where these events will occur. This is absolutely faithful to the book. The movie takes us through the passages in the train station, the nooks and crannies Hugo navigates through, and the mechanics of the clockwork absolutely as depicted in the book. With so many visuals provided in the book, we can imagine this was not easy. But readers of the book will feel the movie has been completely faithful to the book’s visual feel.

There are many changes in the way Hugo and Isabelle interact in the movie:

  • In the book, Hugo sees Isabelle assisting Papa Georges at the toy shop from the beginning. The details of how the interaction begins are different. Isabelle in the movie is much more gregarious and forward.
  • In the movie, there’s much more information about Georges conveyed to Hugo by Isabelle during their early interaction. This allows story exposition to be presented to the audience that is delivered in narrative in the book.
  • In the book, Hugo and Isabelle get help from an adult friend to sneak into the movies. In the movie, they do it themselves (with Hugo picking a lock).
  • Hugo confides in Isabelle a lot more in the movie—this is the most effective way to communicate the backstory for this mysterious boy living alone in a train station.
  • Isabelle does not get trampled in the book as she does in the movie (though Hugo and Isabelle do chase after each other at one point, each trying to get the other to reveal their secrets).
  • There is no interplay of Hugo and Isabelle using large vocabulary words in the book.
  • In the movie, Hugo convinces Isabelle to let him use the key to start the automaton. In the book, Hugo steals the key from Isabelle.
  • In the book, both Hugo and Isabelle are injured. Hugo’s hand is slammed in a door, and Isabelle sprains her ankle when pulling the papers out of the compartment in the armoire. There are no injuries in the movie.

The filmmakers expanded the stationmaster’s/Station Inspector’s role in the movie significantly. In the book, he is a potential looming threat, but only materializes as a living, breathing threat at the end. In the film, he is a present threat from the beginning, Hugo’s main antagonist. He seems to be offered for comic relief, allowing opportunities for slapstick (not in the book), and with his own damaged parts, consistent with the theme of the movie. There is no subplot romance with a flower girl in the book, nor interplay with a policeman as the stationmaster sends a captured boy to the orphanage.

  • The book does not include an initial chase scene with the stationmaster running after Hugo in the train station. (Did anyone else want to see that cake splattered all over the station? They broke a cello instead, not something a musician like myself wants to see!)
  • We never find out the stationmaster was an orphan in the book.

There are no dogs in the book—no dog to help the stationmaster try to apprehend Hugo, and no dog to bother an elderly man until he brings a romantic doggy partner.

Other comments:

  • Georges saying “ghosts” when he first takes Hugo’s notebook, and seeming very emotional about the notebook is straight from the book (and played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, a difficult role trying to make a gruff and initially cruel old man appear sympathetic).
  • Hugo’s work on the clocks, his ability to maintain them so well that no one notices his uncle is gone, is straight from the book, and is visually striking in its faithfulness to the book.
  • A flashback to the story of Hugo’s father, including his death in a fire and Hugo’s uncle bringing him to the train station is straight from the book.
  • Georges handing Hugo ashes and saying he burned the notebook—straight from the book.
  • Hugo’s father’s favorite film, the film that ends with a rocket in the eye of “the man in the moon,” is consistent with the book as well.
  • The automaton come-to-life scene is the same in the movie as in the book, including the initial doodles that appear meaningless, followed by the image of “the man in the moon” signed by filmmaker Georges Méliès.
  • The book certainly intends to pay homage to George Méliès. The movie expands this to include many film clips and additional information about Méliès not included in the book (and more effectively offered in a film).
  • There is a discussion of a train crashing into the station in the book. In the movie, this is vividly depicted as part of a dream Hugo has. (This was too tempting as a stunning image not to find its way into a 3D movie that focuses so much on striking imagery.)
  • The movie has police informing the stationmaster about the death of Hugo’s uncle. This leads to the stationmaster looking to remove Hugo’s uncle’s belongings from his apartment, a source of dramatic tension toward the end of the movie. In the book, the dead uncle is not identified right away.
  • The surprise visit of the film expert is from the book though the sequence of events is slightly different, and Méliès’ wife has a much larger role in the movie.
  • The final chase scene is largely from the book, including George Méliès’ rescue of Hugo from the stationmaster except for-
    • The dog.
    • Hugo hanging from the clock (though he does hide in his room to obscure himself from the stationmaster during the chase).
    • The stationmaster, watched by the flower girl, softening as he releases Hugo.
  • The ending is different. In the book, we are aware at the beginning that the story is being told by Professor Alcofrisbas. At the end, we find out this is Hugo, transformed into Professor Alcofrisbas after an apprenticeship with Georges Méliès. He is now a master magician. In the movie, we end with Isabelle indicating she will write the story of Hugo.


 Synopsis of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written by Brian Selznick, published in 2007:

Part One
1 – The Thief
We meet Hugo Cabret, a mysterious young boy living in the rafters of a train station, intimately familiar with every passage, every vent, every opening in and around the station, particularly around the clocks in the station. He steals to eat, and steals toys from a stand run by a grumpy elderly man. A girl about Hugo’s age assists at the store. The old man catches Hugo stealing. He makes Hugo empty his pockets, and takes Hugo’s notebook. Hugo’s notebook is precious to him. The old man seems inexplicably demanding about what is in the notebook, and Hugo will not tell him, guarding the secrets of the notebook. The old man tells Hugo never to return to the toy stand, and that he will burn the notebook. Hugo runs away before the old man can turn him in to the station inspector. The old man calls Hugo a thief. Hugo retorts that the old man is the thief.

2 – The Clocks
We find out Hugo keeps the twenty-seven clocks at the station maintained. It is a job he has been doing under the supervision of his alcoholic uncle who has disappeared, leaving Hugo alone. Hugo is good at keeping the clocks going. No one seems to know Hugo’s uncle has gone.

3 – Snowfall
Hugo has another encounter with the old man at the toy stand. The man refuses to give Hugo his notebook. We also learn the old man seems unusually sensitive to the sound of shoes clicking against the floor.

4 – The Window
Hugo goes to the old man’s home and meets the girl who helps at the stand. Hugo asks her to help him get the notebook back before the old man burns it. She promises to make sure he won’t burn the notebook, and convinces him to leave.

5 – Hugo’s Father
We learn about Hugo’s father and the secret of Hugo’s notebook. Hugo’s father worked at the museum. He found an automaton, a mechanical man engineered like a complex clock. Hugo’s father worked constantly to get the automaton to work. The notebook is Hugo’s father’s drawings of the automaton. But his father perishes in a fire at the museum one night where he was working on the automaton. Hugo feels guilty because he pushed his father to work on the automaton. And he feels the automaton, which is poised to write, will deliver a message from his deceased father. Hugo manages to take the damaged but not destroyed automaton from the unguarded, burned museum. This is why the notebook is so important—Hugo wants to complete repairs on the automaton.

6 – Ashes
The old man hands Hugo a handkerchief full of ashes. Hugo is despondent that the old man has destroyed the notebook, and his chances to repair the automaton. But he receives a note to meet him at the bookseller—his notebook has not been burned.

7 – Secrets
The girl who helps at the toy store says the old man did not burn the notebook. Hugo goes to the toy shop and demands the notebook. The old man refuses to confirm it is available and tells Hugo he needs to work to make up for what he has stolen.

8 – Cards
As Hugo works, the old man plays cards, astounding Hugo with his abilities handling the cards. He meets the girl, Isabelle, at the bookstore. She promises to look for his notebook, as she lives with the old man. He meets Etienne, a young man who promises to sneak them into the movies. When Hugo sees a book about magic and tries to steal it, Etienne catches him and gives him money to buy the book.

9 – The Key
Hugo makes progress on the automaton without the notebook. As he repairs toys for the old man, he finds parts at the toy store that fit the automaton. Hugo enjoys the movies with Isabelle, but the manager at the theater catches them and throws them out. Hugo returns to the station and sees the station inspector looking at one of the clocks, taking notes. He is afraid his situation has been discovered. Isabelle wants to know why he runs, but Hugo will not tell her.  He runs from Isabelle and she chases him. She falls. Hugo sees a key around her neck. He asks her where she got it. She refuses to say and runs—now he chases her. They part without disclosing their secrets.

10 – The Notebook
When Hugo gets to the toy shop to work the next day, the old man accuses him a breaking into his home to steal the notebook. Hugo discovers Isabelle has found the notebook. He hugs her, then runs.

11 – Stolen Goods
Hugo has lifted the key from Isabelle. It will fit into the automaton.

12 – The Message
Isabel finds Hugo just as he is about to activate the automaton in his small quarters at the train station. He is upset she has found him, but wants to activate the automaton. The automaton makes what appear to be unrelated, random marks at first. But the image it completes is an image from an old movie, “The Man in the Moon” with a small rocket sticking in his eye. This image is from Hugo’s father’s favorite movie. Part One ends here, with the words “but another story begins, because stories lead to other stories, and this one leads all the way to the moon.”

Part Two
1 – The Signature
The automaton signs a name, Georges Méliès. Isabel realizes this is the old man’s name, her godfather whom she calls “Papa Georges.” Hugo wants to know more and follows Isabelle back to their home. Isabelle wants to get home and does not want to tell him any more. When Hugo tries to follow her through the door, she slams the door on his hand. We learn Isabelle stole the key from her godmother. Her godmother is angry because she hid the key to “protect my husband.”

2 – The Armoire
Mama Jeanne, Isabelle’s godmother, looks toward an armoire as she asks the children to hide so Papa Georges will not find out Hugo is in their home. When she leaves the room, Isabelle pulls a box out of the armoire from a secret section. The chair she is standing on to get to the box breaks and the box falls, spilling out hundreds of papers filled with drawings of striking fantasy images. Isabelle injures her ankle.

3 – The Plan
Hugo returns to his home, his room in the station, and hides the automaton. His hand is injured, but he goes to the bookstore the next morning after deciding to find out about old movies. He is referred to the Film Academy library.

4 – The Invention of Dreams
Hugo takes the metro to the Film Academy library. The librarian is not going to let him in, but Etienne is there, and does let him in. He finds out that the image drawn by the automaton, from his late father’s favorite movie, was created by filmmaker Georges Méliès. Etienne tells Hugo Méliès is dead. Hugo tells Etienne he is not dead—he is Isabelle’s godfather.

 5 – Papa Georges Made Movies
Isabelle comes to Hugo’s room. Hugo tells Isabelle about her godfather, and that he has invited Etienne and another person to Papa George’s home the following week. But Papa Georges is sick. Mama Jeanne is unlikely to allow the visit.

6 – Purpose
Isabelle and Hugo talk about how all machines are made for a purpose, and that maybe they can “fix” Papa Georges. They go up into the station rafters for a night view ofParis. But Hugo’s hand is too injured for him to continue maintaining the clocks at the station.

7 – The Visit
The clocks are starting to show different times. The station inspector leaves Hugo’s disappeared uncle a note. Etienne and his colleague arrive at the home of Georges Méliès. Neither Papa Georges nor Mama Jeanne know they are coming. This section ends with Georges hearing them, taking a projector from Etienne, and closing the door to his room, locking the door behind him.

8 – Opening the Door
Isabelle picks the lock to Georges’ room. Georges tells Isabelle her father had made movies with him before he died. Georges explains his early career, and how after World War I he was no longer competitive and had to sell his films and leave the business. He explains he had donated the automaton to the museum, and thought it had been lost. But Hugo tells him he has the automaton in his room at the station. He promises to go get it and bring it back.

 9 – The Ghost in the Station
When Hugo returns to the station, the station inspector takes custody of him. Hugo breaks loose of his hold and runs through the station, through the spaces and passageways around it. The station inspector catches up to him and with help, takes him into custody again. “The only place you’re going is to prison.” They lock Hugo in a cage.

10 – A Train Arrives in the Station
When the police come, and the cage door opens, Hugo bursts through the police and runs through the station. He runs through crowd, and gets knocked into the path of a train. At the last minute, Hugo is yanked out of the path of the train. The station inspector has him again. Hugo blacks out. When he wakes, Georges Méliès is there. He has come because Hugo had been gone too long to get the automaton. Georges explains matters to the station inspector, and Hugo is freed.

Six Months Later
11 – The Magician
Hugo attends a tribute to Papa Georges at theFilmAcademy. After the film tribute, ending with “A Trip to the Moon,” Hugo’s father’s favorite film, Papa Georges tells Hugo he is now “Professor Alcofrisbas,” “a character who appeared in many of my films, sometimes as an explorer, sometimes as an alchemist… But mostly he was a magician…”

12 – Winding It Up
Hugo/Professor Alcofrisbas tells us he is now a successful magician, and has created an automaton that will create the text and images of the book we have just read.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick



1. CMrok93 - December 5, 2011

The movie itself runs a bit long at 127 minutes, but Hugo is worth every minute for the visual feast it provides, and features Scorsese in probably his most delightful and elegant mood ever, especially with all of the beautiful 3-D. Good review.

2. Shasta - June 25, 2012

In the book, Hugo looks out from the 5 on the clock. In the movie, it is 4. I am in the middle of reading the book, but enjoyed both.

3. ENpup8 - August 7, 2012

The movie was wonderful, it stayed close to the book. Only two things really bothered me.I was disappointed by the ending change, though I suppose it made sense. In the book it showed that Hugo had become a successful magician as well as an inventor (as he had created a new automaton to write and draw the book). The ending with Isabelle simply writing the story in a Journal didn’t have the same effect. I also missed Etienne, Isabelle’s friend with the eyepatch who had helped Hugo (alone, not with Isabelle)get the information about melies. (The side stories seemed really uneccessary, but comic relief does go a long way…)

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