Where It All Goes Down
Oh Paris! Is there really any better place in which to set a story about magic? Just to set the scene, Selznick gives us some lovely images of the Eiffel Tower in the opening sequence (I1.1.3), and it’s clear that the story is set in the city of love and lights.
But soon we realize that Hugo’s story isn't all magic and romance. It takes place in a very specific part of Paris, one that's a little less glamorous.
The Train Station
There are lots of train stations in Paris, but our best guess is that the one Hugo lives at is called the Gare Montparnasse—since he mentions the famous incident in 1895 when a train crashed through the station. From the opening sequence (I1.1.5-7) we see that the train station is very large, imposing, and made of stone. Inside, it has high ceilings, large archways, and tons and tons of people headed to exciting places (or so we assume… maybe they're just going to visit their grandmother in the suburbs).
But even though everyone else is headed off to grand adventures elsewhere, Hugo’s world is very small and he lives his life within the confines of the station, for the most part. He lives in an apartment, travels via secret passages, and gets everything he needs from the different vendors inside the station. He even gets nervous whenever he leaves; when Isabelle and Etienne try to convince him to go to the movies with them, he starts to fret about it.
It's clear that, as an orphan, Hugo doesn't have a lot of options, so it makes sense that he lives his life trapped in a station where folks pass him by daily, headed off for greener pastures. And it's also a fitting place for a washed up old guy like Georges Méliès. Instead of being out in the world, making awesome movies and capturing imaginations, he runs a dinky toy booth, while everyone else passes him right by, not knowing they're face-to-face with a famous man.
In other words, these characters are trapped—unable to enjoy the adventures for which everyone else in the station seems headed. That is, until they cross paths, and everything changes.
Still, the train station isn't all bad. It's a good reminder of the magic that surrounds these characters day in and day out, whether or not they recognize it. There's a romance to a European train station that can't be denied. Those giant clocks, the views of the sparkling city, secret passageways, and hundreds of strangers. It's all about mystery and discovery in this place.
Hugo's a fan of flicks, Etienne's a film student, and Georges Méliès is a former moviemaker. So you might say that this book has a thing for the silver screen, which makes sense, because France is where cinema was born, thanks to the Lumière brothers.
That makes the setting of Paris in the 1930s just about perfect. Except for the fact that filmmaking in Paris in the 1930s was not exactly a bustling industry. World War I, the global effects of the Great Depression, and other economic factors meant that French filmmakers just didn't have the dough to make that magic happen. Still, it was a great time of creativity for the movies that did get made (source). Things were changing, fast, so it's no wonder that Georges Méliès was feeling a bit left behind.
In any case, when entering the world of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's important to remember that in 1930s France, film was still pretty new, and therefore totally exciting. Sure, movies are everywhere today, and catching a matinée is No Big Deal. But back then? A trip to the movies was like a trip to another world. And perhaps that's what makes both Hugo and Georges such fans of the silver screen. They want to be transported.