Hugo’s story may be told quite straightforwardly, but that doesn’t mean that the tone lacks in pizazz or fun. Even when confronting a lot of dark, dark issues (you know, being orphaned, having your life dreams shattered, the war… ), the book steers clear of growing too heavy or depressing.
Instead, it focuses on the process of moving forward in the story, which is a little ironic when you think about just how stuck in the past Georges Méliès is. Maybe that’s part of the point though—the tone stays light enough so that we as the readers never get mired in the ugly stuff. We have to keep flipping pages to join in the adventure:
Hugo ran until he found himself back inside his secret room. He tried to turn on the light, forgetting, as he usually did, that the bulb in the ceiling had burned out. (1.5.1)
Even when Hugo is depressed over losing his notebook, everything is still told—one action after another. There’s no wallowing as we follow Hugo’s path.
But that's not to say that Hugo doesn't have his moments of sheer wonderment and amazement. Every time the automaton or film comes into play, you can feel the excitement and buzz in the writing.
When we see the fallen images of Papa Georges’ sketches and drawings (I2.2.6-12) all the images are of fantastical creatures, dream-like sketches, and people dressed up as mermaids and other magical beings. Like a shining gem amongst all the filth, it’s the magic of the film industry (and the magic of magic itself!) that keeps the characters and the story moving onward.
Most of the illustrations are done as black and white pencil sketches, which are filled with detail and focus in on the faces of the characters and the places they’re in. This creates a kind of visual narrative for the reader. We're not meant just to read or hear it. We're meant to see it, too.
It would be easy to look at all these pictures and imagine that this is a totally magical world, but Selznick adds a healthy dose of reality, just to keep things exciting. Selznick cleverly switches things up every once in a while, when we’ve grown too complacent with the whole “this isn’t real!” thing. He inserts a photograph or a still frame from a movie so we see that this magical little story does have a lot of realness to it. It takes place in a real time, in a real place, with a number of real characters.
As readers, we see both the sketch of the moon that the automaton draws and we see a still frame from the movie. So all these illustrations put us into a magical world… and then remind us that the real world is magical, too. Bonus!
This is a book that centers on kids and their adventures. Sure, Papa Georges plays a big role, but this book is really all about Hugo and Isabelle and what they end up achieving. Those kids are all about scraped knees, stolen knick-knacks in pockets, and a healthy serving of dirt—they’re not prim and proper and adult.
They think and get tied up in the sorts of things that kids do, and the book is most certainly written for a younger audience. After all, what kid wouldn’t love to imagine a life like Hugo’s? It’s thrilling to imagine being bad enough to steal toys (gasp!) and milk (double gasp!) from booths at the train station.
It’s insane how quickly Hugo’s life gets downright exciting (and a wee bit dangerous) once the old man catches him stealing. With Isabelle at his side, he goes on a bona fide adventure, trying to figure out how to fix the automaton, and how Papa Georges’ past plays into everything. There’s even a not-so-high-speed chase scene on foot, and a daring escape from near-death on train tracks, to boot. If that’s not adventure, well, we don’t know what is.
Wait a second. The automaton was originally Georges Méliès’ invention, so shouldn’t the title be The Invention of Georges Méliès?
It would certainly make sense, because Méliès is the real inventor here. The thing is, though, Méliès may have made the automaton, but Hugo is the one who literally dragged it from the debris and brought it back to life.
In the end, Hugo makes the machine his own because he’s the only one who seems to care enough about it to put all that work into it. He learns how to fix it, pockets all the parts, steals Isabelle’s key, and carefully puts everything together in order to make the automaton automate. It might as well be his invention after all that hard work.
But the real invention of Hugo Cabret is what’s revealed at the very, very end. It turns out that adult Hugo has made his own automaton:
The complicated machinery inside my automaton can produce one hundred and fifty-eight different pictures, and it can write, letter by letter, an entire book… (P2 12.9)
That’s right. The automaton that wrote this book itself is the real invention of Hugo Cabret. Is your mind blown? Ours is.
The book’s last chapter opens up with this intriguing statement:
Time can play all sorts of tricks on you. (2.12.1)
And indeed, the end of the book does play around with time.
First, we see it skip forward six months to when Hugo is living with Georges Méliès and his family… And then in the last chapter, we realize that it’s skipped forward even more and that the narrator is Hugo telling his story in retrospect… It becomes even more interesting when it's revealed that the entire book has been written by an automaton, which is adult Hugo’s great invention.
How trippy (or rather, tricky) is that?
The ending reveals that Hugo, like his father and like Georges Méliès, has continued to create great things, and that this book is one of them. And as for the final sequence of drawings (I2.12.1-6), the fading moon seems to suggest that this story has indeed drawn to a close—and it’s a nice little nod to A Trip to the Moon, too.
What's key here is that Hugo's childhood story has come to a close, but it's very clear that it's only the beginning of a rich life, filled with inventions and adventures. Of course these inventions and adventures are only possible because in the end, Hugo has found what he's been searching for—a family.
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.
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.
Sure, the sheer size of this beast is more than a little daunting, but never fear, this isn’t a tough read at all. First of all, there are over 100 pictures to give you a break from all that reading. Secondly, the book is written in a very simple, easy-to-follow style. There are no tricks or complicated diversions here; the main goal is to tell a story about a little boy (in the kind of language that the little boy would understand), and the book succeeds.
The writing style in The Invention of Hugo Cabret is simple and easy to follow, but there’s also a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled over the whole thing to make it magical. The book itself is written in simple prose—no tricks or surprises here. But the characters experience such delightful and exciting things that it’s hard not to feel the magic in the writing style itself:
“It’s so beautiful,” said Isabelle. “It looks like the whole city is made out of stars.” (2.6.31)
Lovely, no? And the best part is that the whole book is filled with little moments like this, when one of the characters looks at something and expresses it in the most beautiful and magical way ever.
What’s just as important as the words in this story? We’ll give you a hint… they make up a hefty chunk of the book and give you a little bit of a break from that pesky thing called the alphabet.
Got it? Yes, we’re talking about the pictures, which are as vital as words when it comes to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
The really neat thing about Selznick’s drawings is that they don’t just accompany the text; they stand alone in the text. To illustrate (wink, wink) this point, we’ll point you toward the opening and closing sequences of the book.
You can almost see how, like a film, the images pan into a scene and focus in on a specific character. The images aren’t just telling a story—they’re leading the viewer into a situation. We start with the moon and the scenery but are soon drawn into a specific place (the train station in Paris) and to a specific character (oh hi, Hugo).
The more “cinematic” moments of the book are also treated in a similar fashion. One of the longest sequences of just images in the book is when Hugo is being chased by the Station Inspector. It’s all about darting around corners, slipping through fingers, and running as fast as he can.
This is a classic movie scene (let’s talk about every heist film ever made for a second… or not) and the book treats it the same way—suspensefully. Other suspenseful moments are also treated in the same way, like when Isabelle falls of the chair while pulling the box down from her godparents’ room. Through the images, we get a sense of what's about to happen.
Hugo's obsessed with it. His father tried to fix it, and Georges Méliès made it. From the beginning of the book right until the end, this object is the center of these folks' universe because it connects them to a happier past:
Increasingly, Hugo felt like he had to try. If he fixed it, at least he wouldn’t be so completely alone. (1.5.54)
When Hugo finds the automaton, after his father’s death, it reminds him of their old life together, with his dad tinkering with things and telling his kiddo about the movies.
In a way, Georges Méliès has a similar relationship to the automaton, just not at first:
“I was haunted by those ghosts for so many years. The only thing I couldn’t bring myself to destroy was the automaton.” (2.8.17)
Méliès is pretty ashamed of his past. The automaton is the one thread to Méliès’s history that he lets survive, and when Hugo finds it, it brings the past back to him—in a good way. He remembers that the past wasn't all bad—there were times when he was a great inventor, a creator of magic, and an innovator in the truest sense.
It's a good thing Méliès didn't destroy the automaton, because it ends up being just the thing to bring this new family together. It all starts with Hugo's papa, who finds it at the museum and decides to fix it. Then Hugo takes up the torch when his father dies in the fire. And when he turns Isabelle's key in the back of the automaton, that's what launches them on the path to discovering the truth about Papa Georges.
And when Georges discovers that Hugo has had it this whole time, well, that's what launches them on the path toward becoming a family, because Georges can finally come to terms with his past and move forward. It almost seems like every key event in the novel is set into motion because of this tiny toy.
Plus, the automaton has a magic all its own. Way back in the day, automatons were pretty incredible technology. The fact that Georges Méliès could make this little toy write was quite the feat for his day and age. But then, when Hugo and Isabelle fire the thing up for the first time, it doesn't write, it draws. And it doesn't just draw doodles; it draws a detailed scene from George's movie. Pretty impressive, no? So even for us, the automaton is a symbol of the power of imagination (Georges's) to create magic (the automaton's automation).
The only thing he needed was the key. The original key had been lost in the fire, and all the other keys he found around the station and in the windup toys from the booth didn’t fit. But when he saw the key around Isabelle’s neck, he knew right away it would work. And now he had it. (1. 12.2)
Well, well, well. It's the final piece of the puzzle folks—the key that unlocks the mystery of the automaton, of Georges's past, of Hugo's future.
Hugo's done all the work that he can fixing that automaton, but he still needs something to fit into the mechanical man’s back. And isn't it odd that he can’t find that piece himself? How strange that he needs to use something that Isabelle has in order to get it started. Verrry interesting, no?
The thing is, the story stresses that it’s good to be independent, to have your own interests and your own brand of confidence, but sometimes you just need a little bit of help. You can be almost there, but a bit of human connection never hurts.
And for Hugo, he was able to fix the automaton all by himself, but he needed something that Isabelle had in order to get the contraption working. Otherwise, it's just a lifeless toy. With the key, it comes to life and brings them all together. That’s exactly what we’d call magic.
There’s a reason the automaton draws that particular scene instead of any other image from the movie. For one thing, that image of the moon, with a spaceship landing in its eye, is one of the most famous shots in all of cinema. It's a nod to the wonderful history of the silver screen and a tribute to one of moviemaking's great innovators—Georges Méliès.
Plus, it's a hint of what's to come. That movie, and the automaton, were some of Georges's greatest accomplishments. So when he's reunited with them, thanks to a little help from Rene Talbard and Hugo, he can finally accept his past and be proud of his history, failures and all.
And now that they've all seen the movie, Hugo and Isabelle can share in the significance of Georges's achievements, as they do at the ceremony at the end of the novel:
And then, the last film shown was A Trip to the Moon.
Hugo looked at Isabelle. Tears were running down her cheeks in two thin, glimmering lines. (2.11.24-25)
See? If it weren't for Georges Méliès's magical genius, Isabelle and Hugo might never have found each other, and this awesome new family might never have been made. We have the man in the moon to thank for that.
When Papa Georges falls ill after discovering the kids and the box of drawings, Hugo has a very odd and surreal dream that’s filled with images of clocks (I2.3.2-6). There are all these clocks floating in space with odd things like eyes and parts of people’s faces. Yikes.
It seems the threat of time past is creeping up on both Hugo and Papa Georges, and neither of them can hide forever from it.
For Papa Georges, this means that he has to admit to his past as a filmmaker and let people know that he’s not dead. He has to embrace the good things that he achieved along with accepting the bad things that happened to his film company and his good friends.
As for Hugo, he has to admit to himself that he can’t just go on living in the train station. It’s in no way sustainable and someone was bound to find Uncle Claude or catch on that a little boy was stealing from all the shops. It’s time to stop being frozen in time and for them to move on.
That's because time is of the essence for both these characters. They need to learn to make the most of their lives, because as the deaths of those closest to them show, life is short. There's no sense spending it alone.
Most of the story is told from a third-person perspective; that is, the story doesn’t seem like it’s told by someone who is involved, but the person still knows what’s going on in Hugo’s head (and no one else’s). It's as if we’re looking over Hugo’s shoulder the whole time, with the occasional peek into his actual thoughts. But we're not looking out through his eyes.
Here's an example from the opening of the story:
From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything. He rubbed his fingers nervously against the small notebook in his pocket and told himself to be patient. (1.1.1)
He's not telling us what he's thinking, but we still know what he's thinking. Whoever our narrator is, he must be a mind reader.
But wait a minute. How can this guy be a mind reader?
The only explanation is that this guy is somehow involved in the story, which makes sense because every once in a while, we get a first-person "I" who comments on the story. Of course in the end, we find out just who that "I" is:
Once upon a time, I was a boy named Hugo Cabret… (P2.12.4)
Talk about a magician’s great reveal.
Okay. So in a lot of ways, Hugo isn't exactly homeless. He has a (train station) roof over his head and, with some creative theft, he manages to make due. But you have to admit, things aren't so shiny for our favorite kiddo at the start of the novel.He’s living in a train station, stealing to keep himself fed, not going to school, and not once in the entire book do we hear him mention taking a bath or showering (um, gross?). He's making due—not thriving.
But hey, he's got his automaton to fix, and that seems to be enough to be going on with. In fact, it's that automaton that launches the story into motion. Because when Hugo steals the mechanical mouse from the toy booth in the train station, it launches a chain of events that will change, well, everything.
Hugo’s not the only thief in the story though. When Hugo steals the mechanical mouse from the old man in the toy booth, the old man steals Hugo's notebook. An eye for an eye and all that jazz. Luckily, this encounter with the grumpy old guy leads to a new friendship with Isabelle, his goddaughter.
And when Hugo discovers that Isabelle’s key necklace (which she has stolen too—geez these kids!) unlocks the automaton, things start getting really interesting. The automaton draws a picture, and signs it "Georges Méliès," which is, of course, the old man's name. The plot thickens.
Once Hugo and Isabelle do some digging, they discover that their old pal Papa Georges is none other than the famous filmmaker Georges Méliès. On top of that, the film world thinks he’s dead. Things are getting crazy, right quick.
Because Papa Georges and Mama Jeanne seem pretty set on keeping their secret a secret, when Hugo discovers it, they're not too keen on the whole business. But when Papa Georges reconnects with his old work, he tells them the whole story—how he got into the film business, and how he fell out of it. Then he asks Hugo to go bring back the automaton to him—which he made. This is the moment of truth for everyone.
Poor Hugo can never catch a break. When he goes back to the train station to grab the automaton, he’s caught stealing a bottle of milk while eavesdropping on the shop owner—who is talking about how they recently found the body of his uncle in the river. When caught, he runs, runs, runs until the Station Inspector finally nabs him. He escapes and takes off running again, only to fall in the path of an oncoming train. Just in the nick of time, a hand grabs him and pulls him off the tracks. Papa Georges to the rescue. Phew.
In the end, Hugo doesn’t wind up in prison, and he doesn't wind up smushed on the train tracks, either. After Papa Georges saves the kiddo, he and Mama Jeanne take Hugo in. The book ends with the whole hodgepodge family going to an event held at the Film Academy for Papa Georges, who has now faced his past and added to his family.
One obvious recurring figure who shows up in the book is the famed Georges Méliès (yes, that’s Papa Georges to you!). Georges Méliès was an actual filmmaker back in the day. You can see a list of all his works on IMDB.
Hugo refers to the big train crash of 1895 at one point, in which a train crashed through the entire station. Scary, huh? Well it’s even scarier that it actually happened!
In Chapter 8 of Part 2, Papa Georges explains that, beginning with the loss of his whole company in World War I, things started to really go downhill for him.
This book is chockfull of movie references, both obvious and subtle. We'll point out the major ones, but the more you read (and the more you dig up on Georges Méliès) the more you'll discover all the nods and tips of the hat to the awesome French movies of yesteryear.