In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A book to watch

Dear Annie,

I hope your Thanksgiving was a good one.  We had relatives from Bob's side of the family and our Lizzie here with us.  On Friday night, in part because I was so curious about it, some of us went to see Hugo, the new Martin Scorsese movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, which we've written about here.

The book is a visual feat: the story is told alternately in words and in pictures.  Here are two short sequences:
Both those scenes are in the movie, with the same emotional meaning as in Selznick's illustrations.  The film stays very true to the look and feel of the book -- one feels immersed in it, and I don't think that's because it was in 3-D.  Hugo is a12 year-old boy living hidden in a Paris railway station, and much of the film is shot from the perspective of someone shorter than the adults around him. 

The plot swings around two historical artifacts and the characters' emotions tangled up in them.  One is a damaged mechanical man -- an "automaton" -- which Hugo hopes to make work again.  The other has to do with the films of a very early movie-maker, Georges Méliès.  My recollection of the book was that the suspense surrounding the automaton was primary, and the films secondary.  In the movie, the priorities are reversed.  Scorsese, a master filmmaker, offers a history of early film -- and some hilarious and fascinating clips from  old movies.  The history is wonderful, the plot remains mostly true to the book, and true to Selznick's emotionally powerful main character.

I wonder what your father (my brother-in-law), who's so knowledgeable about film, will think of it.  John?

It's almost always disappointing to see what the movie industry does to good kids' books, but this time I think Scorsese made a film that's both his own, and one true to the book.  My biggest problem with the film was the 3-D.  This may be my inner Luddite speaking, but I really didn't see the point of making gears jump out of the screen, snowflakes appear to fall on the audience, or even the crowd scenes be in-your-face.  The film itself is enough to pull you in.  And it really does.




  1. Hi Deborah and Annie,

    Long-time reader, first-time writer: Do you have any suggestions for a three-year-old (as of this Saturday) who loves rhyming? We've read lots of poetry to him already, of course -- you answered a question from Rachel about poetry last year and we adore everything you recommended -- but I wondered if there was anything else you'd recommend that's either specifically about rhyming or in which rhyming is very much the point. (Piggy in the Puddle, for example, which you recommended to Rachel, is a perfect example of this second type -- this ecstatic rhyming for rhyming's sake.)

    Thanks for the blog, and all the recommendations, and apologies for the comment having nothing to do with Hugo Cabret, Nick

  2. Thanks for commenting! I'll take a first stab at it tonight.

  3. Some months ago, when Viviana, the 11-year-old daughter of our great friend Robin, was staying with us for the weekend, I introduced her to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. She immediately lost herself in that beautiful book of marvels and ended up borrowing it for several weeks. Before she left, I showed her Melies’ "A Trip to the Moon," the short film that is so crucial to Brian Selznick’s narrative, so she knew the book was based on a real person.

    Coincidentally, a few days later the Turner Classic Movies network showed a compilation of perhaps twenty of Melies’ brief early films, beginning with charming scenes of Melies himself performing magic tricks that exploited the possibilities of the new medium: his assistants disappeared in puffs of smoke, heads popped off bodies and flew away, his own body replicated itself until all the chairs on the stage were filled with smiling Melieses, and so on. The compilation also contained several of his silly, but still delightful, narratives performed in fantastic settings with fantastic creatures—most of these in a washed-out color. By another coincidence, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo opened in New York just in time for Viviana’s next visit here, so we took her to see it. She loved it, and so did I.

    Deborah says that Scorsese makes the film his own while also being true to Selznick's wonderful book. I agree completely. Scorsese’s passionate commitment to film preservation carries this film beyond the moving story of the lonely boy Hugo and the bitter old man Melies stuck in his toy shop. When I saw, in the closing moments of the movie, that dazzling, color-rich collage of restored Melies films, and when I heard that before Melies died over 80 of his films had been recovered and restored to something like their original glory, I found myself marveling at Scorsese’s deftness at leading his audience to appreciate the crucial importance of preserving these beautiful dreamlike films—and, by extension, the many other films from the silent era and beyond that remain in danger of being lost.

    For those readers who want to explore the films of Melies, right now Netflix lists four offerings: Melies the Magician; the Magic of Melies; Landmarks of Early Film #2: Magic Melies; and Georges Melies. If you want your own collection of Melies films, you can go to the Turner Classics website at For $19.99, you can buy the Georges Melies Encore DVD. Or if you want to browse through all 173 Melies films that have now been rescued from oblivion, you can do that for $89.99 with the Georges Melies: First Wizard Of Cinema (1896-1913) DVD.