Six out of the nine Best Picture Academy Award nominees this year were based on books: Hugo, War Horse, Moneyball, The Descendants, The Help, and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Prior to the ceremony on Feb. 26, Shelf Life will read or re-read each of these books, in addition to a few others that inspired nominees in different categories, and do a side-by-side with the film version. Today, we’ll take a look at Hugo, which is nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay. Spoilers ahead.
Hugo is one of the rare adaptations that takes a longer time to watch than it does to read the novel it’s based on. Brian Selznick’s beloved middle-grade book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, might look like a doorstop at 525 pages, but it’s actually a lean, marvelous piece of storytelling that seamlessly combines images and written word — much like one of the great silent films Hugo pays tribute to. One of the most striking aspects of the Martin Scorsese-directed film is the lush, Oscar-nominated cinematography; Selznick’s illustrations — dark, scratchy, and obviously hand-drawn — couldn’t be more aesthetically different, but they’re every bit as powerful as the expensive, high-definition imagery of the movie. The first 45 pages of the book could have been a shot-for-shot storyboard for the film’s breathtaking opening sequence.
In the book, pages of text are interspersed with long stretches of sequential illustrations, which you can turn through almost like a flip-book. The resulting effect is akin to watching a choppy, flickering black-and-white movie in a dark theater. Selznick’s drawings are intentionally a bit fuzzy, but the lack of detail only enhances the mystery of the story.
Oddly enough, the movie didn’t cut much of the novel’s plot, as adaptations typically do; it actually added a few beats, especially to the Station Master’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) storyline and Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle’s (Chloë Moretz) discovery of George Méliès’ (Ben Kingsley) past as a filmmaker. For those who thought the movie was too obsessive about its cineaste-y themes, the novel hits those notes faster and with a lighter touch.
People who loved the movie will most likely love the novel as well. Kids will be able to flip through much of the book as they watch the movie without missing a beat. Even if you’re in the camp that thought the film dragged on and got mired in Méliès nostalgia, you might still enjoy Selznick’s tighter, gorgeously illustrated book.