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Review: Hugo (and The Invention of Hugo Cabret)

Just prior to its theatrical release, I read the book upon which Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is based, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” The book is a beautiful story, told in an inventive combination of text and drawings. The drawings are remarkable, dominate the book, and act very much like storyboards to a film. As such, it’s no surprise that someone would attempt to make it into a movie.

Both the book and the film are very highly regarded by critics and won (or were nominated for) prestigious awards. In my opinion, those were well deserved in all cases. It is an exceptional story, well told in both mediums, though – as will become obvious – I have a strong preference for one version over the other.

I never got the chance to see the film in theaters, where it was shown in 3D. The buzz is that the 3D is remarkable and used appropriately and expertly. I have no reason to doubt that Scorsese did an outstanding job in that regard, but I can’t comment on it personally. Contrary to most 3D films, I am a little disappointed that I haven’t seen that aspect, but it is what it is. Certainly, the visuals in the film are extremely well executed and appropriate, even in 2D, and I enjoyed the look of the movie immensely. The opening scenes in the film alone are worth the price of entry.

To stick with visual presentation for a moment, let me go back to the book. As I said, the drawings were superb and were, more than mere illustration, integral to the story. They drew me into the story in a different, exciting way than text alone, helping me to feel immersed in the motion and emotion of the story. I don’t know if the copy of the book I had is representative (though I firmly believe it is), but the physical aspects of the book itself added to the experience of the story as well. The paper was a little thicker than normal, and cut slightly unevenly, which added to the classic feeling in which the story was presented – almost as a hand-made journal.  It was a very well integrated experience which I greatly appreciated (and kudos to the printers in Crawfordsville, Indiana for making it thus).

Both the book and the film have a very calm presentation. Personally I think that works better in the book than in the film. In the book it seemed to add to the sense of wonder and mystery, and the immersion into 1930′s Paris. In the movie, it translated to a pace that was too slow for my taste. I once heard an interview with Billy Joel where he said the performance of the single “Stormfront” was an exercise in “how slow can you go” before the groove starts to get slogged down and you lose the energy of the song. There’s a fine line that can’t be crossed. In my opinion, the book pushed the line, but stayed on the right side the majority of the time (there were moments, though). Scorsese stepped just over it, and spent much of the film on that side, and the result was unfortunately a loss of energy.

At this point, I’m going to begin getting into the story a bit, and there will be spoilers, so if you’ve not read the book or seen the movie, you may want to stop here. I’m still going to be kind of vague where possible, but I have to admit the one thing I want to talk about is pretty major, so … keep that in mind. Don’t worry… just bookmark this page in your browser. It’ll be here when you’ve caught up.

There were a few changes made in the story for the sake of the film. This is to be expected when adapting a book, so I really don’t have a problem with many of the alterations, on the surface. The change to the station investigator and the fleshing out of (really just a bit more focus on) characters who barely appear in the book could have worked out fine. Unfortunately, the reason they changed those characters was a slight alteration to the story’s focus – just enough that I think the film was the poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a perfectly valid way to go, and as a stand-alone piece it works well enough – possibly better than many films today, if the critics are to be believed. My wife liked it, and she’s never read the book. And intellectually, when I separate the film story from the book story, I can see it as well. In comparison, though, I can say without doubt that the story as presented in the book held more focus and meaning for me than the film.

And it’s not that the focus in the film – that relationships make you whole – wasn’t in the book. It was. In fact you could say that it was the main focus in both mediums. But the addition of the other character arcs into that point weakened, rather than strengthened it in the film. In the book, it was applied almost exclusively to Hugo and Georges, and the end of the book made the point much more strongly than it was made in the film. I don’t think the film handled well at all the final transition of Hugo from broken, lost child to a fully healed person made whole by his journey and new-found relationships. The point was diffused across multiple characters and thus lost much of its potency. In this case the effect was not additive, as I suspect Scorsese intended. The book also accomplished its point without losing the sense of wonder and mystery inherent in the rest of the story. The film was a bit too “on-the-nose” in pushing its point.

Finally, the film was missing what I considered to be a very important piece of the book: the story-teller was himself a character and the revelation of his identity was, both in its content and style, very fitting and personalizing – and the answer to a mystery that until that point I didn’t realize I was pursuing. That simple piece added immensely to my enjoyment of the book. In the film, it is not even alluded to. That, in the end, is what makes my preference for the book so decisive. It is what gives the book the focus that I’ve been talking about in the preceding paragraphs. Its absence is a major blow to the emotion of the piece.

There are other things I could quibble, and certainly many things to praise, but in the end, for me, it came down to that.

Have you seen the film? What did you think? If you’ve read the book, how do you think it compares?

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2 comments to Review: Hugo (and The Invention of Hugo Cabret)

  • SG-3

    I read your review and then read your review of Watchmen and The Seeker – three films that are compromised by their respect for the source material.

    The later has a blatant disregard of the source, as if they hadn’t even read it.

    Watchmen, it seems, didn’t know what to leave out.

    As for Hugo, Scorsese seemed to want to make it bigger and more grandiose than the already detailed source. The end result was visually stunning, and often gave me goosebumps, however I found the padding annoyingly unnecessary and stalled the story on a number of occasions. Superfluous added characters, lesser characters given WAY too much screen time (including one major miscasting who just chewed up his screentime!), and a loss of focus on the storyline all had the film tripping over itself. If he’d stuck to the storyboard-like source, he’d have had a much better NINETY-minute film, rather than an occasionally-verging-on-tedious 126 minute film. I just cannot understand Scorsese’s thinking!

    And yes, Mr Cohen, I WAS referring to you!

    Reply to this comment

    Jeff says:

    Yup. I agree for the most part. I can’t say I was as incensed by Cohen as you – I lay any excesses there at Scorsese’s feet, and honestly I think it was the direction of the character more than the acting that bothered me (which is not something I can usually say about Cohen).

    Reply to this comment

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