It’s obvious that Martin Scorsese’s movie Hugo (2011) showcases its director’s great love of cinema and cinema history. Less obvious, perhaps, is the film’s love of books. Hugo adapts Brian Selznick’s bestselling children’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for best children’s illustrations. The relationship between film and novel poses an especially interesting case for students of adaptation; the book is itself fascinated by early cinema and the unusual number of its illustrations – and the extent to which illustrations help tell the story, in collaboration with the text – help make the novel seem almost cinematic, an impression reinforced by the number of stills used in the book to help bring the reader into the characters’ experiences of movie watching. Transferring such a novel to screen seems an obvious move, the fulfillment perhaps of the novel’s own desire to transcend its medium, and a kind of acknowledgement of the novel’s integration of film into the novel’s own form and story.

Hugo does not explicitly signal its adaptation status in conventional fashion by, for example, opening with a shot of a copy of the book being opened or even with titles that indicate “Adapted from the book by…” or trumpet, for example, “Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Adaptation”. In fact, the only opening title is simply “Hugo”, and it appears after the opening sequence, nearly fifteen minutes into the film. Instead, the movie makes its interest in adaptation clear through more indirect means. What interests us here is the extent to which Scorsese’s adaptation registers its status as an adaptation through its preoccupation with books. Although it would be going too far to say that Hugo pays as much homage to books as it does to early cinema, all the same such an exaggeration would not be too far off the mark for a movie that repeatedly mentions books, lingers over books piled in a bookshop and shelved in a library, shows books being used and given as gifts, and ends with one of the main characters sitting down to write the story of the film, which is Hugo’s story. The ending of the movie thus enables the beginning of a written text that does not replace but rather collaborates with film for an imagined audience that Hugo construes as both viewers and readers.

Such a construction seems appropriate for a movie that adapts a novel that is itself a kind of adaptation of one element of movie history to the form of a semi-graphic novel. Selznick’s very name evokes past cinema glory through his relationship with David O. Selznick, the famous film producer and his grandfather’s cousin. (1) But more importantly, his book not only narrates two children’s discovery of film history, but also uses stills from early movies and drawings of cameras of all kinds as crucial components of the stories he tells in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The book acts then as a remediation that transforms one media form – film – into another, older form – the novel. As Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explain, remediation operates in both directions; that is, earlier forms of media remediate newer forms even while those newer forms themselves remediate older ones. (2) As they observe, older and newer media not only coexist but also depend on each other, even though the most popular narratives constructed around newer media tend to emphasize stories of antagonism, improvement and replacement. Paul Young makes this point when he writes that, when it comes to film and new media, “what is more fundamentally at stake for Hollywood in addressing new media [is] the maintenance of the Hollywood cinema as an institution that is and will remain distinct from competing media institutions.” (3) But in the remediated relationship between movies and the more established medium of books so important to Selznick’s novel and Scorsese’s film, what matters most is the collaboration between these media in an openly nostalgic recuperation of the power of story. Hugo, a movie deeply concerned with loss, the fragility of art, and the threat of obsolescence, does not portray the written word as inferior or lacking in comparison to cinema. Rather, the image and the word are imagined as harmonious collaborators. This harmony, we suggest, is ultimately embodied in the figure of the automaton, the artificial person who produces the signed drawing that leads the two children, Hugo and Isabelle, to film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Word and image unite to bring about the happy ending that the film’s Méliès says can occur only in movies, emerging out of Hugo’s narrative movement from drawing to film to writing. However, and rather ironically for a movie so dedicated to retrieving Méliès’s reputation, Hugo does not so much remediate the written word as it remediates Méliès’s cinema of attractions, replacing it instead with narrative cinema. In other words, Hugo both pays homage to Méliès’s film oeuvre and represents that oeuvre as part of a story that plays down the overt appeal to the power of images over narrative typical of Méliès’s work.

Don’t you like books?

In making this argument, we are indebted to Christine Geraghty’s observation that film adaptations need not depend solely on the audience’s presumed knowledge of their source texts to be understood as adaptations. As Geraghty argues, “An adaptation is an adaptation not just because it is based on an original source but because it draws attention to the fact of adaptation in the text itself and/or in the paratextual material which surrounds it.” (4) In Geraghty’s analysis, ways of “drawing attention to the fact of adaptation” include foregrounding different forms of media, including books, writing, and writers. Geraghty draws on recent work by Thomas Leitch, who, in his proposal for adaptation to be considered as its own genre, includes an “obsession with authors, books, and words” as one of four essential criteria. (5) Intriguingly, however, Hugo employs very few of the specific aspects mentioned by Leitch as key to the study of film adaptation; as we mentioned above, Hugo doesn’t include Selznick’s name or even the words “based on the novel by…” in the opening titles, and it does not use inter-titles to open the action. In fact, the film makes no explicit reference to its adaptation status until the end credits, when it states that it is “Based on the book entitled ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’ by Brian Selznick.” It does, however, “feature books in prominent roles,” (6) sometimes through allusion and sometimes by portraying physical books, or by using books to propel the plot.

The character who most clearly foregrounds the importance of books in the film is Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), Méliès’s young goddaughter. Orphaned, like Hugo (Asa Butterfield), some time before the action of the story begins, Isabelle lives with her godparents and reads avidly, but has never seen a movie. Here she differs from the book’s Isabelle, who reads a lot but also sneaks into movies and helps Hugo do so. In the film, Isabelle borrows books from the station bookseller, Monsieur Labisse, played with enormous gravitas by Christopher Lee. Walking in the bookstore, Isabelle comments that she is “half in love with David Copperfield,” a reference that highlights not only her literary taste – which seems unexpectedly sophisticated for a young French girl in 1931, the year in which Hugo is set – but also the film’s focus on children without parents. Of course, David Copperfield entered film history through the 1935 MGM adaptation, and so this reference also signals a nod to filmmakers’ ongoing use of printed texts in adaptations. Isabelle makes a number of literary references throughout the film, for example comparing herself to Jean Valjean at one point in an amusing connection of the famous author of Les Misérables to the name of the movie.

Isabelle makes one of her most notable literary references at a tricky moment when the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) stops the two children in the train station. Hugo lives in the station after his father’s death has forced his alcoholic uncle to take him as an apprentice in winding the station clocks. But his uncle has disappeared, and Hugo, who has no other home than the station, lives in fear that the Inspector will find him out and send him to an orphanage, a fate which we are shown happening to another hapless orphan. When the Inspector stops the children – in a scene which does not appear in the book – Isabelle explains that Hugo, who has hastily and ineptly disguised himself with her beret, is her “doltish” country cousin, and explains truthfully that she herself often visits the station to visit her godfather – who runs a toy store in the station – and read at the bookstore. Isabelle’s conversation is marked with her rather precocious vocabulary, words she has clearly learned from her reading, and with her facility in deploying literature to escape danger, as when she mentions her (fictitious) cat, named Christina Rossetti, “after the poetess,” to explain why the Inspector’s dog growls at Hugo. (7) Isabelle begins to recite one of Rossetti’s most famous poems, “My heart is like a singing bird,” as the Inspector, his sense of cultural inferiority showing, stops her with the obvious lie that he knows Rossetti’s poems, and dismisses the children. Here Isabelle’s superior literary knowledge gives her control over the situation, and it’s clear that her reading brings her not only pleasure but also self-confidence and some measure of power. (8)

The film confirms Isabelle’s literary power when, at the end, she sits down to write Hugo’s story, perhaps the most marked change to her character’s role in the book. In the novel, Isabelle learns that she is the daughter of one of Méliès’s cameramen, and she attends Méliès’s celebration with a new camera, a gift that suggests she will become a photographer or even a cinematographer herself. (9) Hugo is the one who writes his own story, as we learn in the book’s final chapter (named, punningly, “Winding It Up”). But Hugo disposes of this scenario and turns Isabelle into a writer of the books she loves so much. Hers is the final voiceover, speaking the words as she writes them – interestingly enough, with a pen in a notebook, not at a typewriter. Although such an image may rely on romantic ideas of writing rather than professional ones, it once again depicts older technologies coexisting alongside newer ones, and emphasizes the importance of work in the narrative.

In fact, this is a movie very concerned with work, both in the sense of “not-broken” and in the sense of labour. Hugo’s obsession to make the automaton his father rescued work again is partly due to his sense of sorrow at all things that don’t function as they were designed to do. And this sense of sorrow is linked to his feeling that he himself is broken, damaged perhaps irreparably by his father’s death. When it appears that the automaton is still broken, only able to scribble out an incomprehensible batch of C’s and R’s and squiggles, Hugo despairs, “It’s broken, it’ll always be broken….I thought if I could fix it, I wouldn’t be so alone.” But beyond familial psychodynamics, the movie also establishes the value of labour, which helps give a sense of purpose to life and which gives people a place to which they belong. The station is a place of work, as the repeated scenes of shopkeepers, commuters, and Hugo working at the clocks makes clear. The Inspector’s dismissal of the children in the Christina Rossetti scene ends with his words “I love poetry, just not in the station. We’re here to either get on trains or get off them. Or work in different shops. Is that clear?”, implying that children have no place in the world of work. Yet the movie shows that work – the right, non-alienated kind of work, at least – is vital to everyone’s sense of self. In the end, when Isabelle sits down to write, we see not only the natural culmination of her love of books, but also the culmination of her own search for a place into which she fits, a place she can call her own.

In the shots set in the bookstore itself, the camera lingers on the tall stacks of books on the floor and on the packed shelves set into the walls. As Isabelle introduces herself formally to Hugo, the two children stand framed by a bookcase, with books all around them, suggesting that books not only define Isabelle’s sense of self but will also shape their relationship. Isabelle’s love of books comes through especially clearly when she asks Hugo, with clear horror lest the answer be no, “Don’t you like books?” Put on the spot, Hugo says he does like books, but like Charles Dickens, he has been forced to work, and he eats only what he can scavenge in the station, since he has no money. It’s clear that this labour leaves little time or money available for reading, although Hugo retains fond memories of reading Jules Verne. In the bookstore he spots a copy of Robin Hood, a book he remembers his father reading, and Labisse gives him a copy of the book. However, Hugo also asks Isabelle if she has seen the Douglas Fairbanks movie of Robin Hood, and it’s clear that Hugo is more at home with movies, and with clockworks, than with books. The two mechanical images intersect in the image of the movie projector, itself a kind of clockwork engine that requires careful maintenance and – at least in pre-digital days – considerable skill to use.

Movies are important to Hugo as a link with his dead father, who used to take him to movies frequently; for the two of them, Hugo tells Isabelle, “movies are our special place,” tellingly using the present tense. Hugo also sneaks into movies on a regular basis, which is clear when he expertly picks a lock to let Isabelle and him enter a cinema. As we mentioned above, in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Isabelle is an avid moviegoer as well as reader, but in Hugo, she has never seen a film, and Hugo sneaks the two of them into a screening of Safety Last, the iconic 1923 Harold Lloyd film in which Lloyd famously dangles from the hand of a giant clock high above a busy city street. Selznick’s novel incorporates a still from this movie, and later, in both the novel and in Hugo, Hugo will himself reprise this scene when escaping from the pursuit of the Station Inspector and his dog Maximilian, but a further significance of this scene lies in the fact that Safety Last was produced during the silent era – later than Méliès’s movies, of course, but still in the years before sound became standard for commercial filmmaking. In the novel, the children watch a René Clair movie with sound, a more appropriate reference for a story set in 1931. But Hugo makes the Safety Last screening part of a movie retrospective, which both sets Lloyd’s film in cinema history and implies that it is part of a living legacy that continues to entertain and inspire audiences. Isabelle responds with joy and excitement to her first movie, but, again, the ending of the film indicates that movies do not replace books in her heart, but rather join them there.

The friendship of the two children suggests, once again, a collaborative interaction between books and movies. Isabelle loves books, but loves movies too, once she sees one; Hugo loves movies, but has affection for books, which, like movies, are associated for him with happy times with his father. As the two pursue their adventure, which in many ways is a journey of self-discovery, their interests complement each other and take them further and faster than either might have gotten on their own – a fact that emerges even more clearly when they search out the film academy library.

Cinema history and the automaton

In Hugo’s first half, the most important book space is the bookstore; in the second half, the equivalent space is the film academy library. The two spaces are connected through sound and also through cutting between images. Labisse guides the children not just to the library, but to the exact spot where they can find the book they need, a work of movie history – his precise knowledge indicating that he, though bookish, is also fascinated by and conversant in film history. As we hear Labisse’s voiceover directing them to “The film academy library. You will find all you need to know about movies there. Second level. Fourth row. Section three. And…uh… yes, top shelf. The Invention of Dreams. By Rene Tabard. The story of the first movies,” we move from the library, back briefly to the bookshop, and then again back to the library, which appears in shot like a secular cathedral, light streaming into its vaulted chambers through arched windows and over the readers at the tables, and the leather-bound books on the shelves. The impression of sacred space is only heightened when Hugo notices a painting of Prometheus, with fire in one hand and light projecting out of one finger as if out of a film projector. Although the novel attributes this painting to Méliès, this connection is never spelled out in the film, and it is most probably a fictional painting in any case. (10) But the use of the painting in the film makes another literary reference, this time to Greek myth and the story of Prometheus stealing fire from the god to give it to humans. The price Prometheus paid for that theft links him to Méliès, who suffers a long period of neglect and pain, and also to Hugo, who is forced to steal in order to survive.

The (fictitious) book the children are looking for, The Invention of Dreams: The Story of the First Movies Ever Made, gives them a short narrative history of early cinema, and as they read aloud the film segues into a series of clips from the relevant films, a transition shown as the light from Prometheus’s finger comes to life and becomes in truth a film projector. This rather traditional choice – pictures from a book coming alive, as it were, off the still and silent page – seems to support the usual claim that films supply what books cannot show. Such a claim could find further support in the fact that the book contains a factual error – it asserts that Méliès is dead, and when Professor Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) conveniently shows up in front of the children as they read, he greets their counter-assertion that Méliès is in fact alive with some skepticism. Here books (and their writers) seem limited and fallible, yet their limitations do not negate the fact that Tabard’s book makes it possible for the children to discover the truth about Méliès. In fact, this truth comes to light only through the collaboration of the children’s lived experience and the professor’s academic knowledge, albeit a knowledge based in his own experience of meeting Méliès as a child. In other words, this episode indicates that books and films do different, if related, things, and that they work best when used to supplement and complement each other, rather than when viewed as antagonistic, where one replaces or attempts to replace the other.

The automaton offers the most telling symbol for this complementary relationship, since it can work only through the combination of Hugo’s skill in repairing it, and Isabelle’s lived, family experience that takes the form of the key with which it must be wound before it will move. By far the most compelling single figure in the film, seemingly both human and inhuman, the automaton embodies the uncanny and provides a locus for Hugo’s deepest desires and fears. In Hugo’s mind, fixing the broken and rusted automaton has become equivalent to fixing what is broken in his own life – most importantly, by establishing a tie to his father, who Hugo half-thinks will communicate to him from the dead through it. As Hugo tells Isabelle, “I know it’s silly. But I think it’s going to be a message from my father.” Sitting solemnly at its “desk,” pen in hand, the automaton looks ready to write, which is the assumption that both Hugo and his father make, again in terms of collaborative media.  As Hugo’s father (Jude Law) puts it, “He’s a wind-up figure like a music box. This is the most complicated one I’ve ever seen. By far. See this one – this one can write.” (11) They are, however, wrong. Instead, the automaton draws, creating a picture that Hugo recognizes as one that his father described to him years ago as a scene from a movie – the face of the moon, with a rocket sticking out of one eye. This image comes, of course, from Méliès’s film Une Voyage dans la Lune (1902) – itself an adaptation of a Jules Verne novel – and is one of the most famous images from early cinema. This one image encapsulates Méliès’s playful and fantastic approach to filmmaking, and Hugo is right to see it as a message, if not quite the message he was expecting. For the key to the message lies not just in the image, but in the words that follow it. After drawing the picture, the automaton signs the words “Georges Méliès” to the picture, words that Isabelle recognizes as the name of her godfather. Image and words together propel the narrative forward on to the children’s discovery of Méliès’s career through the book in the film library.

As it turns out, fixing the automaton does give Hugo back a father of sorts, in the shape of Méliès. In the film’s narrative (which is not historically accurate), Méliès built the automaton and later cannibalized it for parts to build his first movie camera. There is thus a kind of poetic justice in the fact that Hugo has been stealing toys from Méliès’s shop to get pieces to fix the automaton, which was once Méliès’s most prized possession. In fact, Méliès says “I put my heart and soul into him,” suggesting a Pinocchio magic in which the automaton becomes a kind of child to Méliès, although a child who is then damaged and abandoned by its creator. Animated not only by clockwork, but also by desire, the automaton means so much to Hugo that by the end of the movie he jumps into the path of an oncoming train to rescue it. As he puts it in his emotional speech to the Station Inspector, Hugo believes that restoring the automaton to Méliès will make both him and the automaton work again, insisting that “You have to let me go. I don’t understand why my father died. Why I’m alone. It is my only chance. To work. You should understand.”

Narrative, dreams and the cinema of attractions

However, the automaton arouses fear in Hugo almost as much as it promises him fulfillment. Adam Cook rightly sees the automaton as a link between Hugo and other characters, but he overlooks the disturbing role the figure plays in the second of two nightmares Hugo dreams in the night before he brings Tabard to the Méliès home. (12) In the first, presaging his jump onto the train tracks to rescue the automaton, he jumps down to the tracks to grasp the key that winds the automaton up, a key that in the dream is engraved “Cabret & Fils, Horologers (clockmakers).” United in this engraving, the dream threatens to unite father and son more frighteningly, through death, as the train bursts through Hugo’s body and out through the station – an accident that actually occurred in 1895. This dream threatens Hugo with a kind of dissolution into the identity of his dead father. In flashback, the film has shown the loving closeness between Hugo and his father, and it seems clear that Hugo would have followed in his father’s footsteps as a clockmaker, had his father lived. But in his dream, once Hugo picks up the key, he is frozen to the tracks, unable to move away from the train bearing down on him – an image that suggests the inevitability of his father’s work and life shaping his. The film has already established that although Hugo shows great skill as a clockwork expert, he himself is most fascinated by a different craft, the magic tricks that Méliès teaches him, and the ending of the film – as in the book – shows him demonstrating his newly-learned lessons to an audience, taking the first steps towards a professional career as a magician, just like Méliès. Although repairing the automaton seems to promise the restoration of his dead father to him, this restoration also seems to promise death, as the father’s identity threatens to submerge Hugo’s own life forever at the expense of his own interests and desires. In an interview, Selznick argues that the orphan in literature “allows the child protagonist to move the story forward themselves…. it is about finding your place in the world….It’s about the importance of making your own family.” (13) Even if Hugo turns toward Méliès as a replacement father figure, he does so through his own choice, rather than as a figure propelled, as it were, by the reanimated spirit of his father.

The second dream adds another element to this fear. In the second nightmare, Hugo wakes up to a ticking sound that is no longer coming from his pocket watch hanging by the bed, but that seems to be coming from inside him. Watched blankly by the automaton, Hugo pulls his shirt open to discover himself turning into an automaton, propelled by clockwork as his flesh rapidly transforms into metal and the room around him fills with clockwork gears. Although the fear of simply turning into his own father, the clockmaker, is evident, this dream also vividly invokes a fear of technology at least as old as the Industrial Revolution, that takes the form of automated, mechanized human figures like the robot in Metropolis (1929) and Charlie Chaplin’s put-through-the-ringer factory worker in Modern Times (1936). Like the automaton itself, the dream uncannily dissolves the boundary between human and machine, a boundary that the film has consistently questioned through its images of machinery. (14) Although Hugo has previously spoken to Isabelle of his fear of never finding a place or a function in the world, this dream suggests a different fear altogether – a fear of being caught up in a predetermined clockwork world in which he is only another anonymous gear or cog to be slotted in, again, without regard to his interests and desires. The delivery of the automaton back to its creator allows Hugo to move on, unburdened of this fear and free to invent himself as he wishes. Hugo’s discovery – his invention, as the book’s title has it – is, ultimately, of himself as an unalienated worker, and this is the story that drives both book and movie. It is the story of an emergent individuality that owes much to its social and historical context, but is most of all grounded in the assumption of our time that the authentic must be found within.

Yet Méliès’s own work shows far less interest in the modern idea of authentic selfhood, with its reliance on story as the pathway for the emergence of that psychologically coherent (bourgeois) self, than it does in illusion and in the magic power of images. In fact, Méliès’s films in general are more usually categorized as what Tom Gunning has termed the cinema of attractions – a conception that, as he puts it, is not necessarily opposed to narrative cinema but that prioritizes different potentialities of filmmaking. (15) Gunning describes the cinema of attractions as “exhibitionist,” self-consciously aware and overtly interested in attracting the attention of the viewer; and, as he observes, although Méliès’s films often feature plots, the plots are there to serve the illusions, not the other way around. (16) For example, although Une Voyage dans la Lune has a plot, the choice of Verne’s novel as a source text itself indicates Méliès’s interest in spectacle, as Verne’s work in general tends to hang on fairly basic, episodic plots, relying more heavily on adventure and wonders. In fact, a later adaptation, 20,000 Lieues sur les Mers (1907) jettisons almost all of Verne’s plot altogether to show a series of slapstick encounters with strange and wonderful creatures under the sea; while many of Méliès’ earlier films show magic tricks performed on a stage, such as Les Illusions Fantaisistes (1910), Le Roi du Maquillage (1904), and L’Homme a la Tête en Caoutchouc (1901), all of which make brief appearances in Hugo.

It’s worth noting that some have critiqued Gunning’s highly influential concept of “attractions” with regard to Méliès’s films. Elizabeth Ezra, for example, argues that although Méliès’s work “contains elements of spectacle, or ‘attractions,’” those elements do not mitigate the films’ “narrative content.” (17) Adam Cook describes Méliès as film’s earliest storyteller, and uses Scorsese’s deployment of 3D to make an explicit comparison between Scorsese and Méliès, writing that “Hugo is by far the most sophisticated 3D film yet made, but Scorsese finds himself in a position not so dissimilar to Méliès, in which he has the opportunity to invent new ways to make movies and to tell stories.” (18) However, others have pointed out that Méliès himself described his films’ scenarios as providing merely a “pretext” for spectacular effects. (19) Furthermore, Ezra appears to believe that to describe a film as “spectacular” or focused primarily on “attractions” is to denigrate it; (20) whereas Gunning’s work seems, rather, geared towards recuperating “attractions” as a term worthy of study and respect, against the common tendency to value movies in terms of narrative structure and content. It seems evident to us that, in the main, Méliès’s films seem primarily designed to present interesting and exciting images, although sometimes those images happen to arrive within narratives that give some coherence to the whole.

Contrariwise, in narrative cinema the illusions or tricks are there to serve the plot, and it’s clear that Hugo fits decidedly into this category, starting with the impossible “tracking shot” that travels from the Paris sky into the train yard, along the platform and (in an edit masked by steam) through the station into a close-up of Hugo watching it all from behind a clock face. We don’t deny that Hugo shows a loving attachment to Méliès’s legacy – evident in, for example, the recreation of Méliès’s famous glass studio, which allows Scorsese to pull a trick worthy of Méliès as he shows us an undersea world, which, as the camera pulls back, is revealed to be a stage set shot through a fish tank, without losing any sense of the magic of Méliès’s technique. Scorsese’s film never condescends to early cinema in general or to Méliès in particular, which has made Hugo especially attractive to fans of cinema history. (21) Moreover, Scorsese’s use of 3D technology to film every shot of Hugo actually confirms Gunning’s argument that “the system of attraction remains an essential part of popular film-making.” (22) It’s interesting, though, that in an interview even the film’s visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato, repeatedly states that the long Steadicam sequence at the beginning of Hugo helps “tell the story of what it is to be this kid.” (23) The brilliant skill of the shot serves the purpose of narration, not the other way round – although, in spite of Legato’s words, the shot is still there to be admired as a piece of stunning camera and computer work.


In Hugo Méliès’s life and career are transformed in the service of not one, but two narrative standbys. The first is the story of the orphan who finds a place and a family – the story of films like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Orphans of the Storm (1921), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), and the Harry Potter series, to name a few. The second is the story of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the neglected genius, as seen in films such as The Band Wagon (1953), The Artist (2011), and, in an ironic vein, Ed Wood (1994). These two stories intersect most powerfully at the figure of the automaton, which appears at first like the attraction it was built to be. Yet over the course of the movie, the automaton functions as a narrative device that propels the plot and that unites the film’s dual interests of the written word and the moving image into a single focal point that closely resembles early cinema itself, with its own reliance on writing to supplement and complement its images. But the automaton does more than this. The automaton also provides a focal point for Hugo’s remediation of early, non- or semi-narrative cinema into the cinema of narration. Hugo’s nightmare of transformation – which does not appear in the novel – represents both Hugo’s anxieties and the movie’s own anxieties about the “father” whom it reveres, but also replaces, in order to tell its own, autonomous, narration.

Hugo’s celebration of books and of the written word helps support the movie’s remediation of Méliès’s legacy into the form of twenty-first century (increasingly digital) narrative cinema. The books most often shown and mentioned within Hugo are storybooks; most significantly, perhaps, the movie history book that the children consult is a work of narrative history. Hugo’s bibliophilia, then, helps the film construct a cinema history that leads naturally from the stories of early cinema into the kind of narrative storytelling that Scorsese himself does so well. Lest this judgment seem too harsh, however, we would end by pointing out that, in spite of its drive towards narrative, Hugo’s appropriation of Méliès still helps suggest the wonder and delight of images, perhaps most of all in its final shot of the automaton, sitting serenely at its desk, watching us as we watch it.

This article has been peer reviewed.


  1. Ed Vulliamy, “Brian Selznick: How Scorsese’s Hugo drew inspiration from his magical book.” The Observer 11 February 2012.
  2. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media.Cambridge MA and London: MIT P, 1999, fn. p. 59.
  3. Paul Young, The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2006, p. xxii.
  4. Christine Geraghty, “Foregrounding the Media: Atonement (2007)as an Adaptation,” in Adaptation 2:2 (2009), p. 95.
  5. Thomas Leitch, “Adaptation, the Genre,” in Adaptation 1:2 (2008), p. 112.
  6. Leitch, p. 113.
  7. A previous shot has shown a Persian cat nestled in the books in the bookstore, and this may well be the cat to whom Isabella refers.
  8. I have no way of actually proving this, but I would like to think that this moment refers to another children’s book, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin (New York: Dutton, 1975). The lead character is seventeen, quite a bit older than Isabelle, but she too is an orphan trying to find her place in the world, and finds her own voice through the same poem by Rossetti. The pastiche detective story plot concerns, among other things, the fate of a stolen watch.
  9. Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, New York: Scholastic Press, 2007, pp. 493-4.
  10. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Hugo notices the painting at the library (pp. 343-5) and listens to Isabelle read the story of Prometheus stealing fire (pp. 370-1). Finally, in the penultimate chapter, Méliès remarks en route to the library that he might “ask to see the picture of Prometheus I painted when I was young” (p. 494). However, Selznick documents his sources at the end of the novel and does not include any source for the Prometheus painting, leading me to conclude that it is a fictional device. It’s a good one, though.
  11. In addition, when Hugo’s father speculates that the automaton comes from London – it’s from Paris – Hugo connects it to his dead mother, because London is “where mother was from.” However, as Hugo’s father points out, “She was from Coventry, but she moved to London.” While this works as a nice bit of humour, it also embeds the collaboration of media – music boxes and writing, other automatons that dance – within a romantic interest that Hugo will find, in a prepubescent kind of way, with Isabelle.
  12. Adam Cook, “For the Love of Movies: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo,” in cinemezzo 18 December 2011.
  13. Vulliamy, ibid.
  14. Kristin Thompson, “Hugo: Scorsese’s birthday present to Georges Méliès,” in David Bordwell’s website on cinema, 7 December 2011.éliès/. Accessed 25 March 2012.
  15. Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker, London: BFI, 1992, p. 57.
  16. Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 41.
  17. Elizabeth Ezra, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 5.
  18. Cook, ibid.
  19. Richard Abel, The Cine Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994, p. 62.
  20. Gunning, pp. 3-6.
  21. See Adam Cook, “Past/Not past: A Tale of Two Cinemas”, Accessed 25 March 2012.
  22. Gunning, p. 60.
  23. Mike Seymour, Hugo: A Study of Modern Inventive Visual Effects,” in Fxguide 1 December 2011.