Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007)

Hugo Cabret has been beautifully and visually connected to its subject – early French cinema. Black and white throughout, 300 out of 525 pages are double-page pencil illustrations across spreads (a canvas reminiscent of the cinema screen). These are in sequence, and are read as a flick-book, advancing the action to a point where text is needed – when, for example, the reader needs to know what Hugo is thinking, or where there is dialogue.

As his editor has pointed out in Publishers Weekly, Selznick ‘was determined to make this story about the roots of French cinema work visually’. He starts by having one of his characters brief the reader on the unusual experience ahead:

‘…I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a movie. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city…’

‘…You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station…’

‘…Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.’

In this first 42 pages of the novel, pictures do the traditional job of words. We are shown the main characters – their faces, expressions, bearing, clothes. We are shown the setting of the novel, zooming in from a view above Paris. And we are shown the mood, which emanates from the soft, grainy black and white pencil drawings, much like it does from the silent movies of the early twentieth century. When we finally turn the page onto a text-spread, it is because we need to know Hugo’s thoughts.

This is true of the rest of the novel: the image sequences move the action on and the text contains dialogue and thoughts. Never do we see text and image on the same page. But there is no jarring when you switch abruptly between these two reading modes. To me at least, it felt effortless and natural – perhaps more so than when they are read together.

Obviously, this story-telling method uses readers’ imaginations in a different way from the conventional text novel. Rather than requiring readers to conjure images from the words on the page – to create the world of the story within their minds – here readers are given the images. In some ways, this limits the act of creation involved in reading. You could argue that it makes the story experience somehow less involved, less interactive because readers have less visualising to do – just as Selznick has argued the converse (in a New York Times 'Book Update' podcast):

‘…making every picture in the book a full double page spread and making the reader have to turn the page, it puts the reader in a different kind of position than they would otherwise be with a book because they are actively involved in moving the story forward.’

So, readers work harder physically interacting with this book, but perhaps do less work imagining its story.

An interesting upside of the imaginative constraints that come with reading a picture book is that it gives the author more control over what the reader sees in their mind’s eye. If a novelist just uses words, the ‘visual story’ created in the reader’s mind will be particular to them – and, for example, a character is likely to appear differently to each of them. Where there is an image of that character, there is no room for interpretation, and no need for conjuring. So, in Hugo Cabret, when we read the text passages what we imagine is likely to have visual continuity from Selznick’s pencil drawings.

It’s often said that featuring a protagonist on the cover of a novel is a no-no, because of this very fact – it stops them from imagining their own. But in some instances, maybe this would be useful to an author. An imagined example: some small detail of a character’s appearance is important to the plot. By showing it to us, it becomes fixed in our memory – and in a different way from how we see it in our minds as we race over the text.

In Hugo Cabret, another function of the image sequences is in moving the action along at a cracking pace – at least halving the reading time of a book describing the same action using text. This probably explains why I didn’t tend to luxuriate in the pictures, studying the details, as I’d imagined I would. It would have been like freeze-framing a film in the middle of an action scene to admire the colours and composition. It was only when I’d finished that I flicked back to enjoy the pictures as pictures.

I can see this book being unique in the way it combines words and images, and the ways in which they’re laid out. In the design, Selznick has purposefully tried to emulate early cinema, thinking about ‘the way the language of cinema tells its stories and thinking about how I could adapt that language within the form of the book.’

Any novel that didn’t involve cinema wouldn’t need to visually reference it in the ways Selznick does. There would be no need to keep to one image a spread. For example, where there’s a lot of action there could be multiple images to a page, and where there is need for pause – say where the reader’s shown the scene of action to come, and is expected to spend some time looking at detail, then the image could take up the whole page. More options provide the author with more control.

Selznick has definitely broken new ground with Hugo Cabret, though. One to learn from…

NB: There's some interesting stuff on this book - much of which I've used here - in an earlier post by Zoe on her PhD blog, here.