Page to Screen: Academy Award Nominees, #1
To kick off this column, I will look at some of the scripts nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and the books that served as their sources. Not only will I talk about how faithful the adaptation was, but how the screenwriter approached the translation and whether he or she was successful.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop here if you don’t want to read plot details from the book and the movie!
Hugo Cabret, an orphan stranded in a Paris train station, uses his mechanical gift to rehabilitate a writing automaton he is convinced holds a message from his father. After his timekeeper uncle’s disappearance, he remains in their hidden apartment, winding the station clocks each day to evade detection (and removal to an orphanage) by the half-witted Station Inspector. Hugo must recover his father’s notebook with the robot’s plans, after an ill-tempered toy vendor, Georges, steals it. He employs the help of Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle and their friend Etienne to find it.
While bereft of the notebook, Hugo plows on, fixing the robot, and finding that his message mysteriously leads back to Georges. After some research, he discovers that Georges is the famed Georges Méliès, a visionary director who has since fallen on hard times. His mission changes; no longer rehabilitating an automaton, he takes on Georges himself, helping him come to terms with his past and rekindling his love for the movies.
Hugo is a masterful film, but is it a faithful adaptation? What changed? Hugo’s mechanical missions remain intact. Much of the dialogue is taken from the book itself. Certain characters, like Etienne, are removed, while others, like the Station Inspector–a doltish presence in the book–have an expanded role in the movie. I cannot complain about the Station Inspector change; Sacha Baron Cohen plays a hilarious villain.
Of course, I did not welcome some changes. Hugo’s notebook, which motivated much of the story in the book and served Hugo as a link to his father, does not really reappear after Georges burns it to ashes in the movie. While this choice better focuses the story on the automaton, it de-emphasizes Hugo’s connection to his family.
Isabelle also loses some of her edge in the film. For example, she is a master lock-pick in the graphic novel, but here, she doesn’t seem to have any interest beyond helping Hugo. I found this disappointing; she was simply a more exciting character in the book.
But Does It Work?
Hugo’s tale is far better suited to film than to a printed page. As a story about film and filmmakers, it is best told in moving images. We may have stills from Méliès’ movies inserted into the graphic novel, but here we have those same scenes brought to life onscreen. While screenwriter John Logan may streamline some of the characters, like Isabelle, and flesh out others, like the Station Inspector, this is in service to the film. Only when we see the Station Inspector imprison a boy in the station cell and then send him on his way to the orphanage do we understand what danger Hugo faces. And while Etienne may make no appearance in the film; this isn’t really his story, it is Hugo’s. Etienne’s love of movies and ability to break into buildings is channeled to Hugo. Plus, there is something of a romance between Hugo and Isabelle in the film; this third wheel would only complicate matters.
But it is not the screenplay that sets this story apart, it is Scorsese’s direction. For in the station, we see a vision of cogs and wheels, trains and clocks come to life in beautiful, mechanized precision. I will remember the film’s first scene most fondly, when the audience receives almost all of the needed background in one continuous shot of Paris, the station, and Hugo’s hideaway. The book is certainly worth a read, but the film takes those same characters and stories and imbues them with a certain surreal magic.
Did you see/read Hugo? Was it a successful transition from page to screen?