Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Hugo: The enhanced p-book

book jacket


In the wake of the Oscars (all right—long in the wake), it’s past time that we started talking about a certain young adult novel, also the basis for Scorsese’s award-winning film Hugo: Brian Selznick’s elegant The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is on my mind in part because of the Oscars. But that’s not the only reason. Here at Appazoogle, after all, we’re all about digital.

Yes, yes, Selznick’s book is a physical, paper, corporeal entity. But the beautiful thing about The Invention of Hugo Cabret is that it doesn’t confine itself to paper. The opening scene is not narrated with a purple-prosey, starlit night. Instead, Selznick’s introduction is literally an illustration of the setting: a line drawing of the moon in a starry night. Turn the page? Another line drawing, pulling out further, framing the moon with night sky. And, page after page, we zoom closer and closer to the earth and to our hero, the inimitable Hugo Cabret, with the cinematic sweep of a Hollywood storyboard.

Selznick picks up the story shortly after with written narrative, just as engaging as the pictorial opening. But throughout the book, Selznick takes a pause from the printed word to let images carry the story forward.

Why am I telling you this? Because for me, Selznick’s book is the place where the enhanced ebook discussion should begin. In a paper book, Selznick has incorporated those controversial elements that make enhanced ebooks a perennial point of discussion: multimedia as a way to carry the story.

Illustration from The Invention of Hugo Cabret


This isn’t a case of a child’s picture book, made to appeal to the illiterate as well as the literate; this is a case of image and text tag-teaming a storyline. This is a concept that I’m usually uncomfortable with; the idea of sharing narrative methods like this makes me nervous—nervous that the value of the story itself will be undermined by flashy multimedia fireworks.

However, Selznick’s work allays some of my fears. He’s proved that innovative approaches to narrative do not have to be crass, gaudy bells and whistles, but that they really can “enhance” the experience, giving a richer texture than words alone.

Granted, I don’t think this opens the door for every book to come out with an enhanced version. But Selznick’s careful use of multiple media to support his story make me excited to see what sorts of ways writers’ creativity may stretch as they are able to amalgamate new ways of telling stories.

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

One comment on “Hugo: The enhanced p-book

  1. Claire Schulz
    March 15, 2012

    This is a great example of the “right” way to do ebook enhancement–thinking of multimedia components from the start rather than tacking them on at the end. PW recently had an article about a YA novel that started this way, incorporating a soundtrack from the get-go:

    (We can all cross our fingers that the term ‘e-riginal’ does not catch on. What a groaner.)

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This entry was posted on March 15, 2012 by in Opinion and tagged , , , , , , .

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