Friday, 30 December 2011

HUGO - Story Analysis

WARNING - Contains spoilers!

Hugo - a `U` certificate (MPAA `G` in the USA) film that is as entrancing for a 7-year-old as it is for a 70-year-old - has a very different structure from anything else you might see this year. People love the film - but what do they say when you ask them what the story is about? They enthuse about the magic of the world to which the film takes us. They love the theme of clocks and clockwork. They adore the setting in Paris and the fantastic artwork and cinematography. But none of that is the story; it's all the other stuff. Let's try and focus in. 

What is the story's key question? Well, it doesn't have one. Who is the protagonist? Well, we are surely led to believe it is Hugo, and yet by the end, the protagonist is undoubtedly Papa George. What is the story about? Well, some people would say it's about the history of cinema. Some would say it's about the life of the film maker, Georges Melies. Some would say it's about Hugo's quest to finish building the automaton he started to build with his father and uncover its secrets.

So given that Hugo has such a disjointed story, how come it is so highly rated by the public? Well, for us story tellers, it simply re-enforces the key point in what makes the very best stories - hands up if you know what that is? 

Character Growth. In all great stories, at least one character, somewhere and somehow, climbs the ladder of life towards fulfilment. It is the number one factor in making a story that audiences appreciate. And despite all the difficulties with the story of Hugo, they all fade into insignificance because:

Every major character learns, develops and grows through the course of Hugo.

Think about it: Hugo goes from alone, grieving and living in fear to having a family, friends, safety and a sense of belonging.

Papa George goes from lost and forgotten to recognised for his achievements, talents and contribution to the world.

Even the (wonderful) bad guy, Gustav, goes from an injured, cruel and heartless child catcher to a happily engaged friend of one and all.

Even the supporting and secondary characters - Mama Jeanne, Tabard, Madame Emile and Frick, Isabelle - everyone (I guess with the exception of Hugo's father and Uncle, whose deaths trigger the story), are carried onwards and upwards in terms of human values and fulfilment by the events that comprise the story. This is why we feel uplifted and satisfied by the end.

Character growth. Look at any great story and I'll bet you a beer at least one character changes and grows through the telling (or fails to change and grow but the lessons to learn or the opportunity offered are evident to the audience). 

Make sure at least one of your characters changes and learns and grows, and your story will have a greater chance of being a winner.


  1. Interesting post as usual David. I agree with everything you say. However you should be careful when you offer a challenge. Character growth - "Waiting for Godot" - discuss.... :)

  2. Good analysis. I think the book is more about Hugo, but the movie makes it purposely vague, so people can relate to many characters. It was well done.