'Houdini Box' is another Brian Selznick story set loose from the page
Illustration from "The Houdini Box," the book, by Brian Selznick. (January 17, 2012)
"I'm not someone who has a lot of my own ideas," the charming children's author Brian Selznick observed last week at Cullen's Bar & Grill on Southport Avenue. "Most of the things I've done have been brought to me."
Well, it's certainly true that Selznick, who is 46, has illustrated, beautifully, more books than he has written. But if you were someone who'd seen the Martin Scorsese movie"Hugo" over the holiday season, wherein former Chicago writer John Logan adapted Selznick's book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," that statement would have been enough to make you choke on your drink.
There are enough ideas in "Hugo Cabret" to satisfy some of us for a lifetime. It was hardly a conventional story. "I really didn't know whether anyone would want to read a book about French silent movies for kids," Selznick admitted. Turns out they did.
The story of a young boy who tends to the clocks of a Parisian railway terminus, "Hugo Cabret" is a huge book, running to some 600 pages. Selznick said it took him 21/2 years to write.
"Off and on," I suggested, scribbling that quote down and barely looking up.
"No," he replied, catching my eye. "On."
The movie has a different ending from the book (in the book, the book is the ending) but is otherwise fairly faithful to the text. Selznick clearly enjoyed the experience. "I got to walk the red carpets," he said, dryly. "Turns out, I love it."
And the movie, he says, was done right.
"People ask me all the time what it was like to have your book made into a Martin Scorsese movie," Selznick said. "I always said I highly recommend it for other authors."
But before "Hugo Cabret," there was "The Houdini Box," which is also getting its first dramatic adaptation — as a stage musical, or at least a play with music, rather than a movie. It's not the work of Logan and Scorsese, but adapter/lyricist Hannah Kohl, composer Mark Messing and director Blair Thomas. "But in terms of a group of artists coming together, the process this time is really not so different," Selznick said.
The live version of "The Houdini Box" opens next weekend at the Mercury Theater. Jackie Russell, the artistic director of the Chicago Children's Theatre, said the production will use puppets and live actors.
"Houdini," published in 1991, actually was the first book Selznick ever wrote. "It started out as a project I did for a college in class in the 1980s," he said, whipping out his laptop and showing me some of the original visual concepts. "And it's about a guy who happened to have been my hero as a kid."
In "The Houdini Box," a kid gets to meet the great escapologist (kids invariably do remarkable things in the Selznick oeuvre). The book has proved popular over the years; at one point, pretty much every schoolkid in Texas was reading it. Selznick has taken it to a lot of classrooms. "I must have read this book aloud, like, 5,000 times," he said.
"Besides knowing that I'm not going to curse and that there will be no sex, I'm really not thinking about kids when I write," he said. "Everything is about the story I am trying to tell."