of note: in my desire to compare book and film, I have to spoil the book a bit, but only a bit.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) is inarguably one of Studio Ghibli’s finest and best-known films. Its direction/screenplay is by the masterful Hayao Miyazaki. We have seen it countless times, enjoying the unusual story of a young woman cursed with old age and a mysterious wizard who lives in a moving castle. The animation is beautiful and its magic captures the imagination.
For those unfamiliar: Sophie Hatter is a seemingly ordinary girl who is a milliner at the family shop. This is her life until the Witch of the Waste comes to the shop and curses her with old age. Unable to stay and face explanation, Sophie decides to leave home and in doing so encounters the infamous young wizard Howl’s moving castle. Striking a deal with the fire demon who mans the hearth of the castle, Sophie insists on making herself useful until each can solve the others’ problem.
Sophie had a brief but memorable encounter with Howl previously when he rescues her from a pair of overly amorous soldiers—Howl, who is rumored to seduce young women only to eat their hearts. It is Howl who is blamed for bringing Sophie to the lamentable attention of a jealous Witch of the Waste. Howl finds Sophie frustrating, but also useful, and he seems to have a soft-spot for the orphaned. As the film progresses we learn that there is more to it. In the meanwhile, Howl is a busy trying to avoid the Witch of the Waste’s scorn and hiding from his King’s war and its devastating effects.
Howl, like Sophie and others, must eventually make a decision to no longer run away from their fates. With Howl it is the war, especially as he is really the only one powerful enough to make a difference. Not one for self-sacrifice, Howl finds his purpose in Sophie. And Sophie finds her own inner daring. She finds strength in the curse, and asserts her own will in overcoming it. If for no other reason we watch Miyazaki films for their heroes. Popular to Miyazaki films, there are also observations on the destructiveness of war; the machine versus nature; and the interplay/marriage between magick and industrial innovation.
The film is based on Diana Wynne Jones’ (DWJ) novel of the same name. DWJ’s novel was first published in 1986 with Greenwillow Books and found revival in 2001 with new editions in paperback under the same publisher. While Natalya has owned Howl’s Moving Castle and House of Many Ways (a companion written/pub. 2008), she has only recently taken to reading them in earnest. She then insisted on reading them to me. They are fantastic for the read-aloud. They are miserable for the film—which we, of course, insisted on re-watching upon completing the novel.
Miyazaki based his own work on DWJ’s, and while there is a faithfulness in the film, he does have his own storytelling intentions. There most remarkable differences are in characterization. Many of the motivations are there, just reframed—much for sake of time and Miyazaki’s focus on a kingdom at war, which is diminished in the novel. The villains are the warmongers. In the novel, it is a toss up between fear and ambition—which I suppose are really just logs in the same fire. It comes down to a matter of heart and the strength of it.
As with the film, Howl and Sophie, individually, have to decide to courageously meet their fates instead of running or hiding away. However, we come to learn in the novel that Sophie has magic. She is quite powerful, but it takes her a long time to realize it. The reader learns of it long before, through subtle allusions at first. The Witch of the Waste sees Sophie not as a sexual threat per se, but a magical one. She systematically eliminates her competition as she comes across them and — well, that is a spoiler I can keep. The Witch is a woman scorned by Howl. He did what he is known to do: court a young woman and once she falls in love with him, he dumps her. He is a complicated hero…
In the film, the Witch is exorcised and some nugget of goodness surfaces from somewhere. In the book she is unrepentantly not good, and this is especially important because of the role of a fire demon in relation to their human. In the film, Howl’s fire demon Calcifer is somewhat jocular (like his voice talent Billy Crystal), and while the novel carves a soft spot in him for Sophie he kind of dark—and he is credibly mysterious (though the reader can work this one out, too). This fantasy novel is rife with good mysteries.
In the film, Howl is beautiful and charming and vain. In the novel, he is all these things to a more gloriously comedic degree. Howl is tormented by a curse (we learn) and his doom is inevitable. Maybe some of that drama is warranted. Love the use of a John Donne poem here. He is a womanizer, and the tension is incredible when we find that his sights have landed on Sophie’s sister. [Sophie has two younger sisters who are actual characters in the book.] Sophie is concerned for her sister’s heart, but by the time Howl’s “affections” seem to shift, we glimpse jealousy—something Sophie struggles to deal with rather awesomely.
And Sophie is awesome—so pragmatic… That Sophie is aged is a stroke of genius I can appreciate in the film. Acting like an “old lady” it seems only fitting that she actually become one. The aches and pains that slow her down are frustrations. The novel touches on the more troubling aspects: she has lost ~60 years of her life, and she is vulnerable–especially in her encounters with the terrifying Radish Head (a difference in film/book). I adore that Sophie is granted a confidence in her dealings. She cares less what people think of her which makes her more assertive and allows her to take more risks. Of course, being immune to Howl at the start is all well and good, but as things change…
Sophie is a delayer, finding some excuse or another, and this plays out beautifully in so many ways. Entering the novel, I’d thought that this imaginative world was built to inhabit interesting characters who are driven by the conflicts it has acquired, but the story really is driven by these characters and their conflicts; hence the diminishing of the war Howl is keen to avoid. It is merely part of a greater thing that he is avoiding. They have their excuses which direct their actions which creates all sorts of interesting and hilarious conflicts for each other and the world about them. This isn’t to say there is not some sinister goings-on. Where has the King’s brother and the court sorcerer gotten to? Surely Howl will have to confront the Witch of the Waste eventually. And what of Sophie, and Calcifer?
The novel, though very funny, is also dark; it just keeps you laughing and turning pages for what’s next to dwell overly upon it, until that there is not running and hiding any longer.
As with most films based upon books, there are lost characters and casting choices. The film has the child Markl where DWJ writes a young adolescent apprentice Michael Fisher—Markl keeps the story childish and Sophie maternal; Michael is a wonderful source of humor and tension. The film collapses two characters into one (Penstemmen/Suliman; Martha/Lettie). The novel’s use of these characters lends a sense of history and family to Howl and Sophie. Howl’s background is cleverly revealed; DWJ’s black doorway is easily the better of the two (though I can understand why Miyazaki couldn’t afford the complication).
I do not believe it is a given that the book is better than the film (when it is published first). And with Howl’s Moving Castle, the film has a charm of its own, crafted in gorgeous animation and based upon the wonderful wit and imagination of two fantastic creatives Hayao Miyazaki and Diana Wynne Jones. Comparative with the book, however, it merely scratches the surface. The book is more superlative in every way.
Own both, just do not imbibe them in too close proximity to one another.