Howl’s Moving Castle (review)

Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1986; repr. New York: HarperTrophy 2001); Howl’s Moving Castle screenplay and direction by Miyazaki Hayao (2004), DVD.

Book: 7/10. Movie: 5/10.

As I did before Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I decided to read (in that case, re-read), the book of Howl’s Moving Castle before I saw the animated movie, just recently released on DVD in Japan.

Howl's Moving Castle book cover Howl's Moving Castle Japanese DVD cover
Left: The book. Right: The DVD.

Jones’ novel starts out looking like an ironic fairytale, with its heroine Sophie resigned to the hard and dull life that comes of being an elder sister. Yet as an apparently undeserved curse from the fearsomely glamourous Witch of the Waste turns her into an old woman and catapults her out into the world to seek her fortune, the novel begins its trajectory towards being an unexpectedly affecting tale of romance.

The novel’s greatest asset is its main characters: Sophie, a young woman suddenly turned ninety, who discovers a tenacity and verve in old age that she never knew as a mousey teenager; Howl, a good but vain wizard who has lost his ability to love by making a pact with a fire demon; and Calcifer, the demon himself, who warms Howl’s hearth with his flames and personality even as their pact slowly destroys them both. As the story moves on, we see deeper into Sophie and Howl’s character and powers, and in the course of a story that is over-packed with incidents, characters, and settings, readers are likely to become invested in seeing what becomes of the web of loves and broken hearts that Howl leaves in his wake.

One often gets the impression, given the chaotic turns the plot takes, that Jones did not have a clear plan when writing the novel. It hardly matters, though: the way it roughly piles on new elements to build a story apparently at random makes for a charmingly unpredictable read. The characters hold it together well enough, much as Calcifer holds together the moving castle itself, which is forever on the verge of falling apart from going too quickly.

Now, as Erika reminded me, and Laura might have, I ought not to expect movies ‘based on’ books to be much like their originals. Indeed, _Howl’s Moving Castle_ would better be described as ‘inspired by’ than ‘based on’ Jones’ novel. It changes so many characters, and so many plot elements, that it’s just barely recognisable. It has the skin of the novel, but not its soul.

The problem that movies made of books usually face is that they’re unable to reproduce all the detail of the original, usually to the ire of people who know the book inside out, or have only just read it. It’s unreasonable to expect a movie to include all the details, though: it just won’t have the time, even a monstrously long adaptation like David Lynch’s Dune.

One may, however, expect an adaptation to be true to the spirit of the original, and it’s here that one may be rightly disappointed with Miyazaki’s version of Howl’s Moving Castle. It turns Sophie’s sister Lettie into her mother, does away with her other sister, Martha, and her stepmother, Fanny, creates a new villain, and turns Howl’s apprentice from a teenager in love with Sophie’s sister into a little boy not higher than Sophie’s waist. Howl’s life in Wales is nowhere to be seen, and nor is his tendency to be infatuated with women that he dumps the minute they begin to love him.

Miyazaki’s version demonstrates rather clearly the strengths of books against movies: books are better at character development, and better at creating complex plots. The space a movie has to tell a story is so limited that it must be simple. Where movies make up for this weakness is in their ability to describe an alternate world (or the real world) visually.

Some of the more drastic changes Miyazaki made to Howl’s Moving Castle, such as making war a central motif in the film, where it was barely mentioned in the book, and having Howl on the verge of turning into a (literal) monster, seem calculated to give the crew the chance to draw airships, explosions, fires, battles, transformations and spell effects. The film is definitely visually spectacular, although I take little pleasure in action scenes and battles. I much prefer the film’s evocation of its old-Europe-themed world and of its occasional pastoral idylls. Unfortunately, many of the changes made to Jones’ story seem gratuitous.

Nevertheless, Howl’s Moving Castle is a beautiful film to watch, even if it is extremely shallow compared to the book. A movie to see for the splendour of its animation alone.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.