‘Howl’s Moving Castle’: book vs. movie

11 Nov

The Pages Where It All Began

Book Synopsis:
“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.  Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”

Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three beautiful sisters, ginger-headed, and fully aware that as oldest it’s futile to even bother attempting to seek her fortune.  Her father dies, leaving her stepmother to determine the fate of the three girls.  Sophie accepts her responsibilities in the family hat shop while her sisters are sent off to other apprenticeships and quietly exists until the day the Witch of the Waste walks in and curses her, making her 60 years older in an instant.

Stunned and convinced her fortune has found her, Sophie leaves home without telling anyone, wandering off into the Waste…and into the path of the infamous Wizard Howl and his fearsome-looking moving castle.

She isn’t afraid of Howl’s reputation as a sucker-out of young girls souls or collector of their hearts because she’s now pushing 80.  All she cares about is finding a warm place to rest when the sun goes down on the cold stretches of the Waste.  Finding her way inside the castle, and that she has far fewer inhibitions as an old woman, Sophie gets what she wants and then some.  Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer, wants to be free of his contract with Howl as much as she wants to be free of her spell.  But neither of them can discuss the details of their predicaments.  Calcifer can’t help Sophie until he is free, so her bargain to help him lands her in a long-term cot in a cob-webbed cubby under the stairs and face-to-face on a daily basis with wicked Howl.  Disgusted by the filth inside the castle, Sophie hires herself as Howl’s cleaning lady and spends weeks clearing out and polishing.  She wonders when she will stumble across his collection of chewed up hearts.

Howl isn’t really wicked, but as a coward in his own mind, he can’t afford to be seen by anyone as being useful.  Sophie finds Howl a handsome and vain man well into his twenties, but doesn’t realize that for all the appearance of wickedness he so carefully arranges, he is nevertheless putting his magic to work for the good of others, including herself.  He may feel it necessary to walk in clouds of perfume, but he always undercharges the poor.  Howl’s greatest fault is his heartlessness.  He spends a great deal of time pursuing attractive young women and avoiding them, and their angry relatives, once he’s caught them.  But there’s a reason Howl cannot love properly.

His teenage apprentice Michael obediently blackens Howl’s name in town, works hard at learning his spells, and collaborates with Calcifer to keep food on the table.  Meanwhile, the Witch of the Waste has sent a curse out after Howl, and it’s finally caught up with him.  The king wants him for more and more assignments to boot, and Howl can’t avoid both.  Or either.  The Witch catches him through his homeland, a strange, foreign place called Wales where his sister and her family reside with their boxes of moving pictures that mean life and death.  (That’s a little inside joke.)  Sophie gets caught in the middle of Howl’s escape plots and tantrums.  She won’t see past his ornate suits to what he really is and what he’s really doing when he leaves the house.  All she knows is that there are hearts breaking every time he does, one of which is her own sister’s.  Sophie’s irritation with Howl finally pushes her to the point that she’s angry enough to want out, bargain with Calcifer or not.

Through encounters with Howl, his former teacher, the king, and absence from her family, Sophie learns so much about herself, and yet not enough.  A final lesson with the Witch brings an “honest mind” to Howl, what Sophie needs to know to help Calcifer, and the truth about the spell she’s under.  They do live happily ever after.

What I Love:
– The family elements.  Family relationships always complicate life.  But life is not complete without them.
– The characters.  In many ways Sophie is just as self-absorbed as Howl is.  And he is not as self-absorbed as she thinks he is.  It’s great.
– Three of the main characters are orphans.
– It’s not too complex, and it’s hard to put down.  Great for young (at heart) readers.

What I Don’t:
– The use of pentagrams.  I’m uneasy that the author would be so casual with things like that in a children’s book.
– The ending flies by so fast it doesn’t satisfy, particularly with regard to the romantic turn of Howl & Sophie’s relationship.  It just feels incomplete.
– Why doesn’t Howl go ballistic upon learning the Witch has killed Mrs. Pentstemmon?
– That Miyazaki “adapted” it.

The Big Screen Adaptation

Film Synopsis:
Sophie is a mousy young brunette who resigns herself to ugliness and a dull life working in a hat shop.  One day on her way to visit her sister at the local bakery, Sophie is accosted by two soldiers and promptly rescued by a dashing stranger.  Avoiding his own pursuers, he takes her soaring over the city to her destination and leaves her speechless on the bakery balcony.

The Witch of the Waste follows her home and curses her, making her an old woman, to send a message to the Wizard Howl.  Sophie accepts her old age but decides she can’t stay at home and sets off for the Waste where she encounters a friendly scarecrow who provides her an unwanted but warm place to stay — Howl’s dilapidated metal moving castle.  She goes inside where she meets Calcifer, and they agree to untangle each other’s spells.

In the morning her handsome rescuer walks through the door — it’s the Wizard Howl.  He gets her message from the Witch and orders Calcifer to move the castle and heat the water for his bath.  Howl spends most of his time away, turning himself into a flying monster to keep an eye on the war the neighboring country began but in which both sides are bad and destroying everything in their paths.  Every time he changes into a monster it becomes harder for him to change back, and Calcifer tells Sophie her time to break his spell with Howl is running short.

Sophie claims Calcifer has hired her as Howl’s cleaning lady and gets to work chasing bugs and clearing cobwebs.  Howl’s child apprentice Markl resists Sophie’s presence and cleaning attempts at first, but quickly comes to love her like a mother.  Her organization of Howl’s beauty spells in the bathroom causes Howl to throw a tantrum, sending her fleeing into the rain, bawling over her own ugliness.  Sophie snaps out of her tantrum before he does his, and brings him hot milk as a peace offering.  Howl confesses his cowardice and contrives a plan to send her to blacken his name to the royal sorceress, Madame Sulliman, so the king will let him out of serving in the war.

On her way to the castle, Sophie encounters the Witch of the Waste who, upon arrival at the palace, is stripped of her powers by Sulliman.  Sophie determines that Sulliman is up to no good and declares Howl will never seek her or her help when suddenly Howl arrives.  Howl escapes Sulliman’s attempt to take his powers and sets Sophie on her way back to the castle with the now helpless Witch of the Waste and Sulliman’s dog in tow.

Howl decides it’s time to move — before he loses himself forever, he wants to make provision for them all.  Sophie pleads to help him, but she’s interrupted by battleships looming overhead.  Sulliman sends spies out to find them, and bombs began falling on the town.  Howl decides Sophie’s worth to him is enough to stop running and go fight the king.  With Howl gone, Sophie takes matters into her own hands, and her own spell begins to fade.  Calamity ensues, but Sophie discovers the root of Howl’s spell with Calcifer, and with only moments to spare, sets out to break the spell and restore Howl and Calcifer.  Sophie realizes her own beauty, and all becomes well with the world again.

What I Love:
– Christian Bale as the voice of Howl.  “There you are, sweetheart.”  Oh, snap.  If every man were as good as Christian Bale’s voice, there would actually be world peace.
– Emily Mortimer as the voice of Young Sophie.  Emily Mortimer just rocks whatever she does.
– Billy Crystal as the voice of Calcifer.  Always fun.  “She likes my SPARK!”
– Respect for the elderly and forgiveness are tenderly portrayed.  Some of the few “show don’t tell” aspects of the film.
– How Howl always refers to the people in his castle as “this family.”

What I Don’t:
– Sophie’s entire unhappiness is rooted in her belief that she isn’t pretty.  Therefore, once she believes that she is, her conflict and unhappiness are over.
– In Oklahoma we have pot holes.  But in Hollywood, there are plot holes.  Plot hole #1: If Sophie is such a mouse and doesn’t lose her inhibitions until later, why does she suddenly stand up to the soldiers in the alley?  Plot hole: #2: If the “ridiculous” war was started by the neighboring country, why is the king bad for trying to defend his country?  Plot hole #3: If Howl is a wizard, why can’t he prevent becoming a monster permanently?
– Young Sophie and Old Sophie have different accents.
– Miyazaki’s decision to turn a children’s story into a political anti-war piece.

My Verdict

Aside from Howl’s tantrum and 3/4 of the front door portal, there are very few similiarities between the story of the book and the story of the film.  Basically Miyazaki took Wynne-Jones’ characters names and created his own story.

The movie was cute.  Entertaining.  The war elements are there, but quite frankly I didn’t feel that Miyazaki succeeded in making it a political hit piece.  Which really made his whole attempt to change the story to serve that purpose even more irritating.  In order to make the film his way, he surrendered precious character situations and moments of growth found in the pages of the book.  No matter.  Someone else will remake it someday.  And I hope they will.  But they will be hard pressed to find any voices as amazing as Christian Bales’, though I don’t know that he would be right for the true book character of Howl.  If he ever starts reading audiobooks, I’m so there.

The book was simple and fun.  Wynne-Jones had me from the beginning.  I admit I’m a sucker — if an author can engage me with the characters at the beginning, I tend to be fairly blind to any defects of plot down the road.  Not that there are many in this children’s story.

Sophie is me.  I am Sophie.  She and I are both the eldest of three, red-headed, dutiful, resigned and isolated.  Every firstborn on the planet knows the youngest has the best chance of happiness and success and watches them skyrocket while we fret.  And I love that this book is written for girls as much as boys.  Men are impossible and hopeless.  But there is good mixed in there somewhere, and Wynne-Jones did a beautiful job of hiding it from us, I mean, Sophie so that she could learn that.  It’s also written for girls in the sense that Sophie gives life with her words and doesn’t know it.  Every woman is born with the gift of giving life — in more ways than just the obvious, just like Sophie — and it’s really something to think about how our gifts and words affect those around us.  Even though her sisters are not with her throughout the book, they’re on her mind the whole time as she worries for them, and their absence leaves a hole in Sophie she isn’t aware of until they reappear in her life once again.  Makes me downright envious!  But not all sisters have to be born into the family.  And knowing who your true sisters are is essential to who we are as individuals.

In spite of being written about a magical land, the story has many layers and textures that make it real.  None of us has ever worn a pair of seven-league boots, but we all know someone who has fallen for or opened up a can of whoop-ass on a cassanova.  “Aunts!  They come at you with hat pins.”  Ha!  That’s me, alright.  I may not have any hat pins, but I’ll be sure to find some if you mess with my nieces’ hearts.

I love the gift of Sophie’s introspection.  Her moment of realization in the chair by the fire that she has been taking all of her anger at the Witch out on Howl.  There is so much maturity and growth in that moment, and it’s a bitter loss that it didn’t make it on screen somehow.  On the same token, I also love Howl’s sickly moment of personal revelation to Sophie, which gets promptly dismissed by her belief in his wickedness.  His gray sheets and bed curtain cobwebs have far more believability to them than the windowless room plastered with magical paraphernalia and stuffed cows.  I relished Howl’s telling moment with Calcifer when he gets angry at Michael for chasing a falling star because it’s a true glimpse into the grief he bears for “not being able to love properly.”

Another huge difference is that in the book, the antagonist is the Witch of the Waste, but in the film, the antagonist is the government — the king and his sorceress and their army (even though the war was started by a neighboring kingdom).  I’m sorry — I must be a war fiend — I can’t help but prefer the gigantic magical battles, the potential special effects extravaganzas between the Witch and Howl.  Give me a character that I can love to hate over a random character that appears halfway through the film any day.  Come to think of it, Madame Sulliman, a character cocktail contrived by Miyazaki, is quite actually the cinematic equivalent of the “perfect human” the Witch tries to create in the book.

My final verdict is this:  The movie does not qualify as an actual adaptation.  As a writer, I cannot let go of loyalty for the author of the source material.  The movie is cute, though superficial, and if you like the movie, that’s great.  But do yourself the favor of reading the book, too.  You’ll get two different stories for the price of one.


Discuss: If you’ve seen/read both, which one do you like best?  Why?

One Response to “‘Howl’s Moving Castle’: book vs. movie”

  1. Michelle October 9, 2011 at 12:37 am #

    I liked both in different ways but i agree i found the little details in the book charming. and this line’ The characters. In many ways Sophie is just as self-absorbed as Howl is. And he is not as self-absorbed as she thinks he is.’ wow. i’ve only just thought about it like that. And it’s funny how Sophie is so set on Howl’s ‘wickedness’ and i loved the ‘wind to advance an honest mind’ part in the book 🙂

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