I hadn’t heard of Howl’s Moving Castle until just recently when the book, written by Diana Wynne Jones, appeared on the reading list for my course on fairy tales and fantasies. Hayao Miyazaki’s movie version came out in Japan in 2004 and North America the year after with all the voices dubbed in English. I watched it soon after reading the novel, so Jones’ incredible story was still fresh in my mind. Overall, the movie is very different from the book. But even though I loved the book, the changes made for the film didn’t bother me at all. Instead, I watched in admiration at the magical film Miyazaki made.
Both versions of Howl’s Moving Castle begin with Sophie Hatter. The movie cuts out the backstory about Sophie’s stepmom, Fanny, and her sisters, Lettie and Martha, and gets right to the hat shop. In the book, the fact that Sophie has magical powers is made a little clearer. She talks to the hats she creates, as though she is casting spells on whoever wears them: “Sophie got into the habit of putting each hat on its stand as she finished it, where it sat looking almost like a head without a body, and pausing while she told the hat what the body under it ought to be like. She flattered the hats a bit, because you should flatter customers.”
Sophie becomes such a strong female lead throughout the events of the story, but in the beginning, she seems sad, lonely, and bored with her predictable life. After the Wicked Witch of the Waste appears and casts her spell, Sophie looks at herself in the mirror and isn’t surprised at what she sees. “Don’t worry, old thing,’ Sophie said to the face. ‘You look quite healthy. Besides, this is much more like you really are.” This sort of nonchalant reaction to being turned into an old woman is the same in both the book and the movie. It’s such an interesting character trait for Sophie, that she seems oddly at peace with what has happened to her, as though it was somehow meant to happen. Even though she’s hobbling around with creaky old-lady joints, she seems relieved.
Seeing Miyazaki’s version of the castle was a highlight for me (in addition to Billy Crystal as the voice of Calcifer). I really like the way Roger Ebert described the castle: “Almost the first sight we see in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is the castle itself, which looks as if it were hammered together in shop class by wizards inspired by the lumbering, elephantine war machines in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The castle is an amazing visual invention, a vast collection of turrets and annexes, protuberances and afterthoughts, which makes its way across the landscape like a turtle in search of a rumble.” He goes on to say that the castle may actually upstage everything else in the film, and I don’t disagree.
The biggest difference between the two versions is the movie spends a lot of time on the war that’s going on, but that war doesn’t even exist in the book. For me, the story was better without the whole anti-war theme but it didn’t seem to bother Diane Wynne Jones who had very good things to say about how Miyazaki turned her book into a movie in this article: “It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”
Another major difference, for me, was the character of Howl. In the book, he comes across as much vainer than he does in the movie. He’s also a bit more dramatic in the book, but in a good way. And in the movie, Howl transforms into a bird, which doesn’t happen in the book. I generally just liked his character more in the book, probably because I had the time to get to know him a bit better.
This is the type of book-to-film adaptation that provokes strong feelings in people, mostly because the filmmaker turned the book into something very different. So even if it’s a good movie (and it is), fans of the book might not be able to look past the many differences to appreciate the movie for what it is. If you spend your time comparing each detail of the film Howl’s Moving Castle to the novel it’s based on, you’ll miss out. While the characters are more interesting and memorable in the book, the visuals from the film are stunning. I honestly can’t decide which I liked better. I encourage you to abandon the idea that the movie needs to remain faithful to the book. Jones and Miyazaki are both incredible artists, and I’m in complete awe of both of them.