Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne-Jones was one of the first fantasy books I read. I bought it at a book sale at school, and loved it right away. Since then, I have bought it a further two times, after previous versions got lost or were lent to someone and never returned.
Because Howl’s Moving Castle has always been one of my favourite books, and because I had enjoyed films such as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service, I was understandably excited when I learned that Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli was making a film adaption.
After months of eager and impatient anticipation, when I finally watched the Miyazaki film, I came out of the cinema disappointed and angry.
It wasn’t right. What happened to the whole Wales thing? Why was the true antagonist changed so drastically? What was with the flying warships? And the whole thing with Howl turning into a huge bird—what was that even about? The whole story had been changed, and the further along it went the greater the gulf between the book and the film. I hated it.
I have seen the film a few times since, and my dislike faded but did not vanish. It was still too different, trading on names when really it was more an invention of Miyazaki than of Wynne-Jones. Don’t get me wrong: film adaptations of books do not have to adhere perfectly to the books they are based upon. Film is a different medium, with different audiences and different aims. But the trick is in knowing what to cut, and what to keep. A good example of this, in my opinion, is Inkheart, another favourite book I read in my teenage years. The film of that worked well, even though there were a fair few differences between it and the book.
The greatest weakness of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle is not the removal of Wales, or the addition of war airships, or changing the villain. It is in making Sophie boring. She has so much more to her character in the book. She is varied, she makes mistakes, she misunderstands situations and then acts on them in ways which mess things up. She thinks on her feet, says the wrong thing, and allows herself to be influenced by rumour and prejudice and misconceptions. In the film she has none of this. She is bossy and boring or sweet and boring. She has no agency. She does not worry herself sick about her sisters or misinterpret the situation so badly at the end that she causes the entire situation to get ten times worse. In Miyazaki’s version, she is merely swept up in a story which is more about Howl.
More recently, at the end of December 2011, I saw the new stage adaption of the book at the Southwark Playhouse in London. The play was short, little more than an hour, and recalling my disappointment with the film I went with tempered excitement. I knew beforehand that Stephen Fry narrated, which was impressive enough but not necessarily evidence of the play’s brilliance. I was concerned that too much would be cut out, and the essence lost, by the short duration of the play. And quite a lot of the story was cut out. Most of the characters—everyone but Sophie, Howl, Calcifer and the Witch—had been cut; and as a result, the storylines surrounding them.
What was left was the core: the relationship between Sophie and Howl, and that between Howl and the Witch. Their motivations stayed in place. The magic of the book was retained, albeit in a simplified form. The acting, too, was spectacular—especially that of the actor who played Howl, who had such energy and charm. The play was not the same as the book. It was more focused, less complicated, but just as fun. It worked, and remained recognisable as the same story.
Not the Book
Since watching the play, I have reread the book and reconsidered the film.
The film is not, on its own, a bad film. The story it tells is still exciting. Certain aspects of the story, such as the magical link between Ingary and Wales, may have had to be cut to appeal to an audience primarily comprised of Japanese and American viewers, whereas the initial appeal of the book, for me, was that I knew Wales—I live in an English county bordering Wales, and have been there several times on holiday. There are aspects of the film’s approach to the story, such as the flying warships, that are uniquely, even iconically, Miyazaki. Howl’s turning into a giant raven was, perhaps, Miyazaki taking a metaphor considerably further than Wynne-Jones chose to.
As a Miyazaki film, Howl’s Moving Castle stands up fairly well. As an adaptation of the book, it does not.
The book remains, and always shall remain, one of my favourite books ever. When I have children, I shall read Howl’s Moving Castle to them (hopefully the same copy I have now). I may never watch the play again; the run is over, and even if it is put on again, no play is the same twice. It remains a memory I shall cherish. The film, while not a complete failure, just is not on the same level. Mentally, I cannot categorise it with the book and the play, but only with other Miyazaki films.
Some of Alice’s ancient history articles can be found at perpetualpast.tumblr.com