- Howl’s Moving Castle
Films based on popular novels always evoke a dilemma. If too faithful to the book, they may be charged with having simply illustrated a work from the literary canon; if too different from the original, fans of the novel complain that it is not what they came to see. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki gets away with venturing very far from Diana Wynne Jones’s original story, mostly because the fan base for his films and for Jones’s young adult fantasies do not overlap much. However, for those who are familiar with both the book and the film, watching Howl’s Moving Castle is a bit like reading very good fan fiction. The premise, the main characters, and the settings are the same, but Miyazaki has used them to tell a completely different story. Whereas Jones uses Sophie, Howl, and Calcifer in a fairytale format to tell a story about challenging class and gender expectations, Miyazaki uses the same characters to tell a story about personal loyalty, love, and war.
This contrast is not immediately apparent in the film, since the first third seems to follow the novel fairly closely, with only small changes only later revealed to have major impact on the overall plot. In both novel and film, a young woman named Sophie is wasting her life by refusing to challenge the norms of the fairytale society in which she lives. “It is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three,” Jones writes in the novel’s first paragraph: “Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” In the film, the same sentiment is spoken by Sophie’s sister Lettie, but we see no more of Lettie or very much of the third sister Martha. Thus, the novel’s major story—three young women challenging their society’s assumptions and expectations and using different stratagems to build lives for themselves—is replaced by that of Sophie alone and her triumph over her own timidity and lack of self-confidence.
The means by which Sophie is forced to face her issues also appear similar but are subtly different. In both novel and film, the Wicked Witch [End Page 261] of the Waste transforms her into an old crone. In the novel, the witch’s motives are initially unclear; only later are they revealed to be professional rivalry with Sophie, for, although unaware of her powers, Sophie herself is a very powerful witch who stitches spells into the hats and clothing she sews. But in the film, the witch’s battle is with the wizard Howl. Sophie, an innocent bystander, is dragged into it due to an earlier, accidental encounter with the wizard. The central story of her suppressed witchy powers and the fact that she is unconsciously maintaining the old-age spell herself are both muted.
However, these themes are not entirely lost. Although Miyazaki never references them in the script, he does show these themes through Sophie’s many incarnations and changes in appearance. The film shows her in four basic forms: her original brunette girl self, a humpbacked old crone, an upright old lady, and a young woman with prematurely grey hair. She shifts back and forth between these forms depending on her mood and the situation, thus revealing that she has control over the spell. A most striking example occurs when she tells Howl that she is not pretty. As she says this, she is in her young girl with grey hair form. When he replies that she is beautiful (in both the book and the film, Howl sees through the spell almost immediately), she changes instantly back into her crone form.
The film’s Sophie is also shown stitching blue triangles into Howl’s ruined clothing, but this has no real meaning because of how Howl’s part of the...