I’m starting a new thing on this blog, in which I discuss adaptations from book to movie. These won’t be reviews, and I won’t try to systematically cover every book-to-movie adaptation ever; they just exist so that I have a place to share my thoughts and feelings about stuff that I like.
Today’s topic: Howl’s Moving Castle by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, and Howl’s Moving Castle by Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki.
Which one I consumed first: I saw the movie years before I got my hands on the book. This will colour my analysis of both.
Is the movie a faithful adaptation?: Not really. Like, at all. They both have the same central cast (at least in name) and a moving castle and magic, but that’s about it. But it is an amazing movie and even Diana Wynne Jones agrees with me, so I don’t really care.
The good: So, let me just get this out: I love both of these to bits. The book is wry and funny and witty in all the right ways, and I laughed out loud several times reading it. It’s a book about fairytales and surviving them, and the characters are ridiculous and endearing. The movie, while not Miyazaki’s best, is still beautiful and dream-like and a damn-good love story (fight me.) The characters are significantly nicer in the film than in the books (heck, Diana Wynne Jones even commented on it when asked how she liked the movie), but it works because the story Miyazaki is telling is much less biting than Jones’.
The bad: Why is Howl Welsh? No, seriously, why? It comes out of nowhere, is barely explained, and doesn’t really affect the story at all. Honestly, the reveal that Howl is not from the world of —- just hurt my immersion so much in the way it’s presented. I admit it’s a creative spin on portal fantasy – to have the character who travels from our world to the fantasy world not be the protagonist – but it felt like just that: a fun twist, rather than something that grew organically from the rest of the story. I have to admit, the film’s decision to keep its world self-contained was a good one as far as I’m concerned.
I do think there’s another thing the movie did better than the book, and that’s the love story between Howl and Sophie. In the book there’s not much setup before the payoff – there’s just the “I don’t like you so we must fall in love by the end of the book” trope. The movie at least addresses the fact that Howl and Sophie are attracted to each other before they proclaim their love, and makes this relationship the center of the plot rather than a feature of the happy ending.
But it’s not like the movie is perfect. The middle drags, and there are a few too many subplots (there’s a war, and a missing prince (?) and the Witch of the Waste, and Howl’s garden, and time travel, and how did that last one work again???) for the length of the final movie, and you need to be paying close attention to background dialogue to understand the whole thing. Books are generally better at handling many subplots, and while the subplots in the book are very different, they are much better balanced.
The weird: It wouldn’t be a Miyazaki movie without gratuitous flying machines, let’s be honest. The world of the book doesn’t seem to have much industrial-era technology – there are mentions of horse-drawn carriages and sailboats, but not a single train – but the movie is absolutely filled with steampunk elements. And if the anti-war message seems tacked-on, it’s because it is – Miyazaki wanted to protest the US starting the Iraq war, so he took some vague background information about international tensions from the book and extrapolated it into a full-blown war subplot. It’s not bad, and he does a fairly good job of tying it in with Howl’s character development and the main plot (which is a love story. Again, fight me). It’s just very different from what we get in the book.
The entire book is a bit weird, so I’d almost have to narrate the entire thing in order to address it in this section. I’d just like to point out that “Go and catch a falling star” is a very odd poem and I’m surprised so many fantasy authors take it literally – it’s about John Donne saying that finding an honest woman is as impossible as catching a falling star, hearing mermaid’s sing, getting a mandrake root pregnant, etc., not about literally doing any of those things, or even attempting them. Anyways, it’s an intriguing poem so I get the appeal, but like… sexist poem is not magic recipe for star-catching.
Final thoughts: These are both awesome. Go read/watch them both, now. Do it. I dare you.