Far East Alchemy
Howl's Moving Castle
Diana Wynne Jones is one of the grande dames of children's literature. Now in
her seventies, she has published over forty books, with almost all of them featuring
fantasy or science fiction elements. With her enticing stories and vivid characters, she
has long held a place of honor in my personal literary pantheon. So imagine my joy
when I heard, several years ago, that Hayao Miyazaki was turning one of her novels,
Howl's Moving Castle, into a feature-length film.
Like his American counterpart, Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki is an animator
turned living legend. He is a national figure in Japan, and the driving force behind his
animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Since his first foray into animation in 1963, Miyazaki
has directed nine feature films, worked on several prominent anime series' in the 1970s
and 1980s, and created a variety of anime shorts. In the United States, he is perhaps
best known for two recent films which saw theatrical releases through the Walt Disney
Company: "Princess Mononoke" and the 2002 Academy Award winner for Animated
Feature Film, "Spirited Away".
Most likely due to the relative popularity which these two prior films enjoyed, the
Walt Disney Company theatrically released "Howl's Moving Castle" in the United States
in 2004. Since both of us are huge anime fans and the movie was only playing in New
York City at the time, my boyfriend and I trekked into the city from the wilds of suburban
New Jersey. We paid for the overpriced movie tickets in one of the Times Square
movie theaters, settled into our seats, and proceeded to watch the English dubbed
version of the film-despite the fact that I normally despise English dubs.
Yet as I watched the movie, I discovered that I was both simultaneously
enraptured and disappointed by it. It was a strange discovery to make, since for once,
the English dub of the movie didn't really bother me at all. The voice acting was
excellent, with most of the voices reasonably conveying the personalities of the
characters. Instead, what bothered me so intensely was the fact that the movie
deviated so wildly from the book on which it was based.
Let's take a look at the opening lines of the novel:
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
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child
of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her
parents were well to do and kept a ladies' hat shop in the prosperous town of
Market Chipping. […]
From these two paragraphs, we instantly know what the novel is about. We have an
established setting in a magical land, we know that the main characters are going to
have to go out to seek their fortunes, and finally, we are introduced to poor Sophie
Hatter as the heroine. Obviously, she's going to have troubles ahead of her, due to her
unfortunate birth order. In a leisurely manner, the novel goes on to explain how after
Mr. Hatter's death, Sophie and her two sisters are indeed forced to seek their fortunes,
with Sophie remaining behind as an apprentice in the hat shop. She has a horrible
inferiority complex as the eldest sister, and is convinced that she is born to fail in life.
After an unfortunate run-in with the Witch of the Waste, Sophie is transformed
into an old woman, and runs away from home. Through a series of delightfully
convoluted events, she ends up living in the Wizard Howl's moving castle, a black
turreted building which floats in the hills behind Market Chipping. From that point
onwards, Sophie's life as an old woman turns upside down, as she strikes a bargain
with the fire demon, Calcifer, who powers the castle, and at the same time becomes
involved in all the shenanigans inherent in living in an egotistical wizard's household.
There is some significant wackiness involving Wales, and also the threat of a vaguely
impending war, but the overall plot arc in the novel remains resolutely focused on how
Sophie can free Calcifer.
The movie decides to dispense with most of this, and instead takes pieces of the
primary novel plot and ties them together with a mishmash of other plot elements.
Many things are the same: Sophie is still transformed into an old woman, she still goes to live in Howl's moving castle, and she still
strikes a bargain with Calcifer. But whereas the war was a minor background element
in the novel, it is brought to the forefront in the film.
Despite the fact that there are absolutely no flying machines in the novel
whatsoever, Miyazaki gives them a pivotal role in the film. The war between what is
presumably Ingary and an unnamed nation seems to be fought primarily by air. Towns
and cities across Ingary are continually being bombed by machinery and magic
combined, and Howl actually transforms into an interesting bird-monster to fight them.
The more often that Howl transforms, the less of a grasp he manages to retain on his
humanity. The fact that Howl takes such an active role in the battles is a strange
contrast to the Howl in the novel, whom Sophie elegantly describes as a "slitherer-outer".
Some of the other more prominent changes from the novel include the fact that
Miyazaki has imagined the castle itself as a mechanical contraption, which walks across
the land on giant metal chicken legs. It is no longer sleek and black, but instead
resembles something that might be put together in a junkyard. There is something
oddly appealing about it, which almost makes it a character in its own right. Even though I like the hodgepodge nature of the movie's moving
castle, part of me still wishes that it at least floated; if a castle is going to move, it
should at least be allowed to fly, shouldn't it?
The movie also completely eliminates a subplot involving Sophie's two younger
sisters, Lettie and Martha, as well as the king of Ingary's brother and the king's personal
magician. Howl's fifteen-year-old apprentice from the novel, Michael, also undergoes a
strange transformation into a small boy named Markl. That's not a misspelling on my
part, but is actually how the name is both spelled and pronounced in both the English
and Japanese versions of the film.
By making Michael/Markl a less prominent character in the film, Miyazaki is
presumably able to give more screen time to the Witch of the Waste, who serves as the
principal villain in the novel version. In the film version,
she is less evil than one would expect, and towards the end, even manages to "team-up" with Sophie, Howl, and the castle's other inhabitants. This metamorphosis gives
her a sympathetic edge, which considerably changes how she is viewed in the different
versions; I'm not sure if I like it, but as I had no influence on the movie, it's there
whether I approve of it or not.
Although I've spent a considerable part of this column nitpicking the differences
between the novel and the movie, there is one element that I think the film does better
than the book. It emphasizes the romance that eventually develops between Sophie
and Howl, which I have always thought is one of the sweetest parts of the story. You
can call me a sucker, but the fact that a young, virile magician like Howl falls in love with
elderly Sophie is something that should be applauded. There are reasons for the
romance, of course, but I'll leave that for you to discover as you hopefully enjoy both the
novel and the movie.
There are also many other things that "Howl's Moving Castle" does well. The
animation is high-quality, which is characteristic of Miyazaki's films, and the film score,
composed by Joe Hisashi is top-notch. The elegant and playful nature of the music
greatly complements what occurs on the screen, and it dovetails neatly with both the
English and Japanese voice-acting.
In order to write this column, I watched the movie again, this time in Japanese,
and I have to say that I actually enjoy the English version better. This I've decided is
due primarily to two reasons. The first is that the English subtitles for the Japanese
version are not very good; they're readable, but they don't always flow, and there are
actual differences in the script between what they say on the screen and what the
English dub says. As far as I can understand from the interviews included as extras on
the DVD, this is because the subtitled version was actually produced by Studio Ghibli,
and didn't have the advantages of the excellent English script-writing skills of Cindy
Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt.
The second advantage that the dubbed version has is that it has an absolutely
excellent cast of voice actors. Emily Mortimer plays the young version of Sophie, and
the venerable Jean Simmons plays her in her older incarnation. Christian Bale makes a
credible Howl, with Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste, and child-actor Josh
Hutcherson as Markl. Finally, Billy Crystal voices Calcifer, and is genuinely amusing in
his own comic way; I must say, however, that in this case I actually preferred the
Japanese voice acting of Tatsuya Gashuin for the role. One distinction that the
Japanese voice acting makes is that the same actress, Chieko Baisho, plays both the
young and old versions of Sophie, and I simply didn't think she was that convincing
while voicing the younger incarnation.
What I think you should do, is to read the book first, which is excellent in its own
right, and then you should go out and get the DVD of "Howl's Moving Castle". As a
pure interpretation of the book, the movie is not entirely satisfying, but as a beautiful
animated film, it has much to recommend it.