Sunday, August 29, 2021

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Howl's Moving Castle.


Howl's Moving Castle is a 1986 young adult fantasy novel by British writer Diana Wynne Jones.  Though, fans of movies, animation and especially anime may know it better as the title of a 2004 animated film from Studio Ghibli.

While I had seen the movie before, I've just read the book for the first time and am glad I did.
My first impression upon reading the book is that Diana Wynne Jones sure knows her way around fairy tales, seeing as she built the beginning of the book around a fairy tale trope that's not all that well-known to the public.  My second impression is that this is one of the most surprising, hard to predict fantasy novels I've read in a long time.

Howl's Moving Castle, first edition

The story is about a young woman named Sophie Hatter who lives in a fantasy world.  Sophie is the oldest of three sisters and curses herself for that, seemingly because of an old adage that the oldest child will always be a failure or at least succeed far less than younger siblings.  This, of course, stems from an old fairy tale trope in which the youngest sibling succeeds far in excess of their older siblings.  Usually coming down to the younger sibling being kinder and more innocent than their elders (there are a number of stories like this, but the first one that comes to my mind is "The Water of Life" from the Grimms' collection).  There are also a couple of inversions and reversions of the "wicked stepmother" trope regarding Sophie's stepmother Fannie.  Anyway, while Sophie's working at the hat shop, she receives a visit from The Witch of the Wastes who curses her, turning her into a 90-year-old woman in an instant.  Now, really being "elder" beyond her normal anxieties and unable to explain her ordeal because of conditions of the curse, she decides she has nothing to lose and goes off to seek her fortune.  She ends up at infamous Moving Castle of Wizard Howl.  Howl himself is an infamous figure, known for sweeping into towns and stealing girls' hearts.  What follows is a rather twisty, turny fantasy adventure that involves a turnip-headed scarecrow, a dog that used to be a human but can now only magically turn into other dogs, a couple of fire demons, a missing prince, some minor cases of mistaken identity, some poetry acting as a curse and a trip to Wales (yes, the country Wales from within the kingdom of Great Britain.  And yes, this is still an alternate world fantasy novel).

Howl's Moving Castle, recent edition

While I've praised the twistiness of the plot, probably one of the better qualities of the book is the main character of Sophie.  She's a wonderfully believably flawed protagonist.  Her story seems simple upon first blush.  She's a girl who accepts her fate and has to learn to be bolder and make her own destiny.  And that's fine to start with.  But from there, despite Sophie being a good person and bearing people no ill will, she's stubborn and nosy and often jumps to the wrong conclusions.  And while she seems to be working on these flaws, they don't just go away.  After all, change is rarely easy.  Sophie actually provides a good companion to the equally flawed Howl, who despite being a good man at heart is capricious, dramatic and rarely tells people the whole truth even when keeping things secret has few advantages.

The book, I think, was great.  The movie . . . well, it's okay.

Howl's Moving Castle, movie poster

This is actually a strange case.  Seeing as how most people agree that Studio Ghibli films are of the highest quality, and that those directed by Hayao Miyazaki are doubly so.  Folks who've seen the movie and haven't read the book for Howl's Moving Castle will likely agree with that sentiment.  And yet, the book just outpaces the movie in so many ways.  So much of it is pared down and simplified.  The characters have been changed, the story's been changed.  Even who the villain is has been changed.  Overall, it just feels like the book which was this unique gem of a thing was turned into . . . well, a Miyazaki-directed Studio Ghibli film.  It might seem a little hard to explain, but there are some tendencies among Ghibli film adaptations that have begun to stand out to me.  For one thing, they tend to amplify certain story elements that cause those elements to change the tone in very big ways.  Let's use another book and movie for an example.  In the book The Borrowers (which I've talked about here before) a young boy is staying with his aunt in the countryside while he recovers from some undefined illness.  There he makes friends with the borrower Arrietty Clock who helps him with his reading.  The Studio Ghibli adaptation The Secret World of Arrietty, has the boy staying in the countryside while he's awaiting a life-saving surgical procedure.  You see how that changes the tone of things (they also make the boy talk more like a 25-year-old than a child, but that's a discussion for another day).  They do the same thing here.  In the book and the movie there's a running plot thread about Howl constantly trying to avoid the king and some task he has for Howl.  In the book, the king is looking for Howl to go find his missing brother who went missing in the Wastes.  Howl doesn't want to do it because the Witch of the Wastes already has it out for him.  In the movie, the king wants Howl to join in fighting the giant steampunk war that he's waging against another kingdom.  And Howl doesn't want to for various reasons, including the fact that he sees the war as a mistake.  But yes, a STEAMPUNK WAR!  For this version of the fantasy realm has trains and airships and steam ships and stuff, which are seemingly not present in the book.  And the only reasons I can see that they added in a whole steam-powered war are to raise the stakes and maybe to play into Miyazaki's favorite theme of how modern, consumerist, mechanized lives are killing us and how we  need to turn back to spirituality and nature.  Only this time he's focused on mechanized warfare.  And granted, he's not necessarily wrong.  It's just that it's not what the book is about in any way, shape or form.

So, yes, the movie's good.  But the book is SO much better.  And the two are practically two entirely different experiences.  If you've only watched the movie and have never read the book, definitely give it a chance.  If you've read the book but never seen the movie . . . well, the movie ain't going to hurt you and it's still pretty good for what it is, but you might be disappointed that it isn't more like the book.  Diana Wynne-Jones has written two books that, while not really sequels to Howl's Moving Castle are set in the same fantasy world: Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways.  I might consider reading them if my existing to-be-read pile wasn't at the point of threatening to become an avalanche.  Anyway, next week we have a book adapted into a non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli animated film.  So, stay tuned.

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