Fans of Studio Ghibli’s animated feature Howl’s Moving Castle might be surprised to learn that in the original book, the castle isn’t a walking steampunk contraption, it’s a more stereotypically windy medieval fixture that just happens to have doors leading to different cities.
The movie creates such a lush, vibrant visual story that coming across the source material, Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 fantasy novel, might be jarring. The book’s sharp, wry storytelling has little in common with the film’s sweet sincerity. While they tell the same story, more or less, they tell it in starkly different ways — but the storytelling methods preserve the brilliance of both versions.
The basic storyline of Howl’s Moving Castle remains the same in both versions: mild-mannered teenager Sophie gets transformed into an old lady by the envious Witch of the Waste, and meets the flamboyant wizard Howl and his wisecracking fire demon Calcifer. But almost every detail of the Studio Ghibli movie diverges from the book. The movie is set in the middle of a war. Howl turns into a monstrous bird-creature to try to stop it. The Witch of the Waste is defanged as an enemy early on. The book, however, deals more with the fallout of his various love affairs, trips to our world, and cursed English homework. The book is droll and witty, a testament to Jones’ sharp prose; the movie is gentle and graceful, a hallmark of Miyazaki’s filmmaking.
The Studio Ghibli version of Howl’s Moving Castle understands the strengths and weaknesses that come with an animated movie and makes changes accordingly, shifting the tone of the story, but never losing the magic.
The movie follows the book — except when it doesn’t
The movie doesn’t entirely deviate from the novel, but the scenes it chooses to exactly recreate are deliberate. The morning after Sophie stumbles upon the castle, for instance, and manages to get Calcifer to cook breakfast, is almost a line-by-line re-creation of the book moment. With the lushness of the animation (specifically that scrumptious-looking Ghibli food), it’s a scene that immediately defines Howl and Sophie in this new setting. Howl is vaguely impressed that Sophie has managed to control Calcifer. Sophie is stunned that the notorious Wizard Howl is barely older than she is. Howl seems to believe they’re meeting for the first time.
But audiences in both cases know better.
In both the book and the movie, Howl and Sophie have crossed paths before, when she trekked across town to visit her sister. Their meeting in the book is understated: Howl asks to buy her a drink, then backs away when she refuses him. Their meeting in the movie is one of its most iconic scenes: after Sophie has some trouble in the street, Howl lifts her up above the town, and the two walk through the air.
Both these scenes define Howl in the context of their respective media. Book Howl is a more obvious playboy, and the fallout of his various love affairs takes up most of the novel. Movie Howl’s flamboyance comes across less in his romantic advances and more so in the generally bombastic appearance that he uses to hide his cowardly nature.
These two introduction scenes — one meticulously recreated in the film, one diverging significantly — are the best examples of how Miyazaki kept the arcs of the book, but shifted them to tell his own story. After all, the strengths of each medium differ, and as a master of his own art, Miyazaki obviously knew how to best tell the story he wanted.
Playful prose vs. artful animation
In both versions of Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie learns that Howl has given Calcifer his heart, which lets Calcifer survive, and lets Howl access Calcifer’s magic. And in both versions, this contract is taking a toll on Howl, and Sophie must figure out how to break it.
In the book, Howl’s curse comes in the form of a poem — specifically John Donne’s Song: Go and catch a falling star. Part of the fun is the play of the language and how the characters interpret the poem literally, trying to find mandrake roots and literally catching falling stars. Jones also plays with the poem’s meaning. The original context involves finding an honest woman, who then proves to be unfaithful. In the novel, it becomes clear that the dishonest figure is actually duplicitous Howl, who lies and makes up personas to get out of responsibilities. His arc is focused on shedding his hedonistic pursuits and becoming an honest man.
Howl’s curse isn’t the only aspect of the story that draws from the intricacies of prose. Through the novel, Sophie realizes she too has magical powers: she can speak traits into objects, usually by talking to them as if they were sentient. While mending hats alone in the workshop, she makes up various fates for them, telling a wide, creamy hat that it’s “going to marry money” and a plain, mushroom-colored bonnet that it has “a heart of gold” and someone would fall in love with it. The women who purchase these hats end up with the fates Sophie decreed, though Sophie herself does not understand and take control of her powers until later in the book. Sure of her magic and sure of herself, she becomes a force to be reckoned with.
The book’s magic is in its wordplay, and in the poem. Jones delights in tight storytelling and creating her own fantasy subgenre. Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy tale, but it plays with tropes in an endearing way, not via the cynical modernization of stories like Shrek. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and knows she isn’t fated to have a happy ending, because the eldest sibling never does. Her stepmother is young, kind, and gracious, not an old hag. Howl, the handsome mysterious wizard, comes from a suburb in Wales. And the curse comes in the form of homework from Howl’s nephew’s English class. The narrator sometimes weighs in, remarking how when Sophie’s father remarried, she and her sister might’ve been considered the “Ugly Stepsisters” to their half-sister, but “all three girls grew up very pretty indeed.”
Upending the tropes
The movie plays with its tropes in a softer way. It subverts a different set of fairy-tale expectations, ones more in line with the ethos of Miyazaki’s movies. The wicked Witch of the Waste turns into a soft grandmother figure. The curse on the scarecrow is broken by “true love’s kiss,” but the prince doesn’t mind at all that Sophie’s in love with someone else. In written form, the fairy-tale elements are obvious from the beginning, and Jones deconstructs and plays with them appropriately. In the film, they take a back seat to the gorgeous visuals, which place it in a world of its own. Those familiar elements add extra depth to the story if you know what to look for, but they aren’t the center of its humor.
In an animated movie, dissecting and subverting the intended themes of a 16th-century poem wouldn’t play particularly well. The intricacies of the curses both on Sophie and Howl are different in the movie, not tied to text or language, but instead manifesting visually. The idea of deviating from source material may seem outlandish to a book purist, but Miyazaki translates the curses into visual elements, paralleling the book without trying to force its specifically literary elements to work in a new medium.
Instead, Miyazaki shows the toll the curse takes on the wizard. Howl uses Calcifer’s magic to transform into a monstrous bird-creature, but each time he does so, he loses a bit of his humanity, and shifting back into human form becomes harder. When spotting a warship while showing Sophie to his secret hideout, Howl uses magic to jam the gears — but his arm shakes and erupts in pinpricks of feathers, his fingernails turning talonlike. Howl in the movie isn’t a womanizer, but he is a coward, and even though he fights enemy warships, he hides behind his grandiose magic, eventually losing himself within it. Though he finds the courage to face the enemies and protect Sophie, she’s only able to save him when he gains the courage to return to her, beaten and broken and barely human.
Miyazaki’s movie doesn’t delve into Sophie’s magic as much as Jones’ book does, though it keeps story elements that imply its existence. And her curse is subtly modified. When the Witch of the Waste initially curses her, Sophie takes the form of a hobbling 90-year-old woman who can barely stand up straight. But as the movie progresses and Sophie becomes more sure of herself, she starts to appear younger. It’s subtle at first: she stands up straighter, her face is less wrinkled. It’s only when she stands up to Madame Suliman, the war-hungry king’s head sorceress, that she fully shifts into her young self again.
But when Suliman calls her out for falling in love with Howl, Sophie is overcome by shame and slips back into the form of an old woman. By then, it’s evident that as Sophie becomes more confident, she visually shifts in age, her appearance varying between 18 and 90 depending on her emotional state. It’s a similar arc to the book, where her own magical ability grows with her self-confidence, it’s just given clear visual cues.
Stripped of all else, Howl’s Moving Castle is a story of a girl who finds the confidence to be herself, and a wizard who finds the courage to not run away. Toss in a wise-talking fire demon, a vengeful witch, a magical land, and a moving castle, and you get the basic outline of the story. Miyazaki understood that attempting to recreate the novel beat-by-beat would fall flat, given that he couldn’t incorporate Jones’ masterful prose or literary games. Instead, he stripped the novel to its basic arcs, then built it back up with his own expertise. The result is a rare treasure, a book and a movie that diverge in so many aspects, yet still complement each other.