Probably Hayao Miyazaki’s best known film outside Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle has won multiple awards and the admiration of many a filmgoer for its beauty, humor, and depth. It’s been known to make hardened souls tear up, and inspire amateur pianists to learn its charming piano melodies.
It’s also strikingly different from Jones’ highly acclaimed (and currently less known) 1986 novel.
But still amazing?
I’m confused. How can such a loosely adapted story still feel every bit as necessary and wonderful as the original work?
To answer that, we should first look at the creators’ overall visions for their work, and then see what changed on the adaptation room floor.
Jones’ book uses typical fairy tale conventions, such as curses, enchanted items, and evil witches. However, it often challenges the assumptions readers will make. As the story begins,”In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite the misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if you set out to seek your fortunes.”
Where the book focused on magic and turning Western fairytale tropes on their heads, Miyazaki’s film doesn’t seem to play on what his audience thinks they know like the book did. He uses the same events and characters, more or less, but while Jones’ book discusses love(s), strengths, weaknesses, and the unexpected, Miyazaki’s refocuses the story to comment on loyalty, courage, and the cost of war.
There are, however, changes between his version and Jones’.
Perhaps the most obvious difference with character is Sophie. With her transformation into an old woman, book Sophie’s debilitating timidity morphs into churlish nosiness. She pouts and scowls and snoops on Howls while he courts women. Such a telling change could prompt much discussion (which I’ll save for a pure book blog), but I’ll mention it here only long enough to say we don’t see witness much of Sophie’s rudeness in Miyazaki’s version. She certainly becomes bolder, but we don’t see her faults, which matter later, put on display.
To give you an idea of…okay just for fun, here’s a (very abridged) list of names Howl calls Sophie:
- “Busy old fool, unruly Sophie”
- “Mrs. Nose”
- “overactive old thing”
- “rude as well as a bully”
- “One Woman Force of Chaos”
And my personal favorite:
“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”
At about the halfway point, Miyazaki’s movie totally diverges from the source material and culminates in a completely different climax. Though no less emotionally satisfying, Miyazaki takes the film to an entirely different conclusion. So can we still call it a faithful adaptation? In answering, we must complete the definition of the word adaptation itself.
Merriam Webster’s online dictionary gives an example of adaptation‘s primary definition: as in “a new adaptation of an old recipe.”
The third definition (we’re skipping the second as it’s more or less identical to the first) veers toward the scientific, but perhaps mentions of science aren’t out of plane in a discussion of the careful process of adaptation:
b: modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.
Let’s keep those ideas in mind as we explore some differences between the book and movie.
Unique to The Book:
- Megan and Gareth, Howl’s sister and brother-in-law, and their children Mari and Neil
- Miss Angorian
- Martha, Sophie’s youngest sister (and her and Lettie’s magical shennanigans)
- Mrs. Fairfax
- Sophie’s powers
- A lot of sidestory with Michael
- The Witch of the Waste’s backstory and fate
- Mrs. Pentstemmon’s fate
- The Wizard Suliman’s fate
- The identity of the enchanted dog
- Prince Justin’s tale
Conclusion: this is mostly do to with characters; the ones that don’t appear in both versions or the ones whose stories change all have to do with the conclusion and overall theme of the work.
Unique to the Film:
- Sophie’s appearance changes depending on how she’s feeling (though this is more an extension of some hints in the book) and she returns to her younger self at night.
- Fanny acts as an agent to Madame Suliman/Witch and betrays Sophie.
- The Witch of the Waste’s fate.
- Critique of modernity and technology.
- Mrs. Pentstemmon and the Wizard Suliman are combined to make Madam Suliman, a warmonger who wants Howl to use magic to fight for the government in a WWI-type conflict.
- Howl transforms into an avian creature (he does have an ability to shapeshift in the book) to meddle with both sides of the war.
- Oh yeah, the war.
Conclusion: All of this has to do with the changing of theme. It’s no longer a reversal of fairy tale conventions (characters repeatedly assume Fanny is a wicked stepmother in the book although she repeatedly disproves this), but thoughts on the cost of violence.
Events, themes, and characters in the book that play a role in the film:
- Sophie works for her stepmother Fanny at a hat shop in the town of Market Chipping while her beautiful sister Lettie gets too many male suitors at Cesari’s Bakery. She is timid and aware she leads a boring life.
- The Witch of the Waste curses Sophie to live as an old woman.
- Sophie finds the castle while fleeing home and convinces Calcifer the fire demon to let her stay in exchange for breaking a mysterious contract he has with the Wizard Howl, a fearsome sorcerer known to eat young girls’ hearts.
- Michael/Markl, Howl’s apprentice, shows her around and despairs of her cleaning everything.
- The magical door and wheel with different-colored wedges that open onto different locations.
- Howl throws a tantrum after Sophie cleans the bathroom and mislabels his hair care products, resulting in pink hair (or in Miyazaki’s version, multicolored hair). To demonstrate his displeasure, he fills the house with slime he secreted himself. Delightful.
- Sophie blackening Howl’s name to Mrs. Pentstemmon.
- The Witch of the Waste and Sophie have an exchange on the steps of the palace.
- A mysterious turnip-head scarecrow.
- An enchanted dog related to the Witch of the Waste.
- Howl moves the castle to Market Chipping and they open a flower shop.
- Blob-like minions of the Witch of the Waste.
- Green uniforms of the soldiers.
- The Witch of the Waste is a tragic figure.
- There’s a Wizard Suliman.
- Importance of Family.
- Howl’s vanity and cowardice.
- Sophie’s search for confidence.
- Themes of age and maturity vs. youth and immaturity.
- Calcifer and Howl’s true relationship.
- Who breaks the curse and how.
Conclusion: This is a long and likely incomplete list. Clearly Miyazaki knew his source material well; most of the groundwork and major building blocks of the book remain intact. Miyazaki may have made a different creation with them and added some new material here and there, but the beauty and maturity of the original shines through.
Perhaps a faithful adaptation need not follow its source material line for line or theme for theme. Perhaps, if a true master molds the source material, it’s enough to use the same substance to create something new.
Screenshot Credit: Studio Ghibli, Toho
Original Howl’s Moving Castle Cover Art:
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3792460