The books of Diana Wynne Jones are charming and playful, with meandering plots that resemble a stroll in the English countryside (plus magic!). The films of Hayao Miyazaki are inventive, startling, and visionary (plus magic!). You’d think the two wouldn’t mix. Actually, after viewing the film Howl’s Moving Castle, many people would say just that–the two don’t mix.
I’m a big fan of both Jones and Miyazaki, so I guess it’s no surprise that I enjoy both the novel Howl’s Moving Castle and the film based on it. But I have to admit that they are two very different creatures. The central plot of both the book and the film is roughly the same: a young woman named Sophie is cursed to transform into an old woman and then encounters the magical, moving castle owned by the wizard Howl and his fire demon.
But the book presents several quiet episodes that don’t appear in the movie. The movie for its part adds a lot of grim war scenes and ups the role of the main villain, the Witch of the Waste (although she loses her villain status in the end). I’m guessing that many fans of Diana Wynne Jones’s work found the film just too weird. Why does Howl turn into a gross bird-monster? What’s with all the apocalyptic war scenes? How did the Witch manage to stuff herself into that teeny tiny vehicle that looks like it can barely contain her massive face?
That’s why I love the movie! It’s so weird. It’s full of surprises. Instead of getting a page-to-frame translation of the novel, we get a whole new story to enjoy. The castle isn’t like anything anyone would expect, yet it’s still fascinating and homey and quite magical despite its mechanical appearance. The Wizard Howl is more tragic (and more bishounen, if you care about that kind of thing). Sophie is more comic with her old woman grunts and shuffles and cackles.
Miyazaki definitely imposed his own style onto Jones’s story–his typical anti-war message, his mechanical marvels, his love of nature. Oddest of all, he gave Jones’s English characters a Japanese air. I love seeing Jones’s novel through Miyazaki’s lens, especially since I know I always have Jones’s book to go back to when I want to return to the original story. Then again, I tend to prefer movies that diverge from their source material because I don’t see the need for repetition.
How do you feel about movies that have a different take on the books they’re based on? What do you think about differences between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle?