Alright, be honest now – how many of you thought of the movie first?
Hands up, lemme count. Yeah, that seems about right.
Okay, then. How many of you at least know it was originally a book? Oh, a few of you, I’m surprised. To those of you not raising your hands, yes, it’s true. Before Hayao Miyazaki’s Academy Award nominated movie and Joe Hisaishi’s stunning soundtrack was a humble novel, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, published in 1986.
Certain elements remain the same. Sophie is a young woman who is cursed by the Witch of the Waste to be an old woman, and Wizard Howl is still a dramatic wizard who lives in a moving castle, powered by a fire demon named Calcifer. There was, indeed, a scarecrow that followed Sophie occasionally. Sophie and Wizard Howl do keep their love story. That is about where the similarities end. This is good! In fact, the success of the movie is probably because Miyazaki knew that a story for the screen had to be different from a story for the pages.
Howl’s Moving Castle the book opens as follows:
“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 fortunes.
Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters.”
Immediately, there are discrepancies between the novel and the movie. In the novel, Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and this gives her a seemingly set path for her story to follow. Jones draws upon popular elements or – dare I say – tropes of old fairy tales.
To highlight, how many stories have unfortunate eldest sisters? You probably never noticed because the stories are never about the elder sisters. However, you might remember that the protagonist, the girl who wins the happy ending in the fairy tale, is always the youngest. The Three Sisters features two unlucky elder sisters and Nella, the fortunate youngest. Some versions of Cinderella take the time to specify that the ugly stepsisters are also the elder ugly stepsisters. East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the youngest daughter marries the white bear and her elder sisters are the cause of the conflict, and so on and so forth.
Immediately, Jones has set the scene for a story that works best in a written form. Although fairy tales are originally an oral tradition, in modern times, we have come to associate them with written story collections.Concepts such as seven-league boots are difficult to translate visually, but people familiar with the fantasy stories of old will instantly grasp the effect Jones aspires to achieve when they read the word written out.
The story also depends heavily upon something akin to a prophecy in the form of a poem. It is a relatively long work with several seemingly nonsensical elements, and I don’t believe it would have stuck in mind if heard in a verbal form. A poem like the one used would likely have served to confuse or lose the viewer in a movie. In text format, however, the reader can check back on the writing as much as they would like, and Jones could also allude back to the poem in the narrative by using the same words.
This point onwards will have spoilers; only proceed if you already have read or are certain you do not plan to read Howl’s Moving Castle the novel
As mentioned before, however, the broader scope of a novel allows for a far larger cast than in an animated movie. For the sake of brevity and cohesion, as well as the budget, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle changed and omitted several characters, the first three of which being Sophie’s stepmother, sister, and half-sister. If you’ve seen the movie and can’t recall that Sophie had a family, that’s because they were barely there at all!
However, these three women play a vital role when it comes to Jones’ intention of breaking convention. Fanny Hatter, though Sophie’s stepmother, is neither ugly nor cruel, loving her biological daughter and her step-daughters equally. Lettie Hatter is Sophie’s sister and considered to be very beautiful, and as such expected to marry a man and live a decent life. Martha Hatter is Sophie’s half-sister and Fanny’s biological child, and due to her intelligence, is arranged to study as an apprentice under a famous witch. Being the youngest, she is also expected to be the most fortunate.
Of course, there wouldn’t be all too much convention-breaking if it was left at that. Although Sophie and the reader don’t know it until partway through the book, Lettie and Martha aren’t satisfied with their roles and supposed fortunes – as such, Lettie casts a spell to temporarily switch their appearances. She goes to the witch to study magic while Martha takes her place at the local bakery, eventually falling in love with one Michael Fisher.
This story is far more effective as a novel because, as mentioned before, we associate fairytales and old stories with books. Drawing on this thread of nostalgia allows for the audience to be more aware of the subversion of stereotypes taking place.
I must also, however, commend Ghibli for removing the sisters’ subplots from the animated film, as their stories would have distracted from the cohesive narration of the film, and also the spell used to change their appearances required them to gradually return to themselves. This would have been too difficult and too costly in a movie.
Continuing on, however, one advantage a novel may have over a film is also its length. A movie, particularly an animated one, is constrained by the limits of what a movie is – films are rarely more than two and a half hours, and animated films are even shorter. This means that the story told must be relatively focused in theme and story alike.
A novel is more free to play with its narrative. I recall one of my biggest surprises reading the novel after the movie was that Wizard Howl was not always from Ingary. Instead, the book reveals that he was actually from the reader’s world – he’s from Wales! Fancy that, Wizard Howl Jenkins Pendragon was actually from Wales, and he has both a sister and a nephew! I can only imagine how jarring this revelation might have been in a film, particularly whose international appeal depended on its strange fantastical nature.
Furthermore, a novel has more words to play with than a movie, which is dependent solely upon dialogue. Adding to the fairytale nature I keep referring back to, Jones writes this story with a peculiar cadence to her prose, which I feel is very visible from the start of the book:
“I call that sensible of her,” Sophie said to a bonnet she was pleating silk into.
Fanny was pleased with this news. “I knew she’d be all right!” she said happily. It occurred to Sophie that Fanny was glad Lettie was no longer around.
“Lettie’s bad for custom,” she told the bonnet, pleating away at mushroom-colored silk. “She would make even you look glamorous, you dowdy old thing. Other ladies look at Lettie and despair.”
This scene in the story continues on, interspersing backstories and the passage of time with Sophie’s work on the hats. A film has the downside of difficulty when it comes to giving backstories – they require either flashbacks or a monologue, which when done poorly can break a story. A novel, particularly one written in past tense, has a kind of ease when it comes to establishing things that happened before.
I greatly enjoy and admire both versions of Howl’s Moving Castle. The film was my first Ghibli movie as a child, and I was utterly fascinated by the art style, score, and story alike. I read the novel years later when I discovered there was a novel, and this comparison is what made me realize the advantages and disadvantages a book may have over a movie.
A not-so-well-known fun fact for you: Howl and Sophie have more than one book. Although they are no longer the protagonists, Jones has other books set in the lands surrounding Ingary in which Wizard Howl and Sophie, now married, make a cameo, the sequel being Castle in the Sky, not related to Studio Ghibli’s Laputa, and the third book being The House of Many Ways. Word had it that Jones was in the process of writing the fourth book when she passed away.
Howl’s Moving Castle will always be dear to my heart, and if you haven’t given it a chance, please do try – the little differences and familiar similarities are charming.