This piece contains spoilers.
Whether it’s character depth or stylistic choices, the book most often surpasses the movie. Naturally, this is because there is so much that can slip by during the conversion between the two mediums. This is why I tend to not involve myself with two forms of the same content. If I watch the movie, then I will not read the book.
And yet, when a fellow editor recommended the book version of Howl’s Moving Castle to me, insisting it was very different—in a good way—and also quite British, it was more than enough to hook me in.
However, during my first read-through I kept imagining the characters in their Miyazaki-animated form, with their English dubbings (and Christian Bale as Howl!), against my will. I wanted to experience the story and see the characters as Dianna Wynne Jones, not Miyazaki, weaved them to be. But that was impossible. I had re-watched the movie to the extent that even the subtlest movements of the characters were engrained in my mind. So I accepted the pain and finished the novel.
As expected, the book was quite interesting. Definitely a “page-turning, sorry-I-can’t-eat-dinner-until-I-finish-this” kind of experience, because it was so different.
The only commonality between the book and the movie was the basic premise of the story. The characters’ personalities were much more vivid and extreme in Jones’ work, making Miyazaki’s version seem much more “Japanese” than it did before.
Here are some key differences I noted:
Difference 1: Sophie’s Family
After reading the book, I finally understood who that blonde girl in the bakery was – she was Sophie’s sister, Martha. In the novel, Martha tells Sophie that her stepmother is taking advantage of her hat-making abilities. Sophie thenleaves the shop and confronts her stepmother.
A large portion of the novel actually focuses on Sophie’s familial relationships, which was pretty much dropped from the entire movie. (The only scene in the movie that features Sophie’s family is when Lettie says “Do something for yourself once in a while, okay?” as Sophie is leaving).
Another big change: Sophie’s family, though human, is magical. There is no strict divide between wizard/witch and the average human in the novel because humans – can be trained to harness their magical abilities by learning spells and such. Sophie has talent for fashion, but also magic, which makes her infinitesimally cooler.
D2: Sophie’s character change
The young Sophie in the movie is quite mild-mannered and considerate, which makes me want to describe her as “nice” and nothing more. I wouldn’t have felt anything for her character if she had not been cursed. As the old granny Sophie, she is much quirkier and rougher with the people around her, alike to the book version of herself.
In the book Sophie is blunt, stubborn, nosy, and she protects herself by creating a wall of anger around her if anyone tries to get too close. She’s a more exciting protagonist.
D3: Howl’s Eccentricity
This is best captured during Howl’s green slime/ tantrum scene in the movie, when Sophie messes up his beautification potions and he accidentally dyes his hair black. Although it’s a funny scene where Howl looks pretty pathetic, it didn’t really fit with the previous images of Howl that Miyazaki presented in the movie. He always seemed so blasé and charismatic before this particular scene, I didn’t realize that he was the type to overreact about such a small mistake.
Basically, he is not the dramatic, narcissistic player that we meet in the novel. In the book, Howl is constantly grooming himself and playing his guitar to woo girls all over the country. He slips out of any situation that requires him to make decisions or take on responsibilities (seen in the movie when he makes Sophie act like his mom). But in the movie, he’s out of the castle most of the time because he’s busy with war, not girls. Which makes him seem more serious and responsible than he actually is in the book.
I guess he’s less interesting to some people in the movie version, but I think I’d prefer movie Howl over narcissistic Howl. Just a personal preference.
D4: The Witch of the Waste
In the movie she is reduced to a sad, fat granny who we all sympathize with (except for the scene when she grabs Howl’s heart—SO irritating).
On the other hand, in the book, she’s an elegant lady who is evil, twisted, and obsessed with Howl. Her master plan is to kidnap Wizard Sulliman (whose existence is downplayed in the movie), the King’s son Justin, and Howl, to combine their body parts to make a perfect mate for herself. After picking out her favorite parts, she leaves the rest to become a scarecrow, a skull, and a man who can change into a dog.
D6: The ending
In both the novel and the movie the ending is quite rushed. The movie ends quite romantically; it’s almost a bit too cheesy for my taste. Everyone’s suddenly good, the world becomes a happier place, and love is in the air. On the other hand, in the book Howl is still a narcissist. Less so, but still.
Overall, yes, the movie does lack essential character and plot points in the novel. But it does have its own merits, like the visual metaphors that aren’t present in the novel.
In the movie, Howl finds it more and more difficult to revert back from being a black bird into his original form and this portrays his descent into heartlessness. Also, Sophie in the movie temporarily changes back into her normal young self when she is happy, or in love. Both of these elements do not occur in the novel, and it’s an interesting way for Miyazaki to show us the characters’ internal struggles against their respective curses.
The greatest asset of the movie is undoubtedly the impact of the astounding visuals and the music of the movie. These are beautiful, detailed, and subtle.
The book and movie versions of Howl’s Moving Castle are vastly different, yet compelling in their own, unique ways. Jones’ book and Miyazaki’s movie appeal to both the mind and the heart – and that is how you know that Howl’s Moving Castle is a moving and incredible speculative piece.
-contributed by Ariana Youm