howl’s moving castle

I have loved Studio Ghibli films since I first saw The Cat Returns about fifteen years ago. My current top five are: Pom Poko, Spirited Away, The Wind Rises, The Cat Returns and of course, My Neighbour Totoro (I’m all about that Cat Bus). As I am on this learning-films-were-books-first streak, I decided to pick up Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and give it a read.

It turns out that the film is more of an homage than a true adaptation. Perhaps the major difference is Miyazaki’s focus on the war. No warships or flying machines, no Blob Men, no demon soldiers in the book. Jones says*: “Miyazaki and I were both children in World War II and we seem to have gone opposite ways in our reactions to it. I tend to leave the actual war out (we all know how terrible wars are), whereas Miyazaki (who feels just the same) has his cake and eats it, representing both the nastiness of a war and the exciting scenic effects of a big bombing raid.”

But even apart from that, the major themes, characters, locations – all different.

The book centres around Sophie Hatter, her two sisters, the curse put on her by the Witch of the Waste and the bargain she enters into with the (terrifying) fire demon Calcifer. Oh, and also Howl. Sounds similar so far right?

Here’s a brief (as possible) synopsis: Sophie’s father dies and her stepmother Fanny (mark of vintage here if I’ve ever read one) has to find three daughters apprenticeships. The youngest, Martha, is shipped far north to apprentice to a witch – she is the most likely to succeed. The middle-child Lettie is sent to the local bakery to sell cream cakes and be beautiful and find a husband (the two actually enchant their appearances so that they can swap, because Lettie is ambitious and Martha wants ten children). Sophie stays at the family hattery which she will one day inherit. Sophie is great at crafting bespoke hats but bad at customers. She says to one: “If you’re fool enough to wear that bonnet with a face like that, you wouldn’t have the wit to spot the King himself if he came begging—if he hadn’t turned to stone first just at the sight of you.” (p. 30)

The ‘truth’ is that eldest siblings are always least likely to find success; they mustn’t get too greedy and can blame their unavoidable uselessness on their firstborn status. This weighs heavily on Sophie’s mind even as she discovers her true power. And here’s a really exciting and important plot difference from the film – Sophie is magical. The Witch of the Waste curses Sophie for enchanting hats and ‘competing’ with her (this is never explained in the film).

So Sophie leaves the hattery as an old woman to try to find a wizard or witch to make her young again. She knows the gossip about Howl from the hat shop, that he eats young girl’s hearts. And look, he kind of does. In a figurative sense. He chases women until they fall for him, and then he loses interest. He’s a lady-killer. And it’s definitely not a love at first sight/float over the rooftops kind of deal when the two of them first meet.

Howl is actually from modern-day Wales, (as is the Wizard Suliman). They enter the magical world through enchanted doorways, like the one in Howl’s castle. This is a delightful element of plot, and Howl has a TV watching, jean wearing, non-magical family which he visits regularly. In one chapter Howl goes to a rugby club soirée and returns to the castle drunk.

Howl and his apprentice Michael make a living selling spells; your basic spells of protection, but also ones to unblock drains, fetch goats and make good beer. Howl leaves Michael (a young man in the book) to do most of the work while he is off chasing women. When the King’s personal Wizard Suliman is killed by the Witch of the Waste, the King calls upon a reluctant Howl to take his position, and to return the King’s brother, Prince Justin. Sophie often calls Howl a “slitherer-outer” who refuses to do anything he doesn’t fancy.

Back at the moving castle, Calcifer agrees to release Sophie from her curse, but first, Sophie must discover the terms of Calcifer and Howl’s contract and break it. To this end, Sophie becomes the resident cleaner, and she uses this as an excuse to search for answers. We discover that magical folk can enter into bargains with demons to bolster their power, and both Howl and the Witch of the Waste have captured fire demons. There are multiple showdowns between the two mega-magi, and in fact, the Witch remains a bitter foe until the end. This is vastly different from the dottering interpretation of the Witch in Miyazaki’s film (remember she is stripped of her powers early on and then has to be spoon-fed for the rest of the time).

I loved Jones’s writing style. She is sarcastic and disparaging of her own characters, and loves to drop the doozy “Botheration!” now and again. My favourite thing is when she describes the May Day revellers as swaggering “beerily to and fro.” And even though Calcifer is remarkably more demon-like than the cute cartoon version, the writing is light and fanciful and never ceases to be funny.

While reading, I pictured Sophie’s home-town of Market Chipping just like Diagon Alley, certainly dim and narrow and full of cobble-stones. Jones agrees that the animated location (more like Cardiff) was way off, but she invented the town herself so there was no visual reference. The steampunk vibe in the film is entirely Miyazaki’s invention. The film also loses a lot by not following the storyline of the sisters and several other enchanted characters (who I won’t mention because it would spoil the story). I would love to see Howl’s Moving Castle remade as a live-action film (and hey Warner Bros, there are another two books in the series).

This book was published in 1986, so you can imagine that it doesn’t dive as deeply into representation as more contemporary fantasy, but I still loved it.

Read this book if you’re a fan of Terry Pratchett style YA fantasy or Roald Dahl. Also if you love the Studio Ghibli film, it’s fun to read for comparison (Netflix just put the film up so you can read and then watch straight away).

I give Howl’s Moving Castle 5 out of 5 delicious cream cakes.

I bought my copy here. *It is a 2009 edition which includes an interview with Jones.

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