Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book vs. Movie Review: Howl's Moving Castle

The Book: 1986

This children's book by Diana Wynne Jones was published in the 1980s when I would have been part of its target audience, but I didn't discover it until the 2000s.  Nonetheless it quickly became one of my all time favorites.  I don't think there is an age limit for appreciating Howl's Moving Castle - it's one of those books that I turn to when I want something comforting, satisfying, and entertaining, and I always enjoy it no matter how many times I've read it before. 
Sophie, our heroine, is a timid and rather bored young woman who bemoans her fate as an eldest sister, because in a land where fairy-tales are everyday realities, everyone knows that only younger sisters lead lives of adventure and romance.  But Sophie's life takes an unexpected turn when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste and finds herself magically transformed into an old woman.  Not wanting to face the shock and sympathy of her family, she runs (or rather hobbles) away, determined to seek her fortune and break the curse.  In doing so, she finds herself teeming up with the infamous Wizard Howl whose magical moving castle has been terrifying the inhabitants of her village.
This is a light-hearted book that offers a clever twist and a humorous commentary on the traditional fairytale.  It is also a coming of age story, a fable about realizing your potential rather than accepting and internalizing the limitations the world places on you.  Sophie begins her story believing that she is a boring, plain girl, destined for a boring, plain life working in her family's hat shop but, forced to test her limits and and take her fate into her own hands, she gradually discovers that all her assumptions about herself and those around her are wrong.  Not a bad message to take away, right?

 I give the book 5 out of 5 seven league boots!

The Movie: 2004

First of all, if you haven't seen any of Miyazaki's films, do yourself a favor and go watch all of them ASAP.  I can't say enough about how appealing his style of animation is.  His movies are enjoyable for all ages and Howl's Moving Castle is no exception.  I should explain that I usually watch foreign films in their original language with English subtitles - I don't tend to like the English voice-overs, especially when they use a cast of celebrities, because recognizable voices distract me from the story.  But in this case, I thought the celebrities were well cast and did an excellent job, even when their voices didn't quite fit my own imagination of the characters or their descriptions in the book.
The cast has many excellent actors and features Christian Bale as Howl and Billy Crystal as his fire demon, Calcifer.  How can someone as apparently snobbish as I am tolerate voice casting that so clearly prefers star power over faithfulness to the text?  I don't know - somehow, it just works!
And I mean, just look at how adorable Calcifer is.
Even when he's trying to be scary!
And the Moving Castle has a face!
There are other, even bigger differences between the movie and the book.  In the movie, the story goes off in a very different direction, sidelining the conflict between Howl and the Witch of the Waste and plunging the kingdom into a visually impressive (but not very well explained) war.  This adds drama and also offers an interesting statement about how human innovation (here symbolized by magic) is bent to destructive purposes by governments focused on conflict.
This storyline provides some fantastic imagery and action, so I can't be too upset that other storylines were cut or reduced.  As a matter of fact, I think that not enough was cut to allow the new storyline to fully develop.  At the end of the film, nearly all the storylines except the central one have been left dangling.  They are brought back up and resolved so quickly and offhandedly that they feel very much like an afterthought on the part of the writers.  I think it would have been better to have cut those parts out entirely than to have to scramble to tie them up in the last 2 minutes of the film.   
Although aspects of the story can be confusing and the end feels a little bit slapped together, the movie is still satisfying in many ways.  I think the greatest strength of the movie is that animation is an ideal medium for portraying fantasy and magic and Miyazaki's style is also especially well suited to telling stories of this kind.

I give the movie 3 1/2 seven league boots!

For further reading, check out this Mental Floss article on authors who hated the movie versions of their books

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