From the amazing Japanese animation film studio, Studio Ghibli, and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Howl’s Moving Castle is based on British author Diana Wynne Jones‘ 1986 fantasy novel, the first in a series of three, that follows a young, unconfident girl called Sophie Hatter (voiced by Emily Mortimer) from the fairytale land of Ingary.
For Sophie, being born the oldest of three is only the beginning of her troubles, since the oldest child is doomed to fail first. When Sophie’s father dies, her stepmother, Fanny, takes Sophie and her two sisters out of school. But whilst Lettie and Martha go off to become apprentices, Sophie is left with no one to talk to but the hats she creates. One day, the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) makes a visit to Sophie’s shop, and leaves Sophie under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady (Jean Simmons). Her only chance of breaking it is to find the ever-moving castle in the hills, and plead with the castle’s owner, the heartless Wizard Howl (Christian Bale). To untangle the enchantment, Sophie makes a deal with Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal): if Sophie can break his contract with Howl, then he will fix her curse. Finding herself caught up in Howl and the Witch’s conflict, Sophie soon discovers that there’s far more to Howl — and herself — than first meets the eye.
When it comes to Studio Ghibli films, you really can’t beat animation like it. Howl’s Moving Castle is another stunning creation, filled with beautiful backgrounds and attention to detail that’s just a marvel to watch.
Based on a young adult novel written 30 years ago now, the story and its characters do lack a little depth at times, especially that of Sophie, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a very enjoyable adventure nonetheless, with a brilliant message of self-importance running through it.
Miyazaki has commented that this film was his favourite creation, saying: “I wanted to convey the message that life is worth living”, and it’s this message that shines through, capturing the morals of Jones’ fairytale story perfectly.
However, Miyazaki does go off on his own tangent at times, deflecting from the more complex themes of Jones’ book as he, instead, focuses on a strong anti-war theme, influenced by his opposition to the USA’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the subplot of war is made to work in his film adaptation, the story does lose some of its more imaginative qualities because of this.
But what it lacks from Jones’ book, it more than makes up for in visuals and audio quality. The English dub version is great fun with Christian Bale as Howl and Billy Crystal as his trapped fire-demon, with other big names added to the voicing cast including Josh Hutcherson as Markl, Blythe Danner as Madame Suliman, and Jena Malone as Sophie’s sister, Lettie.
Whilst both very different in styles, this Studio Ghibli adapted and Jones’ original book are two of my favourites, both capturing an original and magical story that I can’t wait to read/show to my own children one day. The book and the film have very different angles, so it’s no surprise that Miyazaki sometimes goes off in his own direction. Whilst they both focus on many of the same themes and follow an almost identical plot, there are many differences that mean that the book and the film need to be judged individually: Miyazaki’s film is an artistic approach to the story with an added subplot of war, whilst Jones’ original story is more of a young adult exploration of how one judges themselves.
Although I would usually find criticisms in a book and its film adaptation feeling so different, both of these remain two of my favourites and I admire Miyazaki and Jones’ work equally, so I would definitely recommend them both, in any order.