“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 the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.”
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.
The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.
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.
Differences From The Book:
On a first comment, it has to be noted that Hayao Miyazaki takes a very different approach to Diana Wynne Jones‘ book, so there are many changes to go through. With his focus on war, many of the background details are altered in varying ways, although it does follow the plot of the book almost exactly at the same time.
Here are the changes in chronological order:
- In the book, Sophie has red hair. In the film, she has brown.
- In the book, Sophie talks to the hats, telling them they show youth or allure, which is why so many people are buying her hats. She does not in the film, and her magic abilities are not hinted at.
- In the film, there is no mention of her Father dying, nor that Fanny is her step mother. Sophie calls her Mother, instead, and there is no question about where her Father is. The book better emphasises the struggled that the family were in at the start, explaining that Fanny had to pull all three girls out of school.
- In the book, Sophie has two sisters, Martha and Lettie, but she only has one, Lettie, in the film.
- In the book, Lettie is sent to be an apprenticeship at a local pastry shop, Martha goes to study with a witch named Annabel Fairfax, whilst Sophie becomes Fanny’s apprentice at the hat shop. In the film, we only see Lettie at the pastry shop but, in the film, Lettie reveals that she and Martha have actually swapped places using a spell, since Martha wants to settle down, get married, and have ten children.
- In the book, Sophie believes that she has bad luck because she is the oldest of three. In the film, Sophie is only miserable because she thinks she is ugly.
- In the film, Howl helps Sophie escape from a soldier trying to hit on her in town, flying her into the air. In the book, Sophie is hit on by Howl, but she is too nervous to respond and walks off.
- In the book, the Witch does have to henchmen but they look like normal soldiers, not like blobs as they do in the film.
- In the book, the Witch comes into the shop with a red-haired young man. In the film, she is on her own.
- In the book, the Witch announces that she is here because she wants to get rid of any competition Sophie might present to her (in regards to Howl). In the film, she only says to send her regards to him.
- In both the book and the film, Sophie pulls a scarecrow out of a hedge. In the film, the scarecrow follows her and she asks it to find the castle for her. In the book, she wishes it luck and it goes away.
- In the book, Sophie also passes a dog caught in a rope tied to a post and frees it, even though it growls and snaps at her. The dog is not included in the film, which is quite important towards the end of the book, which I will mention later.
- In the book, Sophie spots Howl’s castle and commands it to stop. Two doors won’t open but, eventually, she finds a small back door, which opens even as the castle is moving away from her. In the film, she has to run after the castle but the door opens easily.
- In the film, Calcifer looks very different from how he described in the book. In the book, he is a lot more demon-like and even quite scary.
- In the film, Michael is named Markl. He is also only a young boy in the film, whereas he is old enough to date Sophie’s sister, Martha, in the book.
- In the film, we see many ships and aircrafts as a war is going on, which Howl is requested to serve in. In the book, there is no war going on and, instead, Howl is requested to find the King’s son, Justin.
- In the book, Howl wears more extravagant clothing than he does in the film.
- In the book, Howl has a guitar which he plays. This is not in the film, although it is another important detail for later in the book. Michael also comments that if Howl has left with his guitar, that this must mean he is wooing a girl. We later find out that the guitar is to do with finding Justin, however.
- In the film, the scarecrow returns trying to get into the castle. Sophie isn’t scared of it and lets it stick around. In the book, Sophie is terrified of it gets Calcifer to speed up so that they can get rid of it.
- Whilst Sophie is cleaning in the book, she finds love letters in Michael’s room which she later finds out is Martha. This doesn’t happen in the film, but Michael does ask Sophie to save his room for last to seemingly hide something. Since Martha doesn’t exist in the film, either, we don’t see her relationship with Michael.
- In the book, Howl leaves his castle quite often. Michael and Calcifer tell Sophie it’s because he’s out pursuing a girl. In the film, he usually leaves to take part in the war, turning into a bird to fly alongside the aircrafts. He doesn’t turn into a bird in the book and, instead of leaving to pursue girls in the film, he’s usually out fighting in the war.
- In the film, Howl comments that some wizards have turned themselves into monsters to help the King fight in the war and that they won’t be able to change back or even remember that they were human. This is not in the book.
- In the book, Sophie answers the door on her own quite often and has to pretend she knows what she’s doing with giving out spells. She doesn’t do this in the film.
- In the film, Sophie returns to her normal age in her sleep. Howl sees this. She does not in the book.
- In the book, Howl talks about his current girl, who we find out is Lettie Hatter. The Lettie that Michael is dating is actually Martha. Worried about her sister, Sophie and Michael follow Howl to Mrs Fairfax’s house using seven-league boots (one step takes you ten miles), introducing Sophie as Lettie’s great-aunt. They don’t visit Mrs Fairfax in the film, there is no mention of the magical boots and, again, Martha doesn’t exist.
- In the book, Sophie meets a dog at Mrs Fairfax’s house, who is the dog from the beginning of the book and who we meet again later. The dog tries to bite Howl but, again, this dog is not in the film.
- In the film, Sophie has a note hidden in her pocket from the Witch of The Waste which hints to the curse she has placed on him. It leaves a mark on the table. In the book, this doesn’t happen. Instead, Michael finds the note and thinks it is a spell, which he tries to figure out with Sophie. To do so, Sophie and Michael try to catch a falling star, thinking this is what they must do for the spell, but they fail. Howl makes them promise that they will not try this again and, instead, decides to show them what’s through the black dial on the door. The book gives bigger hints as to what Howl’s curse is, whereas the film makes it quite straightforward and doesn’t reveal much until the end.
- In the book, the black dial leads to Howl’s house in Wales, where he has a sister, a niece, and a nephew. Howl is, in fact, Howell, an everyday Welsh man who once led an ordinary life, playing rugby and drinking with friends. His family thinks he lives a normal life and often moan at him for not doing anything worthwhile. In the film, there is no mention of Howl’s life in Wales so we lose this side to his character. The film, instead, keeps the story much more fantastical.
- In the book, the spell Sophie and Michael have been trying to figure out is actually part of Howl’s nephews homework, which flew in through the black portal when Sophie had a nosey inside. To find out why his nephew was given part of his curse for his homework, Howl goes to visit his nephew’s teacher, Miss Angorian. She’s young and pretty, making Howl forget about Lettie straight away, but she’s still engaged to Ben Sullivan, even if he has disappeared. Miss Angorian reads out the second verse of the song since Howl asked, but soon realises that it is part of the curse and that the Witch of the Waste has caught up with him. None of this is in the film, and there is no second part to the curse to be found.
- In the book, before Sophie visits the King, she and Howl visit Howl’s old tutor, Mrs Pentstemmon. She warns Sophie that Howl is going bad, sensing that Howl’s contract with Calcifer is hurting him, and informs Sophie that it’s her responsibility to break Howl’s contract. Mrs Pentstemmon is not in the film.
- In the book, Mrs Pentstemmon also makes Sophie aware of her magic abilities, telling her that her gift is to bring things to life by talking to them. In the film, Sophie has no such powers.
- In the book, Sophie goes to meet the King with Michael and Howl. In the film, she goes alone and bumps into the Witch on the way they.
- In the book, Sophie bumps into the Witch after visiting the King, when the Witch tells her that she has killed Mrs Pentstemmon. There is again no Mrs Pentstemmon in the film.
- In the film, there is a dog that follows Sophie. She believes it is Howl in disguise, but it is later revealed that it is Madame Suliman’s errand dog. There is a dog that follows Sophie in the book, but he has a much bigger purpose than the dog in the film.
- In the book, there is no Madame Suliman. There is a Ben Suliman, but he has gone missing with the King’s son. In the film, Madame Suliman seems to be a combination of Ben Suliman and Mrs Pentstemmon.
- In the book, Sophie only talks to the King about Howl helping him find his son. In the film, Madame Suliman talks about how dangerous Howl is. She tells Sophie that if Howl fights she will break his curse, if not she will strip his powers too. This is not in the book.
- In the film, Madame Suliman becomes the villain in the story, whereas it is the Witch of the Waste in the book. In the film, Suliman restores the Witch to her actual age and strips her of her powers. The Witch is useless from this point on, and Sophie even has to feed her at one point.
- In the film, Howl disguises himself as the King but is caught out by Suliman. He does not visit the King in the book and only waits outside.
- In the film, Howl, Sophie, the Witch, and the dog fly away and are attacked by Suliman’s soldiers. In the book, it is the Witch, still with all her powers, that attacks Howl’s house.
- In the film, Howl gives Sophie a ring to find Calcifer, she has to follow the light to guide her as Howl goes off to fight Madame Suliman’s henchmen. This ring is not in the book.
- In the book, Howl and the Witch start fighting magically out at sea, which disturbs the mermaids in the harbor. This means that one out of the three remaining impossible things from the curse has come true, but this doesn’t happen nor is explained in the film.
- In both the book and the film, they choose Sophie’s old hat shop to move the castle to but, in the film, Howl seems to decide all of this on his own, and it is not explained very well that they are relocating to Sophie’s old home. It is, instead, Michael that chooses the location (hinted at by Lettie) and Sophie who chooses to sell flowers.
- In the book, a dog knocks on the door and lets itself in. The dog turns into a man with red hair and manages to tell Sophie that Lettie sent him and that they’re in love, before transforming back. He reveals that he was also the man with the Witch in the hat shop at the beginning (although the Witch came alone in the film). Howl realises the dog is under a curse and transforms him back to a man (who is named Percival and worked for the Witch). Percival then explains that he told Lettie about Sophie’s curse and that Lettie sent him to the castle to make sure that Sophie didn’t fall in love with Howl (which is too late). Again, whilst there was a dog in the film, he didn’t do any of this, and Sophie’s feelings are made much more apparent.
- In the book, it is also revealed that everybody knows about Sophie’s curse, since the dog told Lettie and Lettie told Michael, etc., and that even howl knew and had attempted to cure her many times. In the film, it is just assumed that everybody knows by the end and, again, the dog doesn’t serve this purpose.
- In the book, Howl goes to Mrs Pentstemmon’s funeral disguised as a dog. He also dies his hair black for the occasion whereas, in the film, his hair turns black after transforming back from being a bird.
- In the book, Miss Angorian keeps visiting the house. Sophie gets very jealous and grumpy but, again, Miss Angorian is not in the film.
- In both the book and the film, Fanny visits the shop. In the book, she has good intentions and the whole of Sophie’s family turn up (since Howl is trying to distract Sophie from wanting to leave). In the film, Madame Suliman has forced Fanny to find Sophie after taking her husband hostage.
- In the film, Suliman’s henchmen then attack the house but, in the book, it is the Witch who returns, this time taking Howl’s Welsh family hostage.
- In the book, Percival let’s the scarecrow into the castle. In the film, he has been there the whole time since Sophie wasn’t scared of him.
- In the book, it is revealed that the scarecrow is actually the one that Sophie saved at the start of the book (giving him life by talking to him with her unknown powers). He worked for the Witch, and is a mixture of Prince Justin and Ben Sullivan, who the Witch has stitched together to make the perfect man, wanting Howl’s head for the final piece. Between Percival (the dog), the headless body that was the scarecrow with a turniphead, and the scarecrow’s skull which was in Howl’s house, they can put Prince Justin and the Wizard Suliman back together. In the film, the scarecrow is only Prince Justin under a curse.
- In the book, the Witch pretends to have stolen Miss Angorian. Sophie goes to save her, and the scarecrow (now part human again) attacks the Witch. Howl then kills the Witch’s body, but she remains alive because of her own fire demon, which turns out to be Miss Angorian. In the film, the Witch has no power and Miss Angorian doesn’t exist, but the castle is bombed.
- In the film, Calcifer has to eat Sophie’s hair to gain enough power to move the castle. This isn’t in the book either and instead, they remain in the hat shop.
- In the book, Calcifer is able to tell Sophie the details of Howl’s curse since she has guessed most of it. In the film, Sophie goes through the black portal, which the ring leads her to, and she sees a flashback of the event, telling a past Howl to find her in the future.
- In the film, the Witch tries to steal Calcifer to get Howl’s heart. Sophie puts out the fire and almost kills Calcifer (and therefore Howl) with water. She tries to find Howl to help her heal Calcifer. In the book, Miss Angorian grabs Calcifer from the fireplace and squeezes Howl’s heart to make him obey. Sophie commands her stick to beat Miss Angorian to stop her whilst, in the book, Sophie easily convinces the Witch to give her Calcifer.
- In the book, Howl crumbles the Witch’s heart in his hand, and Miss Angorian disappears. In the film, Howl doesn’t kill the Witch, since she is no longer the villain, so she remains alive.
- In the book, the minute Miss Angorian is gone two men appear where the scarecrow and Percival had been standing, one with a craggy face and red hair (the Wizard Suliman) and one with a green uniform (Prince Justin). In the film, Sophie kisses the scarecrow and he transforms back into the Prince, since a kiss from your true love breaks the curse (which makes no sense!).
- In the film, the dog has merely been spying on everybody for Suliman, who then decides to end the war.
- In the book, Sophie’s hair turns back to red. In the film, it turns grey “like starlight”.
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.