Spoiler Alert!! I will be talking some endings and other spoiler-ish elements so just beware.
It’s a rare time for me to notice that I actually enjoyed an adaption over the original novel. Considering how subpar most adaptations are. I don’t talk about this much but my favourite Studio Ghibli film and romance story in general is Howls Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki.
Sophie resonates with me as a character and I love the idea of the basic eldest daughter running away with a wizard who’s friends with a fire demon. So in order to prolong and thicken my excitement for this story, I decided to read the book as well.
The book was good, don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautifully written, casual fantasy that’s very similar to Miyazakis’ form of ‘soft’ worldbuilding. Or ‘frolicking fantasy’ as some reviewers put it. You don’t know everything going on in the created world but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Like how we never really know what happens in the Hufflepuff dormitories. At least not until the Rowling Unnecessary Head canon Era.
Even though I enjoyed the book, it left me feeling quite deprived compared to what I had in the movie.
In the book, Sophie is the eldest daughter with two siblings; one sister is Lettie and another is Martha who’s a half-sister. Their mother and father passed away so the girls are being raised by Marthas’ birth mother, Fanny. Sophie is cursed to be an old lady just as quickly as she does in the movie and everything leading up to it is pretty much identical to the Miyazaki adaptation. Except she talks to this shepherd for a longer time than I think was necessary considering it had no effect on the plot itself.
This comes to the first instance where the adaption is better: Miyazaki did a really good job in tying up all the beginning scenes into a neater knot.
The book isn’t horribly paced but compared to the movie, the scenes are just scattered all over the place.
Miyazakis’ version had a simple sequence: Sophie works in the hat shop and walks out –> gets harassed by some soldiers and gets rescued by Howl —> turns into an old lady by the Witchs’ curse —> goes to the mountains and pulls the scarecrow (name: Turnip Head) out of bush —> scarecrow finds the castle for her —> Sophie enters castle and meets Calcifer.
The Dianne Wynne Jones novel has this same sequence played out in breaks which sounds fine at first, but it creates problems with the pacing towards the end (I’ll talk about it in a minute). I get that the novel has more characters to work with. You have Fanny, Lettie and Martha which are characters that the reader might wonder about later. I understand that but in the end, those people don’t really matter all that much in terms of plot.
That’s the beauty of Miyazakis’ Howls Moving Castle; you’re kind of just frolicking along with Sophie and Howl. With those minimum characters, soft worldbuilding and a simple plot, it’s just a really nice movie to keep watching. Then again, that’s just Studio Ghibli in general.
Another issue I had was with the characters themselves. Many book readers already know that Howl and Sophie fight a lot more in the novel. Howl is needier and Sophie is a whole lot more nosy. Howl also is much more of a player and women are frightened of him as opposed to getting excited about his castles’ arrival. Sophie and Howl kept brushing the borderline of annoying throughout the book and not in the endearing way. There were points where I didn’t even really ship them anymore. I loved the iconic hair freak-out scene though and I also think it was way better that Howls’ hair only turned a little pink in the novel. It would’ve been so much funnier if the change was that subtle.
I’m not saying I hated these two in the novel but they just weren’t a couple I’d root for. Howl was constantly chatting up people and it gave little to no room for his relationship with Sophie to flourish. They barely talked about their feelings for one another until the final ten pages which was again—barely. And their ‘happily ever after’ was just underwhelming at best.
Also I just got really turned off when the whole Lettie and Howl situation happened. I know it wasn’t what it looked like but the novel really dragged that part on and it was just—a big no. Don’t do the whole ‘I used to date your sister’ thing. It’s never been a good story point and it never will be.
I’m very glad Miyazaki completely ignored the whole Lettie and Howl thing because adding those elements just sours the romantic energy.
Howl is a much more interesting character to watch in the movie. That touch of Ghibli where he transforms into the monster just made it more otherworldly. I really didn’t like that Howl just went to Wales in the novel. Once again, not horrible but there was nothing interesting about that part of him.
The Miyazaki Howl was anti-war, struggling to be his true self, and a genuinely good guy. He welcomed everyone that entered his castle and called them family (Found Family Trope HELLOOO!). It was sweet and it made me actually like Howl. Which is kinda the point if you’re making him a love interest to the main character.
I preferred that Michael was changed into a child (named Markyl) because it just added more variation to the character line-up. Michael was sweet and endearing but Markyl was just the cutest thing and that scene with Sophie where he tells her stay is just…there’s no words, I love him. It’s also Ghibli so having a kid in there is basically law in that studio.
And Miyazakis’ Witch of the Waste was miles better than the novel Witch. I cannot stress this enough, the novel Witch was boring. She was just a normal witch with nothing to be interested about and the novel doesn’t even give her much development either. I just didn’t find anything gripping about her.
A villain makes or breaks a story just as much as the hero does. So even if I liked Sophie and Howl, the Witch is just still not great.
The movie Witch was like a Ghibli Ursula. Her and Sophies’ dynamic is also hilarious and it made the Witchs’ arc one of my favorites. How many Young Adult Romance Fantasies can you name that has the villainess Witch and main girl have a stair climbing argument? Not one.
I laugh at that scene every single time I watch it because I know I’m never gonna see that anywhere else. Especially not in a fantasy romance movie with a pretty wizard man.
Then the ending. The movie had way more drama, tension and was just ten times more exciting than the novel. The novel ending was messy and it seemed like Jones had to push all the characters together in a dump of information because everything else was dragged out. So the movie ending was better in my opinion.
I have a theory that Miyazaki must’ve noticed the part where Howl and Sophie had little to no backing to their ‘happily ever after’. At least in the movie, you know that Howl had seen older Sophie in his childhood telling him to go find her. It’s not the most mind-blowing twist in the world but it gives the smidge of reasoning as to why Howl treats Sophie the way he does.
It explains why Howl was there when Sophie was harassed and spoke those specific words to her. It also explains why Howl doesn’t make a huge fuss about her as an old lady and why he wants to take care of her. Howl knows what Sophie would mean to him in the future. That twist was minor and simple but it answered so many ignored questions for you so you can enjoy the beauty of their relationship.
All in all, both mediums did the story well but I just enjoyed the Miyazakis’ version of it.
I think that’s everything. This is a strange experience for me because I’m a heavy advocate that books translate stories way better than movies. But then again, this is Miyazaki and his storytelling is amazing. I will continue to scour out Dianne Wynne Jones’ work because she has an immense library of work and I also encourage you all to read the book. See if you had any of your own opinions on it. Maybe you liked it better than the movie.
I will talk to you next week!