The Wizard Howl

The Wizard Howl

Animator Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite directors, and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) one of my favorite movies of all time. Princess Mononoke is also wonderful, and My Neighbor Totoro a sublime children’s film. Packing for Dubai, with extreme space limitations, I made room for the smallish plush catbus a friend brought me from Japan.

Diana Wynne Jones is one of of my favorite fantasy authors. I had originally intended to devote this week’s post to her work. Then I watched Howl’s Moving Castle for the second time–the first since reading the DWJ novel it is based on. I should love it, right?

The movie Howl has many excellent qualities. Like Mononoke and Sprited Away, the animation is beautiful and well worth seeing on the big screen. The war footage, with the monstrous dreadnought airships and wizards in the shape of winged demons, is accomplished with the usual Miyazaki flair with all things aerial. The love story between Sophie, transformed by the Witch of the Waste into a 90-year-old crone, and the literally heartless Wizard Howl, seemed reasonably satisfying the first time around. The moving castle is just plain fun, and Billy Crystal does an OK Calcifer, if you accept that Calcifer is a cute, friendly little fire demon. (And that’s Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste.) If you haven’t watched it, do so, but also check out Miyazaki’s other, better movies. To be fair, Miyazaki only came on board after the initial director bailed on the project, so its flaws may not be all his doing.

For me, though, the book tells a far more interesting story. It’s not just that, as DWJ notes in more recent editions of the book, that Miyazaki made Sophie and Howl into gentler and nicer people. Or that he subsumed the human interest in the story in order to develop his pacifist theme. It’s that every character and plot element is more nuanced, complex, and plain dangerous in the original. Howl starts out a cowardly, womanizing drama queen; Calcifer untrustworthy and secretive. He’s a freaking captive demon, for goodness’ sake!

Sophie, the POV character, is nosy, impulsive, and officious, and also much more active than in the movie, and stronger. She sets the story in motion by (albeit without realizing it) imbuing the hats she trims for a living with magic that changes the wearer’s life. At every stage she alters her environment with often drastic consequences. Part of her arc is her discovering she is in fact a powerful witch and has to be more careful with her powers. That large chunk of plot is taken out of the movie, where she doesn’t do much more than cook, clean, and take care of the male characters.

Admittedly the novel had to be simplified for the screenplay, but without the Wales sections of the book–completely removed from the movie–Howl is pretty much a cipher. And I missed the book’s self-consciousness about fairy tale cliches…

Castle in the Air (not to be confused with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky) is billed as a sequel to Howl, but is really a stand-alone story about a carpet merchant in an alternate Baghdad, who becomes tangled with a threadbare magic carpet, a beautiful princess, a maleficient djinn, the usual DWJ assortment of toxic and/or useless relatives, and eventually Howl and Sophie. It’s also good, although to my mind DWJ tends to shortchange her story climaxes (Howl being no exception). House of Many Ways is supposedly an actual sequel, but the pub date is 2008 and I haven’t yet laid my hands on a copy. See the movie! It’s entertaining enough. Then read the book. It is entertaining, complex, funny, and memorable.

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James Enge

When I was young and foolish I wanted my favorite books to be adapted to movies. Now that I’m old and foolish I want my favorite books to not be adapted for movies. (I think the tide started to turn when I saw the first Dune movie. By the Jackson LotR it was a done deal.)

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