This post contains spoilers for Howl's Moving Castle.
So, I saw Howl’s Moving Castle yesterday. Speaking as someone who first read the book many, many years ago and has read it many times since, I would have to say that this was probably the worst mutilation of a book on its way to the screen that I’ve ever seen. The result was a plotless mess – good looking, to be sure, but nonetheless a plotless mess.
The vast majority of the original story has been thrown away and replaced with what seem to be little more than recycled plot elements from earlier Studo Ghibli productions, and what scenes have been kept have either been distorted or just seem out-of-place within the new order. Virtually the entire cast have gone through complete character assassinations, including a number of 180° flips on what I would loosely term the good/evil axis.
To dissect what I remember of the film:
- The setting: The movie has a very industrial “Victorian Sci-Fi” setting, yet the book is a very much pre-industrial fantasy world where fairy-tale clichés are a way of life. For example, Sophie is resigned to her lot because, as the eldest of three siblings, she’s doomed to fail first and worst should they set out to seek their fortunes. This change appears to be of the benefit of the clumsy anti-war message.
- The opening: This tells us little about Sophie, and starts Howl off in the wrong direction (in the book, he’s the one who, albeit incognito, accosts Sophie – complete with ‘little mouse’ line, rather than her rescuer). That change, together with squidgy pursuers is presumably to set up the witch’s animosity when she mistakes Sophie as a rival for Howl’s affections (in the book, she believes Sophie to be setting herself up as a magical rival to the witch herself). Also, Book!Sophie takes the curse completely in her stride with total calmness.
- Scarecrows and Castles: Turnip-head (although never named) certainly appears in the book, but not as the friendly character he is in the film. In the book he outright scares Sophie and even causes Howl some distress. As for the castle itself, the gliding black-stone fortress of the book is replaced by a clanking hodge-podge mess which walks on giant chicken feet. Artistic license, I suppose – it does fit better with the movie setting, and is more visually interesting.
- Green slime: The point of this in the book is that the change in hair colour is at worst barely noticeable and at best completely imaginary, thus playing up Howl’s immense vanity (as if the amount of time he spends in the bathroom – something barely hinted at in the film – weren’t enough). It also ties into his “heartless” nature – the thrill of the chase only, and his inability to love.
- War and the Wales: In the film there’s a war, which you may or may not have figured out is on account of the neighbouring kingdom missing a prince. In the book, there’s no war, and the missing prince is from this kingdom and was known to have fallen afoul of the Witch of the Waste. In the book, the black spot on the door leads to Wales (from whence Howl hails). In the movie, it leads to… Howl flying around like a bird. Or possibly his childhood. Or maybe just insanity. Or weirdness. Who knows…
- Royal visit: Here’s where it goes completely off the rails: In the book, Sophie meets the nice old lady who taught Howl before failing to blacken his name with the King, then coming back to find her murdered by the Witch of the Waste. In the movie, Sophie and the Witch turn up at the place at the same time and climb obscene amounts of stairs for no good reason. Sophie meets a character who has the name (but not gender) of the book’s royal wizard (who disappeared whilst trying to rescue the prince), the teacherliness off the aforementioned old lady, and large chunks of book!Witch-of-the-Waste’s character. She also zaps the Witch with the Ray of De-Magicking and OOC-ness.
- Curses: In the movie, the Witch sends a curse which burns itself into the table. Howl removes the burn. End of curse. In the book, the curse is rather more complex and a large focus of the story. In the movie the Witches curse on Sophie seems to come and go with her moods (certainly Sophie’s apparent age is in a constant state of flux). In the book it stays solidly on until the very end (and it’s unclear what causes it to go – one reading would be that it simply goes away after the death of the Witch and her fire demon).
- The conclusion: The book has a really quite complex plot, and thus a quite complex conclusion – but it does make sense. The movie has little or no plot, and a conclusion that makes little or no sense. There’s the Deus ex Turniphead to end the war, Sophie’s curse somehow disappears (rather like Howl’s being stuck in his completely-not-in-the-book bird form) and she is (for some unspecified reason) able to return Howl’s heart without killing either him or Calcifer (in the book this is on account of the magic she now realises she has, which is never mentioned in the film). Bleh.
- Michael and Calcifer: These two escape relatively unscathed – the former gets a name change and loses a few years (which naturally changes his character). Calcifer in particular is a good fit – the colour change from green-and-blue to that of an ordinary fire and forgivable, although I’m not so keen on the misrepresentation of the contract he has with Howl as a curse/enslavement.
I could probably go on, but I am le tired…
In short, if you’ve read the book, don’t go and see the film unless you’re prepared to accept most of what you like about it being gone. If you haven’t read the book, I’m less well positioned to judge what you’ll make of the film, but I suggest that you read the book instead…