Howl’s Moving Castle

Okay, if you define science fiction as fiction that needs science as an integral part of its plot, then this isn’t sf.  But Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones and the movie based on the book by Hayao Miyazaki both captured something for me, and they are clearly speculative, so apology ended.  For one thing, the book and the movie could almost be separate topics.  Miyazaki takes the book as starting material and then, like the best adaptation movies, instead of being falsely "true to the book", he uses it to create his own vision.  Jones’s book is quite private, a battle between two wizards and Sophie who accidentally gets drawn into it.  Miyazaki’s movie is a story of war, something there is only a threat of in the book.

The story, both versions, follow Sophie Hatter, a teenager working in a hat shop, who is cursed by the Witch of the Waste after meeting the wizard Howl.  Sophie is turned into a 90 year-old woman.  She leaves her home, afraid to be seen by her family as she is now, and makes her way to Howl’s moving castle, which had been moving around outside of her town.  She barges in, strikes a deal with the fire demon, Calcifer, and declares herself the cleaning lady.  Then the stories deviate.

In the book, the Witch of the Waste has also placed a curse on Howl and the king’s brother has disappeared, so Howl is trying to avoid both the curse and the job of hunting down the king’s brother.  There are spells and wizard’s duels and Howl’s nagging sister in the strange land he comes from, Wales.  In the movie, the disappearance of a prince from another land has sparked a war.  Howl is avoiding becoming another pawn in this war and becoming a permanent bird creature who would never remember he was human.  In both stories, Howl is running rather than confronting a situation.  It is Sophie and the Witch of the Waste that change everything.

In Jones’s story, Sophie is pretty.  Not the prettiest, but still pretty.  In Miyazaki’s story, she is plain.  Such a little detail can change a lot.  Jones is looking more at aging, Miyazaki at beauty.  So when Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color, Jones’s Sophie has to be pulled away by the young assistant, Michael, as Howl throws his fit and worries if she should leave him in such a state.  Miyazaki’s Sophie shouts at him, "I’ve never been beautiful my whole life," and storms out.  It is more clear in Jones’s story, in fact we are explicitly told, that Sophie chooses to remain old.

The Witch of the Waste is the other big change between the book and the movie.  In the book, she is the antagonist.  She doesn’t show up much, but her presense is felt and her curse on Howl drives the plot.  She is the mastermind (mostly) of the end of the book.  In the movie, she is more a catalyst than antagonist, and before the end, Sophie takes care of her.  Which leads me to one of the aspects I love most about Miyazaki’s work.  There are no absolute evils, at least in the characters.  People do things, bad things, for wrong or right reasons.  There is rarely retribution and the real story is the journey.  Thus Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service must trust herself enough to fly. Chihiro in Spirited Away leaves the magic land after thanking the witch who turned her parents into pigs and threaten to eat both them and her.  And Sophie cares for an ailing Witch of the Waste, who can’t undo the curse she created, and takes in the spying dog of her enemy.

I love that these children’s movies will do this.  And we in America don’t make this type story.  In Shrek, the bad guy is eaten by a dragon (gruesome!).  In The Incredibles, Buddy the bad guy is pulled into an airplane by his own cape (more gruesome!).  And in Monsters’ Inc., the mastermind is arrested (the nicest of the three).  So I appreciate a vision that accounts for gray areas and people who do cruel things and are still forgiven, helped, and sometimes even loved. Maybe I can learn to be like Chihiro and Sophie.

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