Publication Year: 1986
Genre: YA Fantasy
Series: Howl's Moving Castle #1
Awards: ALA's Notable Books for Children (1986); Boston Globe Horn Book Award (1987)
Format: eBook (from Library)
I was excited to read this book for a couple of reasons. Reason one was that I had never read anything by Dianna Wynne Jones. Shameful, I know, but at least I have corrected the deficiency! The second reason, which drove my choice of Howl's Moving Castle is that I adore the Miyazaki film so much that I even own it. More about the film later in the post.
Howl's Moving Castle takes place in a somewhat recognizable world that is just a little bit slanted. Sophie is the eldest of three sisters and as such she is not expected to do much in the world. She has so embraced this idea of her own insignificance that in many ways she has given up on life. She makes hats in her family's haberdashery and doesn't even notice when her creations change people's lives. One day, inexplicably, the Witch of the waste comes into the store and places a curse on Sophie, changing her into an old woman. In a somewhat vague attempt to have the curse removed, Sophie runs into the countryside looking for the fearsome Wizard Howl and his moving castle. She finds him and discovers that Howl is not exactly who she thinks he is and somewhat more surprisingly that she is also not who she thinks she is.
My favorite part about this weird tale is how Sophie slowly gets to know herself. The change in her appearance - being in disguise - frees Sophie to be bolder and ironically truer to herself. She has strong opinions and is rather forceful about expressing them, nagging the flibbertigibbet Howl into being more responsible and less self-absorbed. She's much braver as well, running across the countryside when she thinks her sister is in trouble and even going toe to toe with the King on Howl's behalf while at the beginning of the story she was almost too timid to visit her sister at a baker across town. Her will is even strong enough to tame Calcifer, the fire demon that powers Howl's extraordinary home. Sophie also succeeds, quite quickly, in turning the castle into a home, providing structure to the household and serving to balance Howl's unpredictable ways.
Howl is also fascinating. He is playing a role that actually serves to conceal who he truly is. He works out almost right away that Sophie is under a curse and isn't really old. His dealings with the King that make him seem a coward are also a ruse that allow him to eventually defeat the Witch of the Waste. It is impossible to know how to take him - his sister back home in Wales (!) despairs of him but he cares for his mundane family and does everything he can to protect her and his niece and nephew.
Basically, neither Howl nor Sophie are your typical romantic hero and heroine and for all that their story feels more sweet. Because they do fall in love of course but it is so gradual, born out of getting to know one another. Sophie denies it the longest as she gets crabbier and crabbier every time she thinks Howl is out wooing another woman. Meanwhile Howl is slowly trying to give her everything he thinks she wants including becoming a better self.
All that unique character stuff is also wrapped up with the wonderful imagination of Diana Wynne Jones. Enchanted scarecrows with turnips for heads, enchanted dogs smitten with their mistresses, a castle that is really four things at once in four different locations and a fire demon that is really a falling star. What Calcifer is and the nature of his contract with Howl is a mystery that runs throughout.
If I have any complaints it is that the story is at times a little confusing. One example is that a connection to our world - the mundane modern world where Howl comes from and where he is known as Howell - is thrown in with very little explanation about the how the connection between the two worlds works. That's fine but it seemed like a confusing addition that didn't really add much to the story though perhaps it does in later books?
FINAL VERDICT: An imaginative story of self-discovery that has adventure, romance and an unmistakeably unique quality to it. Tells a rather classic tale in a lovely unique way. 4 out of 5 Stars.
Howl's Moving Castle: The Movie (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki
I love Miyazaki's films as a rule - they are beautiful, magical and utterly unique and I think Howl's Moving Castle is my favorite amongst the works of his that I have seen. When I picked up the book it had been a while since I watched the film and I saved a re-watch until after reading. It was a good plan as it allowed me to experience the book somewhat fresh.
The first thing I have to say is that the book and movie are actually quite different though they really don't feel that way. As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself how closely the movie had followed the book so I was completely taken aback when I watched the film again and saw how different they are plot wise. The movie instead catches the essence of the book while deviating wildly from it's particulars. In a way this is really great - I felt similarly while experiencing both but got two different stories.
I believe most of the changes in the film are to enhance the drama and to perhaps promote Miyazaki's own ethic. There is less back story on both Sophie and Howl and the romance is a little more front and center particularly towards the end. The Witch of the Waste is less of a threat in the movie (and is actually a more interesting character) while the King and his sorcerer are the big bads - starting a war that Howl fights against (there is an anti-war message here fitting with Miyazaki's pacisfism). Michael is called Marko for some reason and is quite a bit younger in the movie which helps enhance the feeling of home and family. While Howl and Sophie are still unique, their edges are softened just a bit for the movie. For example, the Howl of the book loves to woo women, and then abandon them when they fall for him and this is perhaps slightly alluded to in the movie but it's not explicit.
The visuals and the music of the movie are really lovely. I love the main musical theme that runs throughout - very sweeping and romantic. Sophie and Howl look just as they should and the envisioning of the castle is perfect. One of the effects I love best in the movie is how Sophie's appearance actually changes with how confident and happy she is feeling, visually illustrating that she is partially responsible for the curse and its effects.
It's a lovely movie, well worth watching! I would love to hear what others think of the movie particularly if you came to it as a lover of the book first. Did the differences bother you? Is there anything you strongly prefer from one or the other? Do you think Miyazaki did a good job capturing the essence of the book?