Book review: Howl’s Moving Castle

After reading the rather intense and historical Mr Peacock’s Possessions, I turned my attention to one of the books that I found through our building’s system of ‘abandon crap I’m otherwise donating to the charity shops outside my door for a couple of hours to see if I can avoid the trip to the donation box’. (Yes, that was very succinct. I love the system. I’ve got a pile of books, a new coat with label still on, the best jeans, a big Pyrex dish and a washstand through this system.). So whenever someone posts that they have some things, I go check it out, and this time I got a small pile of books for my trouble. Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle has been on my radar for a while, because of the Miyazaki film version. Despite her prolific writing, I don’t think I’ve read anything else by her. Adding her book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland to my list, to buy and to read. I’m definitely going to need to buy a new bookshelf at some point.

This is the audible cover. It would be interesting to listen to, and I think it would make a good story to read aloud to children.

Unspoilery Synopsis

The story follows Sophie Hatter, a young woman who works in her parents’ hat shop until she is rude to a customer who places a curse on her. The curse ages her in an instant, and newly 90-year-old Sophie runs away. She takes shelter in the moving castle of a much-feared wizard called Howl, where she becomes his cleaning lady, forges a friendship with the wizard’s fire demon, and slowly awakens to her own magic.

Characters

The main characters are Sophie and the titular Howl. Their interactions are supported by a surprisingly large cast of secondary characters, including Calcifer the fire demon, Michael, Howl’s apprentice, and various bewitched scarecrows, dogs and of course, the Witch of the Waste.

Sophie’s internal grumbly monologue makes up a large part of her characterisation. She is sort of resigned to her new self, even though she aged substantially in an instant. She makes the most of being old, especially in how her age seems to give her more social clout. Before she is cursed, she is shown as talking a lot to inanimate objects, which, it turns out, was part of her magic.

Howl’s chief characteristic is probably his foppishness; he spends hours in the bathroom prettifying himself with spells, and throws plenty of little tantrums when things don’t quite go his way. He comes across as spoiled, but also rather generous. Michael, his apprentice, mentions having to hide some of the money they make so that Howl doesn’t just go and spend it all. It’s really interesting to see his growth and development over the course of the novel, and I think his character arc would make for excellent discussions in early high school literature classes.

Fantasy-land

A lot of the magic of the moving castle is not just in the fact that it moves… oh no, dear reader! It also has a door that can open into different locations depending on where the doorknob dial is placed. This means that Howl and his crew serve a variety of locations with their magical services, as Pendragon or Jenkins, or whatever name he decides to adopt. One of the places that Howl and friends end up in through the magical door to multiple places, probably the most odd of the parallel places, is, well, Wales. The characters pop through the door to modern-day Wales, to where Howl becomes Howell, and he has a nephew who plays video games. It’s very interesting, and I can totally hear the valley accent creeping in while I’m reading it. Howell even comes back home drunk after a visit to his Welsh rugby club reunion. So weird, so cool, but also really incongruous with the rest of the plot, to be honest.

Comparison with the movie

So, as I mentioned up top, there is also a very well-known movie of this narrative, by the Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. It’s the only anime-eque thing I’ve ever intentionally watched, and I do have other Miyazaki movies on my list after this past rewatch. I think lots of the common praise of his movie-making include the romance and charm of everyday things, like cooking and being cozy at home.

There are some major differences in the Miyazaki version to the original novel, and I don’t think that all of them are great, but some of them do work towards making the narrative better suited to the medium – I’m happy for some changes to be made in the adaptation to movie format.

In terms of the characterisation, the movie takes a bit of a different attitude towards Howl. He’s definitely more of a drama-queen in the book than in the movie, in which he is more aloof and mysterious (if notably vain). On the other hand, Calcifer is much more outspoken and (dare I say it) has more character in the movie. So you win some, you average others out.

Miyazaki adds a whole new narrative arc of the war between kingdoms into the tale, which adds some narrative tension, but kind of messes with the other dynamics between Howl, the Witch of the Waste and the other magic users. I think that the movie’s approach to the Witch of the Waste (and consequently the crux of the plot in the book version) is not my cup of tea.

As much as I think it’s still a great movie, and if it is the only version of the narrative that people consume, that’s fine. It sets up different tensions, different conflicts and different consequences for the characters, even if the key plot knot is the same. (Plot knot? is that a literary thing? It totally should be – like a twist, but like, the keystone instead. The sine qua non of the literary exercise that is a novel.)

I love the movie’s emphasis on Calcifer, and the deft shifts between old-Sophie and young-Sophie at narratively significant moments.

Oh, and the soundtrack is wonderful.

Worth it?

Yes! Read it, watch it, compare the two.

As I said earlier, I think it would make a great setwork for early high-schoolers, because you could talk in depth about the character arcs, foreshadowing, and the differences in interpretation between the book and movies.

Published by Laura M.

I'm an writer living in Manchester, UK. I am an avid amateur hobbyist, including dabbling in dancing, sewing, crafting, baking, brewing, and blogging.

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