Howl! No, not the poem.

Note: Footnotes might not work unless you click into the full post.

Imagine that the year is 1999, and you heard that they were making a live-action Lord of the Rings movie. That’s right, not a terrible animated one with songs[1]Yes, that was a thing.. It’s going to be good!

Then you watch the movie, and they took out the whole Balrog thing (which you’ve been waiting to see), and the whole Saruman thing, and Gandalf never becomes Gandalf the White, and the various armies are using dirigibles and dropping bombs on each other and it’s really not about a ring.

Anyway, back in 2004 they made a movie called Howl’s Moving Castle. It is an Anime movie, and made by famed Anime director Hayao Miyazaki.

Since I don’t usually enjoy Anime I ignored the hell out of it.

A few years ago I was at a used book store and, wouldn’t you know, there was Howl’s Moving Castle, the book. It said “Now a major motion picture!” on it, but I checked just in case and the book was published in 1986. It was written by Diana Wynne Jones, whom I had not heard about before. So, I bought it. I buy a lot of books.

It sat in my “To Read” pile for a few years. Then it got moved up to the “To Read Soon” pile[2]Also known as “the nightstand”..

And then, a few weeks ago, I finally read it. And it is fantastic. Well-written, interesting, self-aware in a delightful[3]I am confident enough in my sexuality to use that word. way. I want to read everything else Diana Wynne Jones ever wrote now[4]And I will..

It takes place in Fantasy-Land, and is the story of Sophie, the oldest of three sisters[5]Actually, one’s a step-sister… but, plot-twist, she’s nice. So is step-mom. She loves and cares for all the children equally, even after Dad dies.. As oldest sister, she knows that she’ll never amount to much – it’s always the younger sisters who are beautiful and talented and marry the prince. Sophie, who is 18, is resigned to a life of making hats in the family hat shop.

Then an Evil Witch shows up, turns Sophie into an old lady, and she ends up running away, which is how she comes upon Howl’s Moving Castle.

See, there’s apparently an Evil Wizard named Howl. And he has a castle. Which moves. Makes sense, right? Anyway, turns out he’s maybe not that evil[6]Though he is incredibly vain. and all the scary stories about him are ones he pretty much encourages. Howl lives in his castle with his apprentice, Michael (whom he rescued as a kid and is now 15), and a fire demon named Calcifer, who pretty much powers the whole castle. Old Lady Sophie shows up and just basically moves in.

Anyway, I read the book, loved it, and decided that yes, I’m not a fan of Anime, but what the hell, lets watch the movie anyway. Ok, so everyone will look like an Anime stereotype, I can deal with that.


I’ll start with what might be a nitpick compared to some of the other things. In the book, the castle moves by hovering slightly above the ground. In the movie it walks around on giant legs and for some reason looks like a giant fish. But you know what? I can easily let that pass as a stylistic/artistic choice.

One of the most fun parts in the book is the interaction between Sophie and Howl. Naturally they start off not really liking each other very much, and their relationship is what can only be described as “extremely confrontational”. Basically they drive each other crazy.

Yeah, that’s not in the movie.

Another fun part is Howl’s background, which is a huge spoiler and I’m not going to spill it here[7]I’m really not. Read the book.. It was entirely unexpected and, again, delightfully done.

None of that in the movie. That whole plot line and plot point doesn’t even exist. I mean he has this thing where he’s turning into some kind of bird monster, but that’s not even remotely close.

The movie also has a huge war going on, with airships and bombs (none of which is in the book), removes a few characters, changes a lot of others, and for some reason Michael’s name changes to Markl[8]Ok. I suppose it’s possible the Japanese version had a problem with the name “Michael”, but why keep that in the English version? They didn’t change any other names, and some of them are considerably more complicated than “Michael”!. Also he’s considerably younger in the movie. Not that it matters since they took his love interest plot out.

Now, Diana Wynne Jones did get to see the movie before it was released[9]Also before she died. Obviously. and she said she liked it and that yes, it’s different from the book, and that’s the way it should be. And it’s her story, so she’s allowed to say that. And I get it, I’m not a Purist. I don’t need it to be 100% like the book. I did not complain when they took Tom Bombadil out of Lord of the Rings – that made sense. But Howl’s Moving Castle is more a “Based On” than an actual adaptation. And here’s the thing – it’s not that it’s not faithful to the plot – it’s not faithful to the feel. The atmosphere. You know how I keep using the word “delightful”? I don’t think there’s any way that can ever be applied to the movie.

And I know, “The Book Is Better Than The Movie” is hardly an unusual conclusion. Nevertheless, in this case the book is vastly better than the movie. In fact, I don’t see how the movie can even stand at all in comparison. I give the book five stars, and I give the movie “That’s 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back[10]Luckily I started multitasking like crazy half-way through. I just couldn’t take it.

So, yeah. Read the book.

1 comment to Howl! No, not the poem.

  • Nicholas

    This is an interesting review. I loved the movie, but I wasn’t aware it started life as a book.

    The book is now in my to-read pile. Sounds like a heck of a read. Thanks for the pointer :)

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