With a few exceptions, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the British children’s fantasy Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, is a pastel-hued dilution of his earlier work. What a letdown. Jones and Miyazaki are kindred spirits, and her book has all the makings of a top-notch Miyazaki film. Instead, the film is insipid and conventional. The good news, however—even if critics missed it—is that Jones’ book is amazing. Her plucky heroine, dazzling disguises, and cheeky interrogation of clichés out-Miyazaki Miyazaki himself.
In both the book and the movie, a jealous Witch of the Waste uses her nefarious powers to turn mousy Sophie Hatter, the teenaged protagonist, into a crinkly 90-year-old granny. Emboldened by the change, Sophie walks away from her mundane life as a hat-maker and offers herself to the wizard Howl as a cleaning lady in hopes that Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer, will be able to break the spell—if, that is, she can release him from Howl. Of course, Sophie falls for Howl in the midst of realizing that freeing Calcifer means freeing Howl as well.
In Miyazaki’s film, despite all the mischief in Old Sophie’s black-currant eyes, she gets marooned in a narrative cliché: the timid girl who finds true love and realizes she is beautiful. Miyazaki’s Sophie is often insecure and almost never alone. None of this is worthy of Miyazaki’s earlier heroines—the eminently resourceful witch Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service; the feral, blood-spitting San in Princess Mononoke; or Spirited Away’s self-possessed Chihiro. These characters don’t hesitate to wander off by themselves, or to fight tooth-and-nail for what they want. They have much more in common with the book’s Sophie, a fierce, grumpy character who eventually comes into her own as a powerful witch.
Jones’ Sophie also has a rich, funny inner life. Her witchy powers stem from her habit of muttering over inanimate objects like hats and walking sticks; she eventually realizes she can talk them into life. She also gets in foul moods and stomps around, spreading “weed-killer in a great smoking arc,” and declaring “I feel like killing something!” Refreshingly, she derives comfort and poise from her haggard looks. While Miyazaki’s Sophie is an appalling crybaby, Jones’ heroine refuses to be cowed by Howl. She resists his bishounen charm for a long time, telling herself, “Good gracious! Wizard Howl is only a child in his twenties for all his wickedness!” In the same way that Spirited Away’s Chihiro has to figure out whether she can trust the helping hand of Haku, a river spirit controlled by the film’s ostensible villain, Sophie questions whether Howl and Calcifer are trustworthy. And in Jones’ version, she has to use her wits—not the movie’s Howl-programmed laser-beam ring—to save them.
Like Jones, Miyazaki relies on physical-transformation spells and disguises to keep his plot humming. (Critics have complained that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.) But where Jones’ transformations are designed to help Sophie grow wiser, Miyazaki’s Sophie never needs to use her head. One of the book’s strengths is that in a world where most of the characters’ identities oscillate among several guises—some have had their body parts mashed up and combined with other people’s—it’s up to Sophie to discern the people she trusts. Then, in order to protect them, she has to unravel Jones’ reworking of John Donne’s charming if misogynistic “Song.”
Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes the regrettable decision to end the movie with Howl and Sophie happily flying off into the sky. (Jones’ ending is far too delicious to be revealed here.) In his earlier work, Miyazaki has done a better job of affectionately poking fantasy clichés by juxtaposing them against striking realistic details. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, for example, the 13-year-old broomstick-wielding witch Kiki uses a cherry-red radio to monitor weather conditions. The floating island in Laputa: Castle in the Sky has glorious airy roots, a joke on the Laputan civilization’s lack of groundedness. In Spirited Away and Totoro, too, the realm of the fantastic tunnels or shoots out of our modern world mysteriously yet undeniably. Similarly, Jones’ moving castle contains a portal to our own world: The wizard Howl is a Welsh rugby enthusiast named Howell Jenkins. This sort of down-to-earth connection to our own world is sorely lacking in the movie. Jones’ affectionate depictions of Sophie’s humor and self-possession, on the other hand, make her Howl’s Moving Castle a Miyazaki film in its own right—disguised as a book.