Well, guess what? That’s exactly what happened. And I can’t even be sorry about it because Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is now one of my favorite books of all time. Sorry movie; I still adore you and all but you’re just not the same. While the movie does a great job with some aspects of the book and does, in my opinion, capture the overall flavor of the story, it really misses the mark in some key areas.
When Sophie’s father dies unexpectedly, her stepmother realizes that she will not be able to support them all. Sophie’s sisters are sent out to apprentice at a bakery (Lettie) and with a witch (Martha). Sophie is left to apprentice in the hat shop. Resigned to her fate, she works day and night designing and building hats, becoming more and more isolated and fretful. It gets so bad that she’s afraid to even visit her sister down the street. She also develops a rather kooky habit of speaking to the hats she’s building.
The movie condenses Sophie’s sisters down to one – Lettie – who works in a bakery. Sophie’s mother runs the hat shop and Sophie’s father is simply not present. While I think the movie excellently portrays Sophie’s isolation and dreariness, it fails to capture the extent of her fear and she’s never, not once, shown speaking to a hat. Which is a damn shame.
When Sophie reaches the bakery, she finds out that her sisters Martha and Lettie have used a magic spell (learned from Martha’s apprenticeship) to switch places. Martha is now quite a hit at the bakery, where she has already received dozens of proposals and Lettie is finally being challenged as a magician’s apprentice. Martha tells Sophie plainly that she believes her stepmother is taking advantage of her. Sophie seems to have some sort of talent for fashion, and her stepmother is constantly away “gadding” while Sophie is left in the shop. She doesn’t even earn a wage. Stunned by this revelation, Sophie leaves, intending to confront her stepmother.
All of this is really played down in the film. “Lettie” – Sophie’s one sister simply says “do something for yourself once in a while, okay?” as she’s leaving. The mom is never mentioned.
Back at the shop, Sophie feels more and more discontent. She snarks hilariously at customers and grumbles when her stepmother promises her a wage but then forgets all about it. Just when she’s about had enough, a “carefully beautiful,” glamorous patron enters and demands to see her hats. This elegant lady is, of course, The Witch of The Waste. (Dun dun dun!!!)
In the movie TWoTW does look rather…imposing…I guess, but it must be said that she also looks like a complete freak show. Observe:
MAJOR CHANGE #1: Sophie's Character
Sophie of the Book
Sophie of the Movie
In the book, Sophie pulls a scarecrow out of a hedge and helps free a trapped dog on her way to seek her fortune. She accidentally speaks the scarecrow to life and it follows her. Sophie is completely repulsed/scared of the scarecrow and repeatedly does everything she can to get away from it in the book. In the movie, the scarecrow is already alive. It brings her a walking stick and leads her to Howl’s castle. She gives it a nickname (“turnip-head”) and seems quite content in its presence.
Once Sophie finds the castle, she has to run after it, force her way in, and then engage in a little trickery to convince Howl’s fifteen year old apprentice, Michael, to let her stay the night. In the movie, the castle stops, lets her in right away, and Michael is nowhere to be seen. The next day he appears, although in the movie he’s a nine year old boy named Markl (seriously...). In both cases, Sophie speaks with Calcifer, Howl’s fire demon and agrees to a deal: she’ll help him break his contract with Howl if he helps remove her curse. Sophie pretends to be Howl’s new housekeeper and cleans the heck out of that pigsty, including Howl's much-used bathroom, which leads to the most hilarious scene in both the book and the movie.
Which brings me to MAJOR CHANGE #2: Howl Loves War, Not Girls
First, let's just get this whole "war" business out of the way: never happened. That's right, in the book there is no crazy war going on, fought by winged blob men and questionably aerodynamic buzzing ships. That whole part was manufactured just for the movie. And let's be honest, it doesn't even really fit in the movie.
So, in the book, Howl is constantly busy either primping himself or taking up his guitar to go woo various girls across the country. His main goal in life is to avoid all decision-making and responsibility of any kind. Whenever one of his ladies starts to return his "love" he immediately tucks tail and runs. In the movie, he's constantly busy as well...with the war. Some girls gossip at the beginning that he likes to "eat young girls' hearts" and he mentions later that he once pursued TWoTW, but he's definitely not the flirty drama queen that I know and love from the book. Again, this is a damn shame.
MAJOR CHANGE #3: Howl's Hideaway
In the movie, the black section of the dial opens up into what looks like a giant space filled with smoke, fire, and blackness into which Howl flies (ostensibly to go fight that damn war some more). In the book, it opens up to an inch of indescribable black-ish thickness, which then leads to...WALES. Yes, Wales. As in, modern day (1980's) has computers and cars and suburbs...Wales. It turns out that our man Howl is actually Howell, a modern day Welshman who somehow found the door between worlds and left his old life to study magic in Sophie's realm. Pretty neat, huh? This is all totally cut from the movie.
Another thing that I love about the movie is how the animators visually represent both Howl's descent into evil and Sophie's gradual breaking of her curse. In the movie, Howl is shown changing into a giant black bird over and over again when he fights, and is eventually unable to turn back. While this doesn't happen in the book at all, I thought it was a really interesting way to show him losing the fight against his curse (more on the curse later). Likewise, the animated Sophie is shown throughout the film changing subtly from old to young and back again depending on her mood. This also does not happen in the book, but it's an ingenious way to show that she's fighting against her curse.
And now, for MAJOR CHANGE #4: The Curse.
In the book, Howl once caught a falling star, gave it his heart, and joined in a contract with it for more powerful magic. That star was Calcifer. This is essentially the same in the movie, except that the bigger picture surrounding this story has been completely changed. Howl of the book was actually cursed to complete this task (along with a long list of other things inspired by a John Donne poem) by TWoTW. See, in the book, she is what's known as the BIG BAD. She and her fire demon have been gunning for Howl ever since he dumped her way back when. In the movie, TWoTW does attempt to curse Howl but he easily deflects it. She later loses all of her magic to the movie's big bad (with an assist from some giant light bulbs and harmonizing shadows) and is reduced, by the end of the film, to a rather pillowy-looking grandmother figure.
With TWoTW stripped of her big bad status, the movie replaces her with this gal to the left. She's the King's wizard, named Suliman. In the book, there is a character called Ben Suliman who is the King's wizard, but he's:
a) a man
b) not evil and
He's also, coincidentally, also from Wales and is really named Ben Sullivan. Suliman from the movie seems in part a fabrication and in part stolen from another character in the book: Mrs. Pentstemmon, Howl's old tutor (who is also not evil in any way, and is actually murdered by TWoTW in the book). And now that the MAJOR CHANGES are coming fast and furious, I'll just move on to
MAJOR CHANGE #6: This is the One Where I Throw Together All the Random Things That Happen in the End.
So, it turns out that TWoTW's eeeeevil plan was to kidnap both Wizard Suliman, the King's son Justin, and Howl and stitch together all of her favorite parts from each of them to create her perfect mate. Naturally, she has been waiting for Howl's pretty face to be the head. The spare/leftover parts she combined into the scarecrow, a skull, and a man who can change into a dog (this is the kind of logic that only makes sense to a true BIG BAD). Howl does battle with TWoTW and her fire demon while Sophie figures out the curse and eventually transfers Howl's heart back into his body. Sophie's family reappears, the various body parts get magically put back together the right way, and Calcifer breaks Sophie's curse. And then Howl and Sophie decide to live happily ever after. Awwww.
In the movie, Sophie breaks Howl's contract with Calcifer by reinserting his heart, the "big bad" suddenly decides to stop with the warring (pffft, some big bad), and this scene happens:
“Wow, Sophie your hair looks just like starlight. It’s beautiful!”
Do you think so? So do I!”
Unfortunately, this is yet another scene that Diana Wynne Jones' wonderful, horrible book stole from me. Observe:
“‘Would you call your hair ginger?’
‘Red Gold,’ Sophie said. Not much had changed about Howl that she could see, now he had his heart back, except maybe that his eyes seemed a deeper color – more like eyes and less like glass marbles. ‘Unlike some people’s,’ she said, ‘it’s natural.’
‘I’ve never seen why people put such value on things being natural,’ Howl said, and Sophie knew then that he was scarcely changed at all.”
Sigh...now that's what I call romance.
I know that this is still a pretty positive rating for the movie, but it still pains me a bit to give this adaptation: