August Book Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl Series #1)

By: Diana Wynne Jones

Release Date: April 1986 (Happy 30th Birthday!)

*Beware: Spoilers Ahead!*


Official Synopsis:

In which a witch bewitched the hatter’s daughter–and then some…

Sophie lived in the town of Market Chipping, which was in Ingary, a land in which
anything could happen, and often did—especially when the Witch of the Waste got
her dander up.  Which was often.

As her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie stayed in her
father’s hat shop.  Which proved most
unadventurous, until the Witch of the Waste came in to buy a bonnet, but was
not pleased.  Which is why she turned Sophie
into an old lady.  Which was spiteful
witchery.

Now Sophie must seek her own fortune. 
Which means striking a bargain with the lecherous Wizard Howl.  Which means entering his ever-moving castle,
taming a blue fire-demon, and meeting the Witch of the Waste head-on.  Which was more than Sophie bargained for…


My Synopsis:

Sophie Hatter was perfectly fine working in her father’s hat
shop.  She was perfectly fine leaving the
fortune-seeking to her younger sisters and staying in the quiet town of Market
Chipping, without magic and heart-stealing wizards and perilous
adventures.  But fate had other plans for
Sophie.

When an angry Witch of the Waste turns Sophie into an old
lady, the newly old Sophie realizes she must leave her hat shop and find her
own fortune.  And find it she does: when
Sophie unexpectedly finds herself in the evil Wizard Howl’s moving castle, she
makes a deal with a fire demon to break her curse and break the demon’s contract
with Howl in the process.  

What follows is a series of seemingly impossible but
hilarious events, with plenty of magic, mistaken identities, and more than a
few disagreements between the Wizard and his new cleaning lady.  It’s more than Sophie bargained for, but it’s
nothing she can’t handle, and she’s going to need a few good friends in order
to take on the Witch of the Waste…  


My Thoughts:

I’m one of those people who always prefers to read the book
before I watch the movie.  No, it’s not
so I can rub it in your face that I know more about the story than you
(although I will point out all the differences when we discuss things
afterwards).  I just prefer to know the
story and the characters as the author originally envisioned them before I see
how they were adapted to appeal to the general box office audience.  However, I don’t always know that the movie
is based off a book beforehand, which means I end up reading the book after the
fact.

This is what happened to me in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle.  This was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever
saw, and I absolutely loved it. Old Sophie’s attitude, Howl’s fantastical magic,
Billy Crystal as the fire demon Calcifer—it was clever and funny and whimsical
and a perfect movie for me.  So when I
found out that there was a book, written by the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones,
I went out and bought it and immediately fell
in love all over again.

As I said, I love Ghibli’s adaption of Howl’s, but aside from the broad strokes, it’s a very different
story than the written version.  It’s one
of those instances where I consider the movie as a completely separate entity
than the original story, but I appreciate both of them.

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But this isn’t a movie review, so let’s focus on the
wonderful book.

Sophie Hatter works in her family’s hat shop, and as the
eldest of three sisters, it’s fated that she’ll never really succeed in
life.  The book doesn’t explain where
this old belief comes from, but it certainly sets the stage for the path Sophie
believes her life will take.  Like her
movie counterpart, Book Sophie is rather timid but kindhearted and
hardworking.  Her kind heart is quite
taken advantage of, however, by her stepmother (who really isn’t evil, despite
how that statement sounds), which leads to the first inklings that Sophie may
be more important than she thinks.

I love the setup of the hat shop and Sophie’s family, who
are sadly missing from the movie.  Sophie
and her two sisters, Lettie and Martha, are all such wonderfully unique
characters, and they provide great contrast to one another, as sisters often
do.  I like that although both Lettie and
Martha are eager to get out and have their own lives, they are both concerned
for Sophie and her isolation.  It’s a
sweet sign of the love for their sister, and although the two younger girls don’t
really go out of their way to push Sophie to be more social or to stand up for
herself, there’s only so much they can do without Sophie meeting them
halfway.  Plus, they have their own drama
going on, using magic to swap apprenticeships and falling in love with
problematic guys, and both of their story lines add a wider scope to the story.

Sophie, on the other hand, is more than content to quietly work
on her hats.  For hours on end.  All by herself.  It’s a bit sad, really, but Sophie feels it’s
her duty as the eldest.  The way Sophie
talks to the hats is quite sweet, though.
I love that it starts to become obvious that Sophie’s doing something
special when the hats begin to cause their owners to end up in the very same
situations Sophie described to them as she making each particular hat.  Unfortunately, we don’t get to explore this
talent very much before the Witch of the Waste appears and curses Sophie.

Old Sophie is one of my all-time favorite literary
characters.  It’s as if the wrinkles
imbue the scared, quiet Sophie with sass and determination, and she suddenly
becomes a force to be reckoned with.  I
love that she keeps excusing her behavior to herself as oh, this is something that old people can do because they’re old,
but really it’s just her own feistiness coming out now that she’s practically a
different person.  Young Sophie never
would’ve dared  to leave town, much less
approach Wizard Howl’s enchanted castle roaming the hills; Old Sophie not only
does that, she also orders the castle to stop, forces her way inside, and plops
down for a rest in the comfy chair in front of the fire!  It’s such a funny but wonderful change in
Sophie, and it says a lot about going out and finding adventure no matter your
age.

In the castle itself is where we meet the rest of the main
cast: Calcifer (the fire demon), Michael (the apprentice), and, of course, the Wizard Howl himself.  I love the dynamic
between the castle’s inhabitants.  Howl,
Calcifer, and Michael are almost like three brothers who all care for one
another, but who have their own lives and who often get on one another’s
nerves.  Sophie certainly shakes things
up, but it’s apparent that she makes everything much more interesting.  Michael and Sophie get along after a bit, and
Sophie and Calcifer genuinely begin to like one another after they initially
make a deal to take care of the other’s magical problem.   But Sophie and Howl…

Sophie and Howl together are an absolute blast—sometimes
quite literally.  Their personalities are
so different from one another, and this leads to more than a few instances of
them butting heads.  First it’s Sophie’s
cleaning, which Michael and Calcifer tolerate but which Howl refuses to deal
with, especially when it comes to his room and his spiders.  

Then it’s Howl’s vanity—and oh my goodness gracious, is he
vain!  Howl spends hours in the bathroom each
day prettying himself up for whatever girl he’s trying to woo that week—another
thing of which Sophie disapproves—and when Sophie’s cleaning accidentally leads
to an unwanted hair dye job, Howl throws the world’s most epic temper tantrum,
with buckets and buckets of green slime and moans and groans loud enough for
the whole town to hear.

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The movie totally got this scene right.  Magical temper tantrums are that much worse than normal ones.

This is followed by problems with Sophie’s nosy nature,
which leads to another curse courtesy of the Witch of the Waste finally
catching up with Howl…Do you get the
idea?  These two go back and forth about everything,
but it’s done in such a way that you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness
and irony of it all.  Jones’ writing is
humorous while still teasing out important characters arcs and moving the story
along.  Even though there’s practically
constant bickering, it never feels old or overused, and it keeps you wondering
what Sophie and Howl are going to end up arguing about in whatever ridiculous
situation they find themselves in next.

And what situations they find themselves in!  Once the Witch of the Waste’s curse on Howl
is unleashed, all sorts of seemingly impossible things being to happen.  I love the way spells, curses, and magic in
general are established in this world.
Some people are naturally born as wizards or witches, as we find out is
the case for Sophie, but it also seems that magic can be taught to anyone; the
latter seems to be what happened for Michael and almost certainly for Howl, who
we find out is from Wales in our world rather than Ingary itself.  Spells themselves are described as having a
shape, and this must be understood in order for a person to be able to perform
said spell.  On top of that, most spells
are intentionally written with a mistake in order to prevent the spell from accidentally
being performed by an unwitting individual.
Curses are similarly complicated; some, like Sophie’s, are easily cast
and are unpreventable, while others are intricate and require certain
circumstances to be fulfilled, like the one placed on Howl.  

I liked the Witch of the Waste and her curses in the book
much better than the Witch in the movie.
We see much less of her, but her character is much more fleshed out, and
she actually has a purpose and a mission rather than just being an old lady that
randomly ends up in the castle after initially playing an important role.  We see her use powerful magic—the harbor
fight between her and Howl is epic—and
the personal nature of her curse on Howl makes her much more of a threat.  The fact that the curse is so close to being
fulfilled also lends urgency to Sophie’s task of breaking the contract between
Howl and Calcifer.  And once we learn of
the relationship between the Witch and her own fire demon, we begin to see why
Howl and Calcifer’s deal must be broken.
It’s a rather complicated situation, but it’s this complexity that adds
a sense of danger and earnestness to the second half of the book, and, in my
opinion, it’s a much more unique and personal danger than the attacks and
threats of war that push things along in the movie.  

The Witch’s curse does catch up with Howl in the end,
though, and it takes everyone—seriously, basically every named character in the
book—to stop the Witch and her fire demon from stealing Calcifer and Howl’s
heart along with him.  It’s revealed that
Calcifer is a fallen star, and he was saved from death when Howl offered his
heart to keep Calcifer alive.  The Witch
is after Howl’s heart so that she can control him, which would kill Calcifer
and allow the Witch to use Howl’s magic along with her own to take over the
kingdom.  As everyone else deals with the
Witch’s fire demon, Sophie is the only one who can free Calcifer and spare Howl’s
life, as it’s only her unique magic to speak life into inanimate objects that
can successfully separate Calcifer from the heart.  

So much for the eldest of three sisters being useless, huh?

Even after the day is saved, the castle is in chaos as all
the Witch’s curses are broken.  Sophie
becomes young again, and Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman have their body parts
properly rearranged.  Sophie returns Howl’s
heart, and Calcifer flies off, free for the first time in years.  Everyone’s trying to get everyone else’s
attention, and Howl and Sophie only have eyes for one another.  Turns out that Howl has known about Sophie’s
curse for a while, and as the two of them have been arguing and picking on one
another, they’ve also been falling in love.
It’s such a cute and realistic ending, as both Sophie and Howl admit
they’ll continue to drive one another crazy, but they know it’s all done out of
love.  And finally Calcifer returns,
happy to stay in the castle with his friends as long as he’s not tethered to
the fireplace.  It’s a happy ending for
all, with the promise of enough magic and mischief to keep things interesting.

Howl’s Moving Castle
is such a fun and complex book with characters that will make you laugh as you
eagerly turn the pages to see what sort of magical mess they’ll end up in
next.  Sophie is a wonderfully determined
character, and Howl is as complicated as he is charmingly infuriating.  The magic is intricate, the showdowns are
dramatic, and the ending is perfectly adorable.
Frankly, I’m not really sure why they felt the need to change so much
for the movie.  Would I love to see another
version that actually follows the book?
Absolutely.  But am I also okay
with having a book and a movie that are both exciting in their own right that
just so happen to share the same name?
Sure.  Like I said, although I
love the book more if I had to choose, I really do like both the book and the
movie, but I think everyone should make up their own mind on the subject.  Being independent is quite important, you
know.

So the next time you have a free weekend, do yourself a
favor and do your own comparison.  The
book’s not so very long, and the humor and magic make it fly by; the movie has
beautiful visuals, a great soundtrack, and a wonderful voice-over cast.  If one or the other’s not your thing, each on
its own is still a hilarious and magical love story that you’ll want to revisit
again and again.  Go read and/or watch Howl’s Moving Castle ASAP, or you may
find yourself cursed forever with burnt bacon.

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Stray Thoughts and Observations:

  • The cheeky chapter titles are great.
  • Martha and Lettie are great examples of doing whatever it
    takes to live the life you want.  Yes,
    their switcheroo caused a lot of
    confusion, but it was still clever and effective.
  • How on Earth did Wizard Suliman and then Howl end up in
    Ingary from Wales?  Did they have an
    inkling for magic before they jumped dimensions, or did they magically stumble
    into Ingary and suddenly decide, “Hmm, I think I’m going to be a powerful
    wizard!”?
  • The computer game for Neil is set in Howl’s castle.  Very nice.
  • Poor Sophie in the car!
  • Really, Howl?  It’s
    not enough to flirt with all the pretty girl in just one dimension?
  • Sophie just casually accepting everything is my absolute
    favorite.  Witch of the Waste curses
    her?  “Hmm, I’m old now.  At least I get around well.”  Finds out she has magic? “Hmm, that explains
    why my hats sold so well.”
  • Howl found the nice house with flowers that Sophie
    wanted.  Too sweet.
  • I like the simple day-to-day setup of the plot.  It’s not all magic and adventures; sometimes
    it’s just selling flowers for a holiday.

Favorite Quotes:

  • The fire warmed her aches and the chair supported her back
    and she knew that if anyone wanted to turn her out now, they were going to have
    to use extreme and violent magic to do it.
  • “I hope your bacon burns,” Calcifer said, muffled under the
    pan.
  • “And whatever Calcifer told you, I am a wizard.  Didn’t you think I could do magic?”
  • Martha and Lettie were good at having tantrums too.  She knew how to deal with those.  On the other hand, it is quite a risk to
    spank a wizard for getting hysterical about his hair.
  • “We can’t all be Mad Hatters,” said Howl.
  • “Dead?” said Sophie.
    She had a silly impulse to add, But
    she was alive an hour ago!  
    And she
    stopped herself, because death is like that: people are alive until they die.
  • 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.
  • Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,”
    and she thought he meant it.

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