Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: "Howl's Moving Castle" by Diana Wynne Jones (plus notes on "Howl's Moving Castle" by Hayao Miyazaki)

As the oldest daughter of three, Sophie Hatter knows that adventures are not in her future. While her younger sisters seek their fortune, she slaves away in the family hat shop.

But fate has its eye on Sophie, for better or for worse. When a chance meeting with the dreaded Witch of the Waste leaves Sophie cursed with old age, she flees to the dubious shelter of a magical castle, owned by the equally dreaded Wizard Howl. Howl is rumored to eat the souls--or was it the hearts?--of beautiful young maidens. Surely old Sophie has nothing to fear. 

Howl's fire demon refuses refuses to help Sophie return to normal until she breaks his own curse. Will the fact that Howl and Sophie have a common enemy in the Witch of the Waste be enough? Or will Howl's heartless ways drive Sophie out to find her own magic?

1.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Dear readers-who-are-diehard-DWJ-fans: please put down the pitchforks.

Dear readers who have not read the book: I'm going to (vaguely) spoil a great many things in the process of shredding this one.

I saw Miyazaki's film rendition of Howl's Moving Castle first. I read the book next, and was startled to discover how little they had in common--the same reaction shared by book!fans and Jones herself! I didn't like the book on that first reading. For many years, I set it aside.

I reread it to see how my impressions of it might change if I went in anticipating its differences. Forewarned that the book and the movie diverge wildly after [the equivalent of] the first chapter, how would the book stand up on its own?

Honestly, dear reader? Howl's Moving Castle--the book--is a hot mess.

The worldbuilding is all but nonexistent; there is very little sense of place or time. Events happen with neither foreshadowing nor aftermath to ground them. The characters meander aimlessly through the plot before announcing, in the final chapter, that they Knew It All Along! (Meanwhile, the reader is left asking: knew what? what just happened?) Scenes that should be meaningful are flitted past without any weight being given to them. Will no one react to Sophie's latent magical talent? Why can no one ever have a conversation about the plainly villainous Miss Angorian? Who knows!

Significantly, the relationship which ought to be the driving force of the book--that between the wizard Howl and the plucky-yet-cursed heroine Sophie--falls flat, at best. Howl is irredeemably terrible. Their interactions are fraught, but not in that sexily-antagonistic way: rather, Sophie is contemptuous of Howl.

In theory, Howl's behavior is due to his (literal) heartlessness, but one must read between the lines to catch that bit of blanket justification. Given that Howl's behavior does not change when his heart is restored to him, though (nor do any of the character offer commentary to the effect that Howl's personality MAY change and become kinder), the reader is left to conclude--as I did--that Howl is simply an awful person who will continue to be awful happily ever after. Except he'll be married to Sophie. Who never shows the slightest signs of wanting to marry him or even to be in his company.

The book itself is lacking a heart, in my unprofessional opinion. Along with quite a bit of sense.


I won't say that anyone is required to prefer Miyazaki's movie to Jones's book. They are rather different animals, after all--for all that they share a title, the names of several characters, and an opening premise. It's my personal opinion that Miyazaki told a more cohesive and emotionally compelling story, but it still may not be to everyone's tastes.

I did want to talk about the process by which one story becomes another, though.

As a writer myself, I'm always interested in the depictions of writing in popular media. Take for example the film Stranger Than Fiction. One scene from that film has always confused me--the one in which the "writer" character has all of her scene ideas written out on flashcards. She arranges and rearranges these flashcards, trying to come up with the best possible tale to link them all together.

I could never imagine applying that approach to my own creative processes. To me, scenes from a story were not detachable from the plot. This scene happened because this other scene already had; this sequence was the direct result of this other action, etc. They could be refined, but not rearranged.

Comparing the two versions of Howl's Moving Castle--Jones's book and Miyazaki's movie--I now see how the slice-and-shuffle approach could work.

Miyazaki's movie uses a great many scenes which Jones had included in her book, but places them in a new context and sometimes in a new order. Visual asides which Jones skips past become turning points for a grander, more magical story. Sophie being accosted by a flirtatious stranger in the opening scene; the riddle that begins with "catch a falling star"; the recurring question of Calcifer and Howl's heart; Howl's cowardice and his feigned illness before seeing the king; Madam Pentstemmon/Suliman's antechamber of mirrors and dark wood; old Sophie struggling to climb the palace stairs; Howl creating a new "door" for the castle which leads to the field of flowers; the meteor shower over the marches and the boy unwisely trying to catch one in his hands;  ... the list of repurposed scenes goes on. Without fail, Miyazaki gave these scenes a sense of purpose and significance which Jones did not.

In my opinion, the points of the movie which were the weakest were the points where Miyazaki held the most closely to Jones's original plotline; namely, the matter of the scarecrow. That unfortunate fart in the finale is the only real hole in his otherwise enchanting movie.

To me, it's a small price to pay to have the actual character development, romance, suspense, and charm which is lacking in Jones's novel.

Complexity of Writing: 2/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 1/5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 1/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: body horror, magical dismemberment

No comments:

Post a Comment