(Source: Borrowed from Roommate KH’s collection. Recommended by poet friend NI.)
Reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the of few times I had visited to the literary source material after having seen its film adaptation. It also happened to be one of the rarer times when I had some doubts about whether the book would be as enjoyable as the movie since typically, I’m the douche bag bitching about all the ways the movie got it wrong. It wasn’t until two years ago that I caught the Hayao Miyazaki adaptation and despite it not reaching the level of his original properties like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, its strange cast of characters and beautiful magical world took hold of me for its run time. Only a few months ago did I learn that it had been based on a late 80’s children’s fantasy novel by Jones who’s apparently the beezneez in fantasy literature.
With some trepidation, I took the plunge over the past week. Not only was I wary due to my enjoyment of the movie version, but also because reading children’s fantasy these days often just reminds me of how much more pessimistic I am than when I was a kid still hoping to someday become a mutant, the cool X-men kind and not the horribly disfigured real type. Additionally, children’s fantasy so often seems to rely on set tropes that leave little more for surprise, and therefore often just feel like a ploy to get cash from parents’ wallets once the most recent trendy trilogy gets released.
Therefore it was a great treat to read Jones’ novel, and discover much more nuanced characters than the ones that appear in Miyazaki’s version. Howl, already an asshole in much of the adaptation, rarely has moments where it’s evident that despite his flaws, he’s the guy we should be rooting for. Even more jarring in her depiction is Sophie, the eldest of three daughters who’s magically aged by the Witch of the West. Rather than an innocent figure, Sophie often acts in selfish ways that feel more authentic while remaining a constant source of humorous irritation for Howl. Of the main characters, I think only Calcifer pales in comparison to his film adaptation, his grumpy disposition rarely played for laughs in the same way as the movie without compensating for it in other ways.
When recommending this novel to me, my friend said that Miyazaki had failed to integrate some key aspects of the book. And while I’ll refrain into going to detail about those missing components, I’m not sure whether the book really benefits from their inclusion. The idea that Howl comes from our own world was great when I first read it, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere and I wonder why Jones decided to make it that way. I’m sure my friend has something very smart to say about what it does for the book, but I couldn’t determine how it tied into the rest of the book’s plot or themes. I read that Jones has written other Howl adventures where perhaps she explores that aspect in greater depth, but I wish she had done something with it here. The other movie’s omission is a bit perplexing, and as I read it I kept wondering why it was left out since the movie often alludes to it, but never builds to something in the same manner the book does.
As a fantasy novel, Howl exceeds thanks to Jones’ ability to create a magical world that feels natural. The treatment of magic here feels vibrant even twenty plus years later, and Jones describes magical acts with flair while also making it appear just like any other trade that becomes tedious over time. The morbid sense of humor in much of this novel really appealed to me, and images like the physically mismatched prince and magician just charmed me to the core.
Although it ends very rapidly and on a saccharine note, I was happy to see the characters find a measure of peace after pissing off one another for over four hundred pages. After dwelling in mid 20th century misery with Kavalier and Clay, it was fun to read about Sophie and her friends shape shifting and throwing slime tantrums. I still prefer the movie due to the added perk of Joe Hisaishi’s score and also its images of a war occurring on the story’s periphery, but I’m glad to have grown more familiar with one of fantasy’s most inventive living authors. As my friend says, the best ones are all British.
Next week: Bryan O’ Malley’s Seconds