Chris's Reviews > Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
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's review
Mar 20, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, dwj

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones' books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance rquest by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults?

Putting aside the liberties that particularly the second half of the film takes with the story, I think a key to this book's fascination is Sophie's premature ageing. Jones continues to specialise in the young adult fantasy genre despite being no spring chicken herself, and so the apparent way in which the fairytale motif of the youthful protagonist becomes seemingly permanently subverted by the sudden onset of years and the attendant aches and pains must strike a warning chord with older readers too.

You are as old as you feel, the conventional saying goes, along with the belief that youth is wasted on the young. In 'Howl's Moving Castle' these themes are developed. Sophie (whose name means Wisdom) finds her bright young mind trapped in a decrepit body (a fear many middle-aged individuals feel as old age beckons). How she deals with that, when the fairytale convention says most heroes and heroines must be robustly proactive, is that she uses her wits, her understanding and her innate skills (such as empathy) rather than mere physicality to overcome the obstacles that stand in her way. While ostensibly about Howl and his mobile dwelling, this book is really (I suspect) about DWJ as Sophie, but with the consolation of a fairytale ending. And while the animated film takes on additional themes that reflect some of its maker's obsessions, it does at least capture the perennial essence of each human being's intimations of mortality and built-in obsolescence.

A final note: like all DWJ books (and books by a great many other authors, of course!) the choice of names is often significant. I like the name of Ingary: reminiscent of Hungary, it must be a closet reference to a parallel England, pronounced Inglund. And Sophie Hatter herself, no Mad Hatter (though she must have felt she was going mad) but a Wise Hatter.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Kaion (last edited Mar 28, 2012 04:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaion It is a rather perverse choice to adapt isn't it? It's largely episodic, takes place largely in one location, the young-adult heroine spends most the time as an old lady... and don't forget all that cinematic action of frying bacon and cleaning and trimming hats and selling flowers!

I do think it's popular for a number of reasons that are the same as to why it was chosen for adaptation however. For one, everybody loves a romance. And more importantly, the fairytale setting is instantly recognizable and accessible--see compared to Dark Lord of Derkholm which satirizes a much more specific fantasy milieu (of the post-Tolkien mold). Further the plot is fairly simple (for Diana Wynne Jones), in that is sketches out the journey of Sophie's character in a very standard arc(girl leaves home, girl finds her awesome, girl lives happily ever after). Even her identity confusions are not confusions for the audience (compare this to say Hexwood, or Crown of Dalemark).

Basically, it's warmer and fuzzier than most DWJ, and that's what so charmingly comfortable about Howl's Moving Castle. I can't say it's my personal favorite of her ouevre, or that I consider it among her 5-star works, but craving a quick DWJ fix, it's probably the work I would turn to first. And it'd be sure to deliver the joy of being around the characters and DWJ's idiosyncratic humor.

Chris I largely agree with you on why it may have been chosen, of all her fantasy, for Studio Ghibli's adaptation, though I would have thought that a Chrestomanci title, such as Charmed Life, would have worked equally well. I agree though that most of her other young adult titles would not have adapted so well.

I think that these Japanese animators chose HMC as much for the common strands that run through many of their animations: strong female leads (as in 'Princess Mononoke', 'Spirited Away', 'Kiki's Delivery Service' or the recent 'Arrietty' based on The Borrowers), fantasy with a large pinch of magic (all the films really), European settings seen through Japanese eyes (ditto) and characterisation based on close observation of childhood fears, obsessions and tics ('My Neighbour Totor' is a classic).

If you haven't seen many of Studio Ghibli's other films you may have a treat in store (even though most of them remain subtitled rather than dubbed); even the weakest of them can be very charming and haunting -- in a nice way of course!

message 3: by Kaion (last edited Mar 28, 2012 05:20AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaion Oh, I have seen many Ghibli films, particularly the Hayao Miyazaki ones (My Neighbor Totoro was a particular favorite when I was a kid, and Princess Mononoke is just about perfect).

Though if we speaking strictly in Miyazaki's common motifs/interests, perhaps The Spellcoats would be the closest fit (relatively humorless, magical setting, young female heroine, the price of war, environmentalism/nature, myth, etc), in a way that I don't see any of the Chrestomanci books being.

Chris Yes, Spellcoats would work well. I haven't seen the Earthsea film yet, though I know that Ursula LeGuin was not pleased with the adaptation, but I suppose this would give an inkling of the kind of resulting film.

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