I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. Usually, it’s really important for me to like a character of a story in order to like the story itself, and I don’t always like characters in Miyazaki’s films, but there’s something about the world created in the films that just draws me into them because there’s so much beauty elegantly mixed in with the strange and frightening.
Normally, I make it a point to read a book first before watching the film if the book came before, but I watched the film Howl’s Moving Castle first before I found out that it was based on a book. I thought the stories and characters were okay, though I fell in love with some of the landscapes created in the animated film. Expecting the story to have more in-depth characters, I dove into the original book by Diana Wynne Jones, but unfortunately didn’t find what I was looking for and wondered what about this book had inspired Miyazaki to make an entire film about it. More after the jump.
First of all, reading a book after watching a movie on it truly taints the initial reading experience intended by the author and created by the reader. Because you’ve seen someone else’s interpretation and the face of actors plastered on each character, it’s quite difficult to get away from that. My opinion of the book is not very favorable, but I do want to be fair and clear about the circumstances in which I read it. Further, I was not able to read the book continuously from beginning to end in a short amount of time and ended up reading it over the course of about two years, on and off, having to reread some parts just to refresh my memory of it. Part of this has to do with my very busy work schedule but it also had to do with the level of interest the book held for me–it just didn’t grab my attention. In the end, I finished it more to just complete something I had started, so it was more of a chore than an addiction to get to the end of this book.
On the bright side, Diana Wynne Jones has a really charming narrative writing style. The voice of her storytelling makes me imagine a kindly old schoolmarm telling a tale of magical adventures to an audience of wide-eyed children. I started out the book feeling a sense of wonder and anticipation as to what all of it was building up to. The moving castle, the wizard who ate the hearts of women, the mysterious living fire demon, and the devilish Witch of the Waste did spark my imagination. The character Howl is kind of amusing as a character in the story at first because he’s sort of a stupid lady’s man that’s a kind of entertaining train wreck that keeps repeating mistakes. It’s fun to laugh at his stupid antics…at first. Unfortunately, it gets old pretty quick.
As the story goes on, the plot feels directionless and drags on and on, with one antic after another that seems to go nowhere. Initially, I wonder if it’s maybe a cultural difference in story-telling styles since Jones is a British writer and I’m an American reader, but then I remember how much I enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, and even Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, so I figure that may not be it.
The structure of the fantasy world also seems to fade at the seams. I do understand that the story is set in a magical world that is separate from our world but connected to it through a sort of magical dimensional portal, but the system of the magic was confusing. In the Harry Potter universe, there are the muggles with no magic power and the wizards and witches with magical powers. Magic folk can be born to non-magic parents, and non-magic people can be born from magic parents, but you either have the magic or you don’t. In Howl’s universe, it’s not really clear who had magic and whether there’s any system that governs who has it or not. Apparently you can go off and study and learn magic, and there are people who are apparently not magical at all, but the main character Sophie is able to execute magic naturally without any training, so it makes me as the reader wonder if everyone has magic and can execute it at will or do some do and some don’t and I just have to accept it as the author dishes it out? It’s just not very clear, so the main character Sophie’s powers seem to sort of come out of nowhere, driven only by story-telling convenience, creating a deus ex machina effect in which the writer just takes too many liberties in unnaturally forcing the story to work.
Finally, the characters do start out somewhat amusing and interesting but they turn out to be somewhat flat and muddling as they don’t really seem to go anywhere and their personalities never really flesh out into full souls. The romance between Sophie and Howl is especially disappointing. It already seemed a little forced in the movie, but at least there’s enough development of it throughout the film so that you can kind of grudgingly accept it in the end. In the book, there’s almost no evidence of a romance between the two, and any evidence given is just not clear, deep, or believable, but somehow the two end up together. There’s a special art to the creation of a romance that’s believable, in which real chemistry between characters actually play out well, and unfortunately not all story tellers can pull it off.
Since I’m not too pleased with this book and how it turned out, I do wonder what it was about Jones’ book that inspired Miyazaki to make the full-length animated film. I believe that the charm of Jones’ writing and the sheer imaginative idea of a moving castle and the way the foundation of the story was laid probably caught Miyazaki’s imagination. Often, the book is better than the film adaptation, but in this case, I felt the film was an improvement on the book, which is definitely possible. Nevertheless, I share this opinion with a grain of salt, knowing that my reading of the book is forever skewed having watched the film adaptation first. I welcome anyone who has a different view of the book to share their thoughts and analysis, especially if different from my own, because if I somehow missed the awesome in this book, I would sure like to know.