Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (Spoilers)

Many know this via Studio Ghibli: Sophie Hatter, cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Waste to be an old woman, seeks refuge in the moving castle owned by a wizard. As a rule, I don’t read books if I’ve watched the movie version first and vice versa – this is the second exception I’ve made to that rule and I was much happier this time around.

Read the minor spoiler version of this review on goodreads.

Howls caste

Set Up

The initial set up is pretty much the same for both book and movie. It’s established quickly that magic is an ordinary part of the world, but people are suspicious of certain people and practices – it’s perfectly fine to buy a potion from your local witch or wizard, but Howl and the Witch of the Waste are feared. The opening chapters also set up Sophie’s deep-rooted insecurities. As the eldest child, Sophie believes that she is fated for misfortune and so resigns herself to making hats for the rest of her life. Only when she’s turned into an old woman does she set out on a quest to break her curse.

Initially, the only gripe I had with the set-up was the meeting between Sophie and Howl. But I gave the book another flick through in preparation for this review and changed my mind. My original thoughts were as follows:

The first meeting between Sophie and Howl is poorly written – in that, it’s not explicitly clear that it is Howl. Sophie doesn’t think it is – and, out of the blue, reassures us that, yes, actually that was Howl. Um. Okay, then? It’s not a huge issue, but it was a little distracting.

‘Poorly written?’ Sheesh! I definitely take that back! This ‘distracting’ element of the book was the result of having the movie in my head while reading. In the book, Howl approaches a frightened Sophie and clumsily flirts, calling her ‘little grey mouse.’ In the movie, this line is given to Mister R. Ape, from whom Howl rescues Sophie. This coloured my reading of the book’s scene. Essentially, I was waiting for a rescue that never came, because there was nothing to be rescued from. I am curious if any other movie-to-book converts have similar experiences?

Once I settled into the book, setting aside my movie-goggles, the plot unfolded much more neatly for me. This is something to be aware of for anyone picking the book up after seeing the movie. I recommend this article (WARNING: includes all the spoilers) for a detailed comparison between the two.

 

Theme

Love! Romantic love, family love, loving yourself – all that fluff! Ultimately, this is a tale of self acceptance, learning to do away with the excuses, push past your insecurities, and live for you. All of this is reinforced in a charming twist: the power to break Sophie’s curse was in her all along, and no, not in a Disney channel ‘look inside of you’ moment – Sophie is a witch, and her own desire to stay as an old woman, to avoid her problems, is the reason she stays an old woman for the duration of the novel. Her own insecurity was more powerful than Howl’s magic, and until she let it go ala Elsa style, she couldn’t transform back to her younger self. Brilliant.

While I’m not a huge romance fan myself, Sophie and Howl are…cute. Yeah, they’re sweet. Heart-melting. I admit it! Seriously though, the only bar to the romance is that Sophie is an old woman for the majority of the novel – but that wasn’t particularly problematic, as the romance is only acknowledged once the curse is undone: This isn’t a completed romance, this is the beginning of one. One, that is likely continued in the novel’s sequels.

 

Staying Power

Howl’s Moving Castle is the first of a trilogy, but stands well on it’s own. Despite me clumsily shifting through the opening chapters, I am glad I read this. For movie-to-book converts, a second read may be more enjoyable than the first if you find it difficult to separate both versions of the story. As it stands, it’s a fun romp with magical elements, both comedic and dramatic. Not meant to be taken too seriously, this story should put a smile on your face. For people who are a little sick of angst in their fantasy, this one is for you.

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