This post will be a short and not especially structured one, hence it’s better filed as Book Thoughts rather than a proper book review. I finished Diana Wynne Jones’s delightful Howl’s Moving Castle several weeks ago but never got around to writing about it. So as it’s one of the books on my list for Roof Beam Reader‘s TBR Pile Challenge, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my thoughts on the book.
Like many others, I was first introduced to this story via the (also delightful) 2004 anime of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I had been meaning to read the source book by Jones for many years, so I included it on my TBR Pile list to encourage myself to get on with it. Now that I’ve finally read it, I am pleased to report that the animated film remained largely true to the book, capturing the charm and quirk of each scene perfectly. However, the movie version changed or omitted a few details, from the age of the wizard Howl’s apprentice – a child in the film, a young man in the book – to the lives of Sophie Hatter’s sisters – much more fleshed out in the book, with strange twists of their own subplots – to the recasting of some of the characters, but honestly I feel these changes for for the better, as they streamlined the story and made it more fully about the central characters. In written format, following multiple side stories works very well, but on the screen, especially with a story suited for younger audiences (…although I don’t feel like Jones originally intended her story to be only for kids…it’s pretty universally-appealing…) it works better with a cleaner plotscape. One large and obvious addition that Miyazaki added for his adaptation: the war (rather, anti-war) subplot. This is not to be found in the book at all, but I do think it enhanced the film and helped round it out, making up for some of the meatiness lost be the snipping out of other details. These changes aside, the majority of the scenes in the movie are straight from the book, and reading them felt like visiting an old friend.
At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story. But it’s not a standard example of that genre, as Sophie (whose name, appropriately, means “wisdom”) is not so much literally growing up, having been fairly mature already, supporting herself and being both thoughtful and responsible. But she becomes cursed by a spellcaster jealous that Sophie’s hats seem to have a magical ability to bring out the best in their wearer, and is forced to endure her body aging to a progressed elderly state. She spends the duration of the book not only looking for a way to lift her curse, but also learning much about herself and viewing the world and others through changed eyes. She better understands the motivations, pains and foibles of others and is able to both empathize and see with a clearer sense of objectivity now that she is in many ways moved outside society, viewed as not a viable and vital member of the community but as a weak, old thing to be pitied. This affords her also a new sense of freedom as she is able to act and make decisions without thought for reputation. She gains true independence and agency even as she must endure aches and pains and a loss of her youth and potential. But she makes for herself new potential, chooses new paths and finds, at last, true happiness and contentment.
I daresay this is less a coming-of-age and more a story of breaking free of constrictions – a story of lightening and of enlightenment.
I highly recommend this not only for lovers of fantasy but also for readers who may be resistant to modern YA literature or who want to recapture the feeling they had when they first encountered fairy tales. It would be awesome for reading aloud to a mature child and perfectly suitable for an 8-12 year old to read alone. And if you know an anime lover of any age, get a copy of this book into their hands right now, especially if they enjoy more thoughtful, less whiz-bang anime stories. It would also be especially wonderful for readers who enjoy remade myths and unconventional character studies. Not only Sophie, but also each of the other major characters are all fascinatingly multi-faceted, not at all simple and conventional. Jones does a better job with her characters than many writers of adult-aimed literary fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this story!