[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UibodUGoL4MHowl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is among my top 10 favorite books, and may be the one I have reread most often over the years. It received the only A+ review I have written for AAR so far. Which is why I was both excited and worried to hear some years back that it was being made into an animated film by Studio Ghibli, directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, it’s about a young girl named Sophie who is very shy and rather downtrodden as she works in a hat shop. To her great horror, the wicked Witch of the Waste changes her into an old woman, and she leaves her home. On the hills above her town lives the powerful but also wicked wizard Howl in a magical moving castle, which Sophie enters in order to get help from him. In the end she enters an agreement with Howl’s fire demon Calcifer to break the contract between him and Howl, and in return Calcifer promises to break the spell on her. Of course, matters are not as straighforward as they seem …

I saw the movie in the cinema in 2004 and was quite pleased with it, except that for some reason the German dubbed version had a truly dreadful voice for Sophie, which made her sound like a whiny wet rag throughout. (I have since avoided anything with that particular actress in it).

Last week I saw Howl’s Moving Castle for the first time in the English dubbed version. It made a huge difference not having to wince each time Sophie opens her mouth! Anyway, here’s what I thought of it now that I could enjoy it properly:

Visually, the movie is most impressive. I adored the landscapes and cityscapes, with this great attention to detail and color. I am not quite so happy with the way the characters are depicted: Howl is too pretty, Michael/Markl too young, Calcifer too cute. But that’s not an unexpected reaction when you have read a book so often, and I was perfectly happy to overlook it.

The English voices are excellent. Christian Bale’s voice – aahh, I could bathe in it. But I also enjoyed Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal and Emily Mortimer a lot. And did you know that a young Josh Hutcherson spoke Markl?

But what I didn’t like – thoroughly disliked it in contrast to the first time when I’d only been mildly irritated about it – is the way Studio Ghibli changed Sophie’s character. In the book, she starts off as extremely downtrodden, but the magical change into an old woman liberates her, and she becomes as straighforward and occasionally rude as she pleases, in addition to having some very powerful magic.

In the movie, she has no magic of her own except that of selfless love. She is always giving, considerate, takes care of every stray, and in the end it’s a series of unselfish actions on her behalf that makes another character change their mind at a crucial point and act unselfish in return, thus making it possible for Sophie to save Howl. In addition, Sophie’s great achievement lies in creating a lovely home and a family. The whole setup reminded me very much, and not in an agreeable way, of the ideal of womanhood in various 19th century novels. So my enjoyment of the movie’s vivid images and the lovely voices was to some extent marred by the character of the female lead.

Do you have any idea why Sophie’s character was changed to such an extent for the movie? And what’s your opinion of the movie?

– Rike Horstmann