The DWJ Project: Howl’s Moving Castle

When I started these posts, I had to decide on an icon. I can no longer remember what cover was on the copy of The Lives of Christopher Chant I read back in the day, and sadly, my memory of my original Fire and Hemlock cover turned out to be way cooler than the reality. (In my head, it looked a lot more like the photograph is described. I would pay so much money to see Diana’s actual Fire and Hemlock picture.)

But I remember the cover under which I first read Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s the one you see in this icon, and while Howl himself doesn’t look right, that is Calcifer. (One of the many reasons I was disappointed with Miyazaki’s film is that Calcifer, while adorable, was utterly wrong.) So, since I wanted an icon that might actually be recognized as Diana Wynne Jones-related, this was the natural choice.

Since I’ve started to begin this project by re-reading my first tier of favorites — I don’t have a favorite, one that stands out above all others — I will once again point you at the recommendation I wrote some time ago, which gives you a sense of the plot. This one is much more fairy-tale-ish in its flavor, firmly set by the opening paragraph’s proclamations about the misfortune of being born the eldest of three. Its hard edges aren’t as prominent, either, as in the previous two books; there are some unpleasant notion lurking in the whole business with the fire demons, and also in what happens with Mrs. Pentstemmon (not to mention Prince Justin and the Wizard Suliman), but there’s less that makes you squirm and think, um, these people aren’t entirely good, are they? Howl’s faults, while real, are also less sharp-edged.

But it’s a Diana Wynne Jones book, and that means it also has some interesting truths about people’s behavior. I saw somebody’s post talking about how Christopher gets smacked upside the head by Flavian’s outburst in Lives, and so, in a way, does the reader; there’s a similar kind of reversal here with Fanny, as Sophie’s mental image of her (and the reader’s) changes from the beginning to the end of the book. Sophie’s own motivations are for a time unclear to her, and Howl . . . well, let’s just say that I’m wondering if my childhood fondness for this book somehow primed me to like Francis Crawford of Lymond. There are some unexpected similarities between the two.

I’m wandering close to spoiler territory, though, so I’ll put the rest behind the cut.

So I mentioned in the Fire and Hemlock post that the books I’ve started this project with share an odd quality among their male characters: a romance that cannot be consummated (in an emotional sense) because the men’s hearts/souls/etc are not their own. In this case Howl’s heart belongs to Calcifer, rather than the Witch, which would have been a more exact parallel, but he explicitly says “I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” Not until he gets his heart back can he reach out to Sophie. (By then, of course, she’s also her eighteen-year-old self, rather than an old woman. But the heart is a major part of it, too.)

Aside from <cough> wondering whether this is where my hindbrain got a certain plot point for my own fiction, I also start to wonder whether DWJ is where I got my interest in names. Howl is also Howell Jenkins; Tacroy is also Mordecai Roberts; even Thomas Lynn has a significant shift between Mr. Lynn and Tom. I’ll try to keep tracking these motifs as I continue the re-read, to see how far they extend. (No abused children, though. For all her faults, Fanny is explicitly said to be fair and generally kind.)

On a less analytical note, I’ve always loved her use of “Song” in this novel — to the point where I think one of the things that endeared Deep Secret to me was its use of the Babylon rhyme, which echoed this book in a pleasing way. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the use of Wales/our world more generally; it’s kind of an odd choice, now that I stop to think of it, and it irretrievably distracted teleidoplex when I lent her this book. Part of my brain wants to graft this onto the Chrestomanci setting because of that. (It could probably work. Sophie’s world doesn’t look like part of Series Twelve, but that’s okay; Howell could have found some unexpected method of hopping out of Twelve-B. I do wonder how he managed it, and Ben Sullivan before him.) I like the way it contributes to taking Howl down a peg, though; the continual deflation of his image is fun — I think of Calcifer calling him “a plain man with mud-colored hair” — and makes for that much more effect when he has one of his “I am a wizard, you know” moments.

I feel like I should talk about the film, since I mentioned it a moment ago. I knew Miyazaki was likely to change things, and so for the longest time I referred to it as Hauru no Ugoku Shiro (its Japanese title) in an attempt to think of it as its own thing, not to be compared to the book. Unfortunately, the first half of the movie paralleled the book closely enough, with minor changes (e.g. Michael => a much younger Markl), that I couldn’t help but think of the story as Howl’s Moving Castle. So when it took a screeching ninety-degree turn at Wizard Suliman, haring off into a different plot entirely, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. I know some people really love it, and some of those had even read the book first, but it didn’t work for me. I remain desirous of a live-action version — CGI could do a great Calcifer, I’m sure — and no, I don’t know why this is the book I most want to see filmed, but it’s true. Something about its visual nature is particularly strong in my head.

There’s at least one more book in the top tier; then we get into a fuzzy zone that I will probably just declare the second tier, and at that point I’ll start branching off into one or more of the books I haven’t read yet, or ones that are (from my perspective) more obscure. If you have a DWJ you’d really like to hear my opinion on sooner rather than later, mention it in the comments. It’s as good an organizing principle as any.

0 Responses to “The DWJ Project: Howl’s Moving Castle”

  1. marycatelli

    The real thing that annoyed me about the movie was that, having hared off into left field, it nevertheless did not make sense without my having read the book first — Sophie’s abilities are not explained.

    • Marie Brennan

      Hmmm. I didn’t notice that specifically — but I was busy tearing my hair out at “Wizard Suliman” (I believe my exact words were “You’re supposed to be a man, and dead”), which distracted me rather. In fact I found the entire second half to be kind of incomprehensible, probably because I kept subconsciously trying to shove the story back into the shape I knew, and of course it wouldn’t go. All my attention was on the Witch of the Waste, instead of wherever it was supposed to be.

      • marycatelli

        I managed to follow it and the simplifications, such as the scarecrow, and where the other door leads to, but I was noticing a lot of differences, too.

  2. desperance

    If you have a DWJ you’d really like to hear my opinion on sooner rather than later, mention it in the comments. It’s as good an organizing principle as any.

    The Homeward Bounders, please. Soon as you like.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s the next one up. 🙂 (It’s the last one I’m sure is first-tier. After that, there are like four other books that compete for the fifth spot, hence me thinking they should probably just be called second tier.)

  3. diatryma

    The Wales thing threw me, but I can see why she did it and I can’t think of a way to accomplish it without the sheer wrongness of suddenly Wales!

  4. marumae

    I would LOVE to hear your opinion on “Dogsbody”, although my favorite by her is “Witch Week”,”Dogsbody” really threw me for a loop, it went places I’m still not sure I understand but I loved it a lot and found it tearfully bittersweet.

    • Marie Brennan

      Noted. That’s one a lot of people love deeply; I don’t remember it making that much of an impression on me, but I won’t be surprised at all if my opinion changes now.

  5. coraa

    While I have learned better by now than to pick a DWJ favorite, Howl’s Moving Castle is up there. It was, I think, the third book by her I read, after Archer’s Goon and Charmed Life but before A Tale of Time City or The Lives of Christopher Chant or Witch Week.

    I loved Sophie for her sense and practicality, Howl for his lack of same, and Calcifer for being Calcifer. I loved the way the narrative thoroughly messed around with the “traditional” or “expected” gender roles. I loved the moving castle, and the way it was a character unto itself.

    I did enjoy the Miyazaki version, but I think of it as a separate thing unto itself, not an adaptation of the book at all. It was as though Miyazaki had not so much read the book as laid his head down on the book and dreamt it: themes and elements were there, but with different resonances and different meanings and different image altogether. I can fully understand not being able to appreciate the one for the love of the other, though.

    • Marie Brennan

      Sophie’s practicality is a great boon, yes. She falls into the same category in my head as Cimorene from Dealing with Dragons, and the fact that those were two of my favorite childhood books probably goes a long way toward explaining why the default personality for any character I write is “sensible.”

      And I heart Calcifer so much. ^_^

    • Anonymous

      I love the way you describe the connection: “laid his head down on the book and dreamt it.” I almost want to tuck the thought away and use it in another context… maybe re-dreamt, again…

      Yes, the Castle/Calcifer is the image that springs to my mind whenever I think of the character. I really wish Miyazaki had kept the “scary” and slightly dangerous (because he’s not human) aspect of his character. I think believing in the danger of Howl’s contract would have been more real, too. (After all, in DWJ’s book we have Miss Angorian and the Witch, and they clearly show the direction Howl would have gone without Sophie’s timely intervention.)

      I think being able to appreciate both the book and the movie as separate entities for Howl’s Moving Castle made me much more lenient on movie adaptations of books. Maybe a strange reaction, but I used to complain a lot about how movies didn’t adapt the book straight, scene by scene; and then after watching this one I got used to a couple differences and seeing the adaptations as separate. And I got less upset, and enjoyed both more.

      • Marie Brennan

        Yeah . . . I tried to keep them separate, but just couldn’t. If it had been more radical of an adaptation from the start, I think I would have been fine. It was the abrupt departure partway through that knocked me out of synch with the film.

  6. Anonymous

    Like you, I was strongly put off by the movie at first. However, my daughter wanted to see it again (and again, and again); and over those repeated viewings I managed to separate it from the book, and enjoy it on its own account. I grew quite fond of the dog, too.

    If you have a DWJ you’d really like to hear my opinion on sooner rather than later, mention it in the comments. The one with the elephant! The only DWJ that bored me (except for the elephant). I’d really like an intelligent adult analysis of it.

    • elaine_th

      I realized after I posted last night I hadn’t given the title of the book with the elephant. It’s The Merlin Conspiracy.

      • Marie Brennan

        I was going to comment and ask, because I had no recollection of an elephant. 🙂 (I’ve only read The Merlin Conspiracy once, when it first came out.)

  7. wingsofawolf

    I think one of the things about Howl’s Moving Castle, movie, is that if you can regard it as entirely separate from the book, you must. They’re both awesome, but differently awesome and I could never really connect them in my brain, which allowed me to enjoy myself. The movie’s slime scene was pretty epic, though.

    One of my favorite tiny happinesses in the book was that not only was there the entirety of John Donne’s Song, but also that throwaway line from another John Donne poem: “Busy old fool, unruly Sun/Sophie.” It’s the little details that count.

    • Marie Brennan

      ! I hadn’t ever made that connection to the poem — I’m mostly familiar with that first stanza, for obvious reasons.

      Hee. Now I need to go read the whole thing.

      I agree with you that liking the movie is often going to depend heavily on how much you can take it as its own thing. I tried. But the first part was too much like the book for me not to resent the way it changed course halfway through; by then I wanted it to go on and do the rest of the book, too.

      ETA: I wasn’t awake when I read your comment. It’s an allusion to a different poem, not “Song;” nevermind.

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