Movie / TV Reviews

Book Versus Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle

In a previous post, I made a list of books whose movie adaptations I enjoyed as much as (or more than) the original texts and Howl’s Moving Castle was one of them. Rather than do a review of the book (TLDR: I love it and think you should read it), I thought I’d write a post about some of the more significant differences between the book and movie.

First, if you don’t know, the book and movie are about a wizard, Howl, with a literal moving castle and the girl, Sophie, who’s transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and finds herself living as Howl’s cleaning lady. Second, there are obviously going to be spoilers for the book and movie.

The book has a more complex story than the movie and adds more to the world and the characters within it. But the movie adds richness with Ghibli’s amazing visuals and I think the voice acting was perfectly cast. I watched the movie before I even knew it was a book, so when I read (and re-read) the book I pictured the animated cast. My love for each plays off the other when I read or watch and creates a rare case where I enjoy each edition immensely.

There is a myriad of differences between the movie and book, but I’m just going to talk about some of the major ones.

A quick rundown of technical details: the book was written in 1986 by Diana Wynne Jones (though my edition is a 2001 reprint) and the film debuted in 2004 and was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli. The English voice cast (which is the version I watch) has a ton of big names such as Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner, Emily Mortimer, Josh Hutcherson (I just learned this), Billy Crystal and Jena Malone.

Let’s start with the plot, shall we?

The book has Sophie as the eldest of three sisters and resigned to a boring life because nothing interesting ever happens to the eldest. That is, until the Witch of the Waste wanders into the family hat shop Sophie is apprenticed at to spite her for making magical hats (a fact that Sophie is unaware of at the time) and turns her into an old woman, who is unable to speak about her curse. This is similar to the beginning of the movie, except that Movie Sophie only has one sister and she’s cursed because the Witch is jealous that she was in Howl’s presence for a few minutes (making the witch pettier and less menacing than in the book).

Howl’s reputation for stealing the hearts of women is more prominent in the book and he spends much of his time romancing some girl or another (Sophie’s sister Lettie is one of them) only to abandon them the moment they fall in love with him. In between his Cassanova-ing (yep) he’s dodging the king of Ingary because he’s been tasked with finding the king’s missing brother, Prince Justin, and previous head court wizard, Suliman. In the movie, Howl is dodging what is essentially a war draft. The wizards of Ingary are being summoned by the king to create magical weapons and fight the armies of a neighboring kingdom. The film speaks mainly to the evils of war whereas the book revolves around Sophie’s experience under her curse and her burgeoning magical powers.

The book has several interwoven plots involving Sophie’s family and characters that know Howl and many of these are left out of the movie completely. For example, Book Sophie has two sisters, Martha and Lettie, apprenticed at a bakery and with a witch respectively. Martha is a love interest for Michael, as he’s considerably older than Markl in the movie and Lettie is preyed upon by Howl for a time. She’s also a decent witch in her own right and ends up with Wizard Suliman. The movie casts Markl (formerly Michael) as much younger, cuts Wizard Suliman and replaces him with the king’s head witch, Madame Solomon, Howl’s former teacher and the one pushing the war agenda.

In the novel, Wizard Suliman’s arc is interwoven with that of the missing Prince Justin, resulting in them being a cursed scarecrow and dog and also a sort of Frankensteined (yep) amalgamation of the two of them, courtesy of the Witch of the Waste. In the movie, the missing prince is known as Turniphead and he essentially hangs around the castle as part of the family until his curse is broken at the end.

The endings are significantly different as well. Because the plot of the movie centers around the war, things are coming to a head in the land and the inhabitants of the castle are pulled into it. The castle is eventually destroyed, Calcifer set free with Sophie’s help and Howl’s heart returned to him. Sophie’s curse is now broken and the two finally make their feelings known to each other. In the book, there’s a big to-do as essentially every character in the book ends up at the castle and a second fire demon, who previously worked for the Witch, tries to take Howl’s power as well. She’s defeated and Sophie’s curse is broken and her and Howl’s relationship blooms rather more abruptly than in the movie.

On to the setting and the castle!

Howl and Sophie’s world in the movie is far simpler. I think they still live in the land of Ingary (though I didn’t actually note this, so maybe it’s never mentioned) and Howl’s castle has doors to different towns such as Kingsbury and Porthaven. Califer’s magic has turned the castle into a literal moving building, with a charmingly bulbous body, chicken-like legs (anyone else reminded of Baba Yaga?) and even a mouth and eyes. It’s a cobbled-together looking beast that can be seen wandering the hills and wastes, puffing out plumes of black smoked as it goes. The inside is similarly cobbled together, with nooks and cupboards and bedrooms as needed. Later in the movie, the interior gets a makeover when the crew settles into Sophie’s old hat shop.

The world in Wynne’s book is far more complex. The castle is roaming the wastes of Ingary and does have doors to towns like Kingsbury, but there’s also a setting on the door that only Howl can enter and it leads to his homeland of a very modern Wales. Sophie and Michael make the journey with him once, where they meet his estranged sister, niece and nephew. Howl even owns a car and takes them for a (terrifying) ride. Readers also discover that Wizard Suliman was originally born in this world as well. Howl frequently visits his home world and eventually begins courting a woman who lives there. The castle is also quite different. I can’t recall if it has legs or not, but rather than a pudgy roaming beast, Book Castle appears to be a tall and menacing and made of coal. Inside there’s not much space (Howl and Michael get loft bedrooms, Sophie has her cubby, there’s the main kitchen area with a closet and then a small yard) and the interior doesn’t expand when they inhabit the old hat shop.

Lastly, the characters.

Howl: I’ve touched on how he’s a real ladies’ man in the book and less so in the movies. While vain in both versions, Book Howl’s clothing is mentioned frequently, as even it has magical properties that make him more alluring. He’s also much more entwined with the Witch of the Waste whose put a curse on him to call him to her so she can steal his heart and his power. He’s sterner in the book and cares a lot about spiders (Sophie isn’t allowed to kill them while cleaning.) Movie Howl is more likable and his feelings for Sophie are apparent much sooner. He’s also struggling with being turned into a weird bird-demon due to his interference with the wars. His relationship with Calicifer is more obvious as well.

Sophie: In the book, she’s meeker and resigned to her “boring” fate in the beginning, though she does end up being a similarly feisty old lady when it comes to her movie counterpart. Her magic is far more apparent in the books, to others and herself. In the movie, she has moments where she seems to be fighting or breaking her curse, reverting to her teenage self, or occasionally a middle-aged version. If this happened in the book, I didn’t pick up on it. She’s slow to figure out Calcifer and Howl’s curse in the book.

Calcifer: The fire demon’s most noticeable change between book and movie is his appearance. In the book, he’s rather creepy, described as a pointed face and I believe as having sharp teeth. In the movie, he’s much more sedate and rather adorable. Yes, I’m using the breakfast scene because it’s my favorite thing ever and I desperately want to eat it.

The Witch of the Waste: In the movie, the Witch is a fat, somewhat goofy villain who does want to steal Howl’s heart, but doesn’t work very hard at it. She is somewhat lazy and ends up being zapped by Madame Solomon and losing her powers. As a shriveled old woman, she’s taken in by Sophie and the gang and is mostly sedate until the end, where she causes some problems trying to steal Calcifer once it’s revealed he has Howl’s heart. In the book, she’s far more menacing. Her powers are significant and she and Howl have several battles. She murders his former teacher, destroyed the physical bodies of both Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin and turned them into a dog and a scarecrow and curses Sophie because of her magical abilities. She’s a pretty sweet villain, actually, and she’s apparently pretty hot too.

In the end, it’s her fire demon that works to destroy Howl. There’s no mention of the Witch having a demon in the movie. In the book, Miss Angorian, Howl’s nephew’s teacher and someone he’s courting for a time, is actually the fire demon in disguise. She’s gone rogue and wants Howl’s power for her own, but is playing the long con by trying to get him to fall in love with her.

Michael/Markl: He’s older, a teenager and dating Sophie’s sister Martha (who isn’t in the movie at all). Martha works at the bakery (versus Movie Lettie), though she was initially sent to train as a witch but switched places with Lettie. Michael is learning to be an apprentice, much like younger Markl in the movie, and in the book, we get to see more of his studying and progress. He and Sophie seem to work together more in the book and grow closer than their movie counterparts.

Turniphead: In the film, this smiling scarecrow is somewhat intimidating to Sophie at first, but he quickly points her in the direction of Howl’s castle and starts her on her journey. Later he shows up and becomes a member of the family, hanging around the castle and helping out. In the end, his spell is broken “by true love’s kiss” (though Sophie clearly doesn’t love him) and he reveals he’s the prince of the other kingdom and heads home. As I mentioned before, in the book he’s a mash-up of a couple characters and he’s far more terrifying to Sophie. She’s constantly banishing him and even Howl sends him away, uneasy with the amount of power coming from him.

Lettie: I think I’ve mostly covered her differences, but I’ll restate them anyway. She is initially sent to the bakery to apprentice, but when Sophie goes to visit her, it’s soon revealed that she and Martha have swapped places and thanks to a clever spell, Martha looks like Lettie for a time. Lettie goes to apprentice with a witch and comes and goes throughout the plot, sending the dog(man) to look after Sophie at some point, then later ending up with Wizard Suliman. Pegged as the pretty, yet dumb one, she’s actually far more clever than she seems. In the movie, her role is minor and basically used to illustrate how isolated and dull Sophie’s life is.


Whew! There you have it – the major differences I noted between the book and the film. I think both versions are marvelous and if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I suggest you do so! I mean, I’m not sure why you bothered to read all of this if you haven’t consumed at least one medium of this story…though maybe you just like these type of posts? If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I hope I’ve at least prepared you for some changes and left you with an open mind to the differences between the two.

*screencaps from Google

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