Film adaptations of novels are often panned due to liberties taken by screenwriter and director, losing the essence of the novel in the process. Baz Luhrmann’s recent interpretation of The Great Gatsby was heavily criticised because underneath its glamorous exterior, it appeared to be a story about a failed relationship, not an essay on ambition, the callousness of the rich, or the dangers of dwelling in romanticised memories. As one reviewer accurately put it:
Adapting “Gatsby” just so you can recreate the party scenes is like remaking “Born on the Fourth of July” for the war scenes. Luhrmann has a knack for missing the point.
There is another popular film that got the Gatsby treatment but has largely slipped under the radar, as viewers were so mesmerised by its visual splendour (as people are wont to do) that they ignored the fact that none of it actually made any sense. That film is Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones‘ novel Howl’s Moving Castle.
If Gatsby was done just for the party scenes, Howl’s Moving Castle was done just for the scenery. The visuals are extremely good, although Miyazaki rather immodestly points this out through Sophie’s cooing and fawning over the landscape.
From what I can gather, this is the basic premise of the film: a young woman called Sophie is inexplicably transformed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste, so travels to Wizard Howl’s castle. There she enters into a bargain with his fire demon Calcifer; he removes her curse if she’ll break a spell he’s under (first having to deduce what that spell is). After throwing a tantrum about his hair, Howl convinces Sophie to visit the King to blacken his name so he can get out of going to an unexplained war. She inexplicably sees Madame Suliman instead, joined by the Witch of the Waste who Mme Suliman turns into a harmless old lady. Mme Suliman then tries to harm Sophie but Howl saves them, and for good measure they take the former Witch (now called Granny) with them. For some reason Howl moves the castle elsewhere but they are discovered and an all-out war breaks out. Sophie does some hocus pocus and everything returns to normal, and she becomes young again although the bargain with Calcifer is not explicitly fulfilled.
Based on this synopsis, there are a multitude of issues I could discuss, but I’ll put them into three broad categories.
1) The most obvious: the plot makes no sense whatsoever.
In the film, events are explained as they happen, which gives the viewer insufficient time to adjust to what’s going on. It’s as though the filmmakers handpicked a selection of plot points from the novel and inserted them directly into the film, neglecting any sort of coherence in the process.
In the novel, John Donne‘s “Song: Go and catch a falling star” was used as a major plot device through which several events (some of which have found their way into the film) are explained. In the absence of this narrative anchor, the film dreams itself along from one scene to the next without any real substance to hold it together, flitting between the cliched and the utterly absurd.
2) The characters are shells of their book counterparts.
Given the limited film time in which a variety of characters have to be introduced as well as participate in the story, it is not surprising that they have shrunk to one-dimensional versions of their book-selves. Furthermore, some characters are excess altogether. Lettie and Honey (Fanny in the book) don’t contribute to the overall story, and neither does the Witch of the Waste after being drained of her power.
The presence of two antagonists (the Witch of the Waste and Mme Suliman) is just confusing, especially as the baddie switches from one to the other, and Mme Suliman ends the war at the close of the film not through defeat but simply a change of mind.
3) The “revised movie theme” reduces the complex story to a farce.
Book-Sophie, believing some old folklore that claims that the eldest child is doomed to failure, resigns herself to never fulfilling her true potential. Her perception of self-failure is gradually worn away over the course of the story, as by being old – with nothing to lose – she gains the confidence to be her own person, and to be a success. A fitting theme for a novel that is aimed at young teenagers.
Of course, the film had to Gatsby-fy the book, and the theme of the story collapsed into something much more offensive. Film-Sophie complains incessantly about how she is not beautiful, and when Howl reassures her that she is, she throws her arms around him. She is a passive onlooker most of the time and her heroism is limited to “the home”, in which she cares for Granny and the others. She is a horribly mumsy creature, displaying none of the feistiness and witch-like power of Book-Sophie.
The film’s poor excuse for a love story, in which the objective is beauty, is not only derogatory to the original characters but is also terribly cliched.
It seems that we are supposed to view the film the way that Markl, Howl’s apprentice, views the world – marvelling at the scenery, with obedience and a blind acceptance of proceedings, enjoying the ride while understanding very little of what’s going on.
In the same way that Miyazaki rewards the characters’ vanity by ensuring a happy ending for “beautiful people” (while never offering anything more profound), and in the same way that Luhrmann hides his flimsy storyline amongst brash music and glittering parties, we are supposed to praise Howl’s Moving Castle for its landscapes and animation even though it is utterly devoid of anything deeper.