Dianna Wynne Jones has long been an author I’ve admired for Fire and Hemlock, Year of the Griffin, and other books that I read in Middle School, so I’m surprised it has taken me this long to read this book. In college, I watched the Hayao Miyazaki film interpretation with friends and was enchanted by it, but never got around to picking up the book. My good friend, Morgan, has encouraged me repeatedly to read it and lent me her copy last weekend when I was on a trip home. I read it in 3 sittings. It is hard not to compare the book to the movie, but fortunately they are distinct enough to enjoy as separate works.
The first part of the book felt very similar to the movie – some of the character backgrounds were a little different, but I could picture many of the situations almost shot-for shot with the film. This was a good thing, for me, because I love the “cozy” feeling I get during the first half of the film as Sophie cleans the castle despite protests from Calcifer, Michael, and Howl. About halfway through, however, the book took a turn I did not expect. The movie never really explains what is in through the “black” side of the door – it appears to be a sort of magical plane where Howl works dangerous magic – but in the book it is a link Howl keeps to his family in Wales. Connections to “our world” have appeared in other works by Jones, but I found myself surprised by it here, because it is a seed of Howl’s past that sends tendrils out, affecting the rest of the story. Where the main tension in the movie arises from the war into which the King is trying to draft Howl, the primary antagonist throughout the book remains the Witch of the Waste – and she is unscrupulous about using Howl’s family and friends as weapons against him.
Another major distinction is that I feel that Howl is made far more likeable in the film. Book Howl is without a doubt charming; however, Sophie is far more critical of his numerous faults and whereas in the movie he becomes friendlier and more generous relatively early on, in the book he does not redeem himself until the very end. (Even then, he continues to seem a bit of a selfish and manipulative asshole, albeit one who ultimately has other’s best interests at heart.) Despite Howl’s unlikable traits, through Sophie the reader is able to get a balanced picture of his credits and faults. I was amused that Sophie started to fall for him while being completely unaware of it, which put her in a bad mood, which she then tried to pin on anyone and anything around her except for her feelings for Howl.
Sophie, it turns out, has a pretty powerful magic of her own, which she often uses without being aware of it. The effects of this I enjoyed and found thought provoking as many times her expectations end up shaping reality around her – often in ways that cause more trouble for herself because she is rather dour and at times overly-critical of other people.
I found this book to be equally enchanting as the film, although in different ways, and when I finished it I was left wanting more. I suppose it’s a good thing there are several sequels!
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