Howl’s Moving Castle, a 2004 animated feature from Studio Ghibli, has become one of the company’s most widely-recognized films. The story is about Sophie, an apprentice at her family’s hat shop, who stumbles into the wizard Howl’s magical castle searching for answers after she was cursed and turned into an old woman by the fearsome Witch of the Waste.
Some fans may be surprised to learn, though, that the Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece is actually based on a 1986 book of the same name by British author Diana Wynne Jones, and the novel is the first of three in a series that tells Howl and Sophie’s story. While the whimsy of the book transferred to the screen, there were also many changes made for the film, making the two works differ in some key places.
Updated on December 27th, 2022 by Stacie Rook: The next movie set to be released by Studio Ghibli, How Do You Live, is similar to many of the studio’s other works in that it is inspired by a book. While it’s been in production for years, the Hayao Miyazaki feature has at last been given a Japanese release date, July 14th, 2023 (via ScreenRant.)
In the movie of Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie has one sister, Lettie, who apprentices at the bakery Cesari’s. However, in the novel, it is important that Sophie is the eldest of three, and she has two younger sisters, Lettie and Martha.
In the land of Ingary, where the book is set, it is terrible luck to be the eldest of three, and so Sophie’s sisters have far better prospects than her. This is why Sophie resigned herself to remaining an apprentice at the hat shop, and why she is so calm when the Witch puts a spell on her, feeling that her fate has caught up with her.
In Studio Ghibli’s film, Madame Suliman is a key antagonist. She’s the Head Sorcerer in the court of the King, and Howl’s magical mentor. Movie Suliman is a combination of two book characters. The first is Mrs. Pentstemmon, Howl’s mentor—who isn’t evil—but warns Sophie of the evil that could take root in Howl. She is murdered by the Witch of the Waste, in a book scene impossible to adapt for the movie.
The second is the Wizard Benjamin Suliman, the King’s Wizard who is sent on a mission to the Wastes when the Witch threatened the King’s daughter. After months spent persuading the King to let him go, Prince Justin went out to find him. In contrast to the movie character they formed, neither Mrs. Pentstemmon nor Suliman had bad intentions.
The Spell On The Prince
In the movie, Prince Justin is under a spell that turned him into a scarecrow, who is named Turnip-Head by old Sophie. Justin’s spell is broken by true love’s kiss at the film’s end, and he sets off to stop the war.
In the novel, though, Turnip-Head wasn’t the Prince, and the characters existed separately. Instead, the spell on the Prince was far more gruesome, as he was used as part of the Witch of the Waste’s plans to create the perfect being. The simplification of this storyline makes sense, given the movie’s length, and it ultimately made Turnip-Head a more important figure.
Showing that some fantasy movie adaptations are nothing like the books, the war is a very real threat in the Howl’s Moving Castle movie, where it’s an important part of the plot. Howl himself is constantly out in the skies fighting other magicians who have turned to the dark side, while he’s trying to stop himself from going the same way.
In the book, however, the war isn’t central to the plot. Instead, it’s merely mentioned as being on the horizon and is the reason why the King needs Prince Justin to be found and brought back home. The novel version of Howl is not a soldier and instead is far more occupied with wooing women with his guitar, as well as hiding from the Witch of the Waste.
The Black Portal Entrance
In the movie, the black door in Howl’s castle reveals the secrets of Howl’s past, and shows how he became heartless; he saved a falling star who didn’t want to die by offering him his heart. The film sees Sophie witness this happening, but the door’s location is completely different in the novel.
In the book, the black portal door takes Howl and Sophie to the place where Howl grew up, Wales. The real-world location exists in a whole other world than Sophie’s homeland, making for an interesting and amusing sequence. Howl’s true identity in the novel is simply Howell Jenkins, a man who is a member of the rugby club, and who has a sister, niece, and nephew.
In the novel Howl’s Moving Castle, Markl is instead named Michael. He came to live with Howl and Calcifer as a boy after his parents died, and he had nowhere else to go. Initially, Michael slept in the entranceway to Howl’s house because he knew it was safe, but soon Howl brought him in.
Michael is fifteen years old in the book and becomes romantically involved with Sophie’s youngest sister, Martha. Given that Martha doesn’t exist in the movie, though, the choice to change Michael’s character into a young boy named Markl can be explained.
As one of Studio Ghibli’s most likable characters, Calcifer’s orange fireball appearance has become iconic, but the character had an altogether different look in the Howl’s Moving Castle book.
Although Calcifer’s appearance is a subtle change when compared to some of the major plot points altered in the adaptation, it does alter the overall vibe of the character. The novel’s description of Calcifer notes that the fire demon is green, blue, and purple, with sharp teeth formed of fire. In contrast, the movie version of the character is much more approachable, reflecting his role as a comedic character.
While Studio Ghibli’s movie offers hints that Sophie has magical abilities, nothing is explicitly said about it. On the other hand, in the book, Mrs. Pentstemmon tells Sophie that her magical powers can break the contract between Howl and his fire demon and that she can talk life into things. Sophie talks to the hats she works on and makes them destined for certain truths, like one’s owner marrying into royalty.
The novel also sees Sophie talk life into the Scarecrow she calls Turnip-Head, and a walking stick she finds, which becomes a magical wand. She is also the only one who can break the contract between Calcifer and Howl without killing either of them. The novel also explains that Sophie is able to keep the Witch of the Waste’s spell on herself out of pure stubbornness, despite Howl trying to lift it.
The Witch Of The Waste
Studio Ghibli has many movies based on books and manga, and as such, is used to adapting an existing story to fit the tale the studio wants to tell. The Witch of the Waste is a great example of this. In the movie, the Witch of the Waste wants to go after Howl’s heart but has her magical powers sapped from her by Madame Suliman. She’s then taken back to Howl’s castle, where she lives as an old lady.
In the book, though, things aren’t as wrapped up as neatly. The Witch of the Waste is being controlled by her own demon, with whom she made a contract. She wants to acquire Howl’s handsome head to complete a “perfect being” she has constructed, so he can rule as King and she as Queen. The Witch pursues Howl with everything she has, cursing him so that one day he has no choice but to go to her. She’s a true force of evil, and at the novel’s end, she isn’t shown mercy but is killed by Howl.
Sophie And Howl’s Relationship
While both the book and movie of Howl’s Moving Castle show the development of Howl and Sophie’s relationship, and in both cases the two end up together, the path there looks a little different in each version of the story.
In the movie, the pair come together more smoothly, and though they are sometimes frustrated with one another, it doesn’t last for long. On the other hand, much of the novel sees Howl and Sophie bickering, and for much of the narrative, Sophie believes that Howl is in love with her sister Lettie. In any version, though, the two truly care for one another and eventually get their happy ending.