Many will have heard about Studio Ghibli’s whimsical and romantic film Howl’s Moving Castle, but significantly less will be familiar with the novel it was based on, and will be startled to find out how far the film deviates from the novel. Here are five of the most significant differences between the book and the film.
Sophie Has Two Sisters, and Boy Are They Important
In the movie, Sophie has one little sister, Lettie, who appears briefly in the first ten minutes when Sophie visits her where she works at a bakery. Her role is not very significant to the story, other than to deliver some plot-relevant information–namely, the rumors about Howl.
In the book, Sophie has two younger sisters, Lettie and Martha. After their father dies, while Sophie is stuck working in the hat shop, Lettie is sent to study to become a witch, and Martha is sent to work at a bakery. However, they both desire each other’s lives, and so, unbeknownst to Sophie, use a potion to swap appearances and take each other’s places–an event that becomes very central to the plot later on.
Markl is a Teenager, and His Name Isn’t Markl
In the movie, Markl is a sweet, though initially distrusting ten-year-old boy who is apprenticed to Howl.
In the book, Markl is fifteen years old, and his name isn’t Markl–it’s Michael. He is still an apprentice to Howl, and is still initially distrustful of Sophie, worried about her ruining the delicate balance of the household. However, it is revealed throughout the course of the story that he is in love with Sophie’s sister Martha, but he believes she is Lettie.
Howl is a Womanizing Coward–and He’s Welsh
In the movie, Howl is a chivalrous, enigmatic wizard who spreads malicious rumors that he’s evil and eats the hearts of girls to hide the fact that he is secretly trying to stop a war between two kingdoms.
In the book, Howl’s reputation for “eating hearts” is a result of his tendency to court women for a while, and then grow bored and move on to the next one. Sophie believes that he is just a womanizer, but it is later revealed that (spoiler warning) this is actually a result of his not having a heart–because his heart is with Calcifer, and not physically in his body, his humanity is slowly being sapped, causing him to be stuck in an endless loop of becoming infatuated and then un-infatuated with girl after girl. He does encourage these rumors, however, as he is a huge coward, and will use any excuse possible to “slither out” of situations that scare him or that he is too lazy to do, such as his obligations to the kingdoms he serves. This iteration of Howl may be more flawed, but it makes his character arc all the more impactful, and he’s highly entertaining.
Additionally, instead of the black dial on the door leading to a war-torn battlefield, it leads to modern-day (which when the book was published, was 1986) Wales, where Howl is from. His real name is Howell Jenkins, and he uses the magical world as an escape from his obligations in the real world. At one point in the novel, Howl is forced to go to Wales to visit his sister, and decides to take Sophie and Michael with him, which makes for quite the comedic situation.
Sophie is Also a Witch
In the movie, Sophie is a kind-hearted and strong-willed young woman, but has no magical ability of her own.
In the book, though it is not revealed until much later in the book, Sophie discovers that she also has magical abilities, though they are of a different nature than Howl’s. She has the ability to imbue objects with certain abilities by commanding them what to do. For example, early in the book, as she is repairing one of Howl’s suits, she comments that it was “built to pull in the girls,” and it gains the ability to do just that. Additionally, it is revealed at the end of the book that Howl had lifted the curse that made her look like an old woman long ago, but she was keeping her cursed appearance out of sheer stubbornness.
The Creative Vision of the Two Versions Couldn’t Be More Different
Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle is well-known as an anti-war film, reflective of director and writer Hayao Miyazaki’s pacifist beliefs and stance on the war in Iraq. (For more about this, check out this article by Game Rant.)
In contrast, Diana Wynne Jones’ novel contains little-to-none of these themes, as they were added by Miyazaki. Jones’ novel is more concerned with the clever subversion of fairy tale tropes, the defiance of fate, and self-confidence.
It’s not really a question of which of the two versions is better–they’re both so different that it’s difficult to fairly compare them. It almost seems more correct to consider them two completely different stories that are both extremely well-written and enjoyable, but separate stories nonetheless.