In the film version of Howl, Sophie Hatter's problem at story's start is her lack of self-esteem. Unlike her mother or her sister Lettie, or the other girls in the hat shop where she works, Sophie is not that attractive. Plain, shy, and gray, Sophie is more upset than charmed when two handsome but large and looming male soldiers attempt to flirt with her in the town's streets. "Do something for yourself for once, will you?" sister Lettie calls to her as Sophie gradually edges away from the busy pastry shop where Lettie works, pointing to Sophie's penchant for self-sacrifice and linking it to her lack of self-esteem.
For Sophie of the novel, looks are not at issue; both she and her two sisters "grew up very pretty indeed" (1). Rather, her problem lies in her belief that story has the power to shape destiny. "In the land of Ingary," the novel opens, "where such things as seven-league books and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes" (1). Though the book's second paragraph hints that stories are not infallible (though the birth of Sophie's second sister "ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Sisters," it had not), Sophie herself misses the hint. "She had read a great deal, and very soon realized how little chance she had of an interesting future. It was a disappointment to her, but she was still happy enough, looking after her sisters and grooming Martha [the youngest sister] to seek her fortune when the time came" (1). For the reader, the humor lies both in imagining a world where fairy tale tropes determine one's future, and in laughing at a character who buys into the convention, even when the evidence to disprove it is as close as the nose on her face.
With its focus on storytelling rather than feminine self-confidence, the book's opening may appear to be less feminist than the film's. But DWJ is a sneaky writer, with a lot of hidden agendas up her sleeve. Even while we're encouraged to chuckle at Sophie, we're also invited to think more deeply about the ways that story—in the form of social and gender conventions—can and do shape us, often despite our own better judgment. About which, more below.
|A fearful Sophie being rescued by a handsome stranger|
In the novel, though, it is not soldiers, but "a young man in a fantastical blue-and-silver costume" who spots Sophie and accosts her on the crowded street (9). Book Sophie's response to the man (who, again, turns out to be Howl) is similar to movie Sophie's response to the soldiers: "Sophie shrank into a shop doorway and tried to hide" (9). But the novel casts Sophie's response, not Howl's actions, as abnormal:
Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of wearing on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too. (9)
At the costumed man's pitying look, Sophie realizes that she's overreacting, and feels ashamed. Sophie's fear of aggressive masculinity, which in the film is justified by Howl's rescue, here is cast as part and parcel of her problem. Could that problem be less about believing in the stories her society tells, and more about using those stories to hide from her own fears? Does film Sophie lack self-confidence, while book Sophie fears her own powers? Including her own power to attract the opposite sex?
The Witch of the Waste's curse on Sophie "compels [Sophie] to seek her fortune" in both book and film. What fortune does she find? What is her quest? In the book, Sophie's transformation from maiden to crone allows her to free herself from many of her fears. A trapped dog frightens her, but "The way I am now, it's scarcely worth worrying about," she tells herself, and goes about freeing the canine with her sewing scissors (20). "Still, I don't think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That's one comfort," she thinks later in her trek (22). And finally, when she encounters Howl's moving castle on the moorland, one more comfort: "Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls" (23). And thus old Sophie risks knocking on the castle door.
Once inside the castle, though, both book and film Sophie find themselves talking back to Wizard Howl. "What a nosy/outspoken/unruly old woman you are," Howl teases book Sophie, responding to her nosy, outspoken, unruly words and behavior. Far from the shy "mouse" he named her at their first meeting, old Sophie isn't afraid to speak her mind, or to act on her own behalf, in her own self-interest. Without having to worry about romance, about attraction and sex, book Sophie feels safe enacting an identity far different than the shy, mousy girl she's been playing for most of her life.
Film Sophie is initially a bit more cautious, a bit more tentative. But her anger at being suspected of being in league with the Witch of the Waste spurs her to throw off her caution: "I'm sick of being treated like some timid little old lady," she cries while attacking the dirty castle in a domestic cleaning spree. Both book and film Sophie invert the typical quest pattern of leaving the domestic to go and seek adventure. Instead, Sophie goes to seek adventure and finds herself hard at work in the domestic sphere.
|Film Sophie crying over|
her lack of beauty
Interestingly, Sophie's curse seems to fade at this moment; the film pictures her as a young woman again. And throughout the rest of the film, at moments when Howl pays attention to her—remaking the castle to give her her own room, resetting the magical door to open upon a beautiful flower-covered plain, giving her presents—Sophie looks younger. The Witch of the Waste may have initially laid the curse of age on Sophie, but the film suggests that it is Sophie's lack of self-confidence that keeps it in place.
Significantly, film Sophie remains old even after the Witch of the Waste is stripped of her powers by the evil wizard Madame Suliman. Only after Sophie takes action to save Howl (by moving the castle) does she throw off her old-woman disguise for good.
At the climax of the film, after Sophie has figured out how to save Howl from the curse he has been under, Howl awakens and exclaims, "Wow. Sophie, your hair looks just like starlight. It's beautiful." Sophie's response—"You think so? So do I."—indicates that Sophie has finally accepted herself, finally believes in herself. Embracing feminine self-confidence is certainly a feminist message. But having beauty function as a proxy for self-confidence, rather than any sense of achievement, is troubling at best. And that Sophie regains her youth by acting to save another, rather than acting to save herself or to achieve her own goals, reinforces messages that women are meant to meet others' desires rather than their own.
But Wynne Jones' message gets even more complicated. Because after she and Howl join forces to defeat the Witch of the Waste, it turns out that Miss Angorian is not as innocent as she initially appeared. And Sophie must act again, this time to rescue Howl. But also to rescue herself, from being too femininely nice, so nice that she's allowed others—her stepmother, Miss Angorian, even Howl—to take advantage of her.
New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott may be right that Miyazaki's film "resonate[s] with... determined, somewhat romantic feminism," and that its Sophie "joins an impressive sisterhood of Miyazaki heroines, whose version of girl power presents a potent alternative to the mini-machismo that dominates American juvenile entertainment." But given a choice, I'd take Diana Wynne Jones' version of feminism every time.