Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film and Novel Feminism: Diana Wynne Jones' HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE

This past weekend, my daughter and I took some time-out from December's rush to have a mom-kid movie night. Our film of choice? The 2005 animated Howl's Moving Castle, adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the 1986 novel by British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones. Miyazaki is a filmmaker of great imagination, one who does not feel bound to stick slavishly to his original source material when crafting an adaptation. Interestingly, though, in spite of their differences, both Miyazaki's film and Diana Wynne Jones's novel have been called "feminist" by various writers and critics. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about the differences between it and Jones' novel, and wondering how those differences impacted the feminist messages of each.  Such wondering gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in a comfort re-read of Wynne Jones' novel.

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.

The bulk of both versions take place after the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie's hat shop and, for reasons only hinted at, lays a curse on her, a curse that makes her appear to be an old woman rather than a seventeen-year-old adolescent. Before moving to that section of the story, though, I want to discuss two significant differences between film and book that occur before Sophie's transformation. Sophie of the book is wont to talk to the hats as she trims them, spinning stories about their own futures: "You have mysterious allure"; "You are going to have to marry money!" "You have a heart of gold and someone in a high position will see it and fall in love with you" (7). Though the narrator does not come out and say it directly, astute readers will quickly pick up on the fact that Sophie's predictions turn out to be true for the women who buy and wear her hats. While Sophie believes that story has the power to shape her life, in fact it is Sophie who has the power to tell stories that shape the lives of others. But it is a power of which she, unlike the reader, is woefully unaware. Because she is so invested in the stories her society tells her?

A fearful Sophie being rescued by a handsome stranger
Unlike book Sophie, film Sophie has no latent magical powers. And film Sophie's first meeting with her future love interest, the purportedly evil Wizard Howl, is significantly different from book Sophie's. In the film, a slim, blond man rescues Sophie from the importuning of the above-mentioned flirty soldiers, claiming her as his "sweetheart" and using magic to send the soldiers marching away. We're immediately distracted from this "rescue" by the arrival of a new threat ("Don't be alarmed, but I'm being followed" the man tells Sophie as inky snaky blob creatures ooze out of the walls around them), but a rescue it is all the same. Though the girls of the town spread rumors about how Howl eats girls' hearts, they're clearly enchanted rather than threatened by the prospect, a course that Sophie is invited to follow. Some men may be threats, the film suggests, but this man (who we later discover is the wizard Howl) is not. "That's my girl," he tells her when he leaves her on Lettie's balcony, clearly the adult to Sophie's frightened child.

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.

In contrast, film Sophie wanders rather helplessly on the moors, and relies on the help of a turnip-headed scarecrow, who gives her a cane, finds her a place to stay, and urges her to enter the moving castle in spite of her doubts and fears. Old Sophie initially has far more agency in the novel than in the film.

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
Film Sophie's personal quest turns out to be accepting her own beauty. In the novel, the uproariously comic scene in which Howl cries in despair after Sophie mixes up his potions while cleaning the bathroom, leading him to inadvertently dye his hair red, serves as another sign of his character: vain, self-centered, and entertainingly dramatic. But in the film, the scene serves to reveal Sophie's deep pain over her lack of looks. "I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful," Howl melodramatically despairs, to which Sophie responds, "Fine. So you think you've got it bad? I've never once been beautiful in my entire life!" Fleeing the castle, Sophie ends up outside, crying on the moor.

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.

In contrast, the climax of the book occurs when Miss Angorian, a woman whom the love-em-and-leave-em Howl has been courting, is captured by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie feels she's the one who put Miss Angorian in danger because she felt jealous of Howl's attentions to her, and immediately sets off to rescue the woman. Saving another woman, a woman endangered because of her jealousy, rather than saving a man with whom she is in love, sends quite a different message about Sophie's agency.

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.


  1. This is a great review! I much prefer the book version, as well. Plus, it includes much more of the lives of Sophie's sisters, who are active and interesting characters in their own rights.

    1. Yes, I really miss Sophie's sisters in the film—in the book, they serve as a nice example of how the "Ugly Stepsisters" jealousy trope does NOT play out in Ingary, at least in Sophie's family...

  2. My son and I have a great love for Miyazaki. I love that most of his main characters are strong females. They are imperfect but how many film makers have that many female leads - it's impressive. Howl's is probably one of our favorites. The movie led me to read the book.
    I had never thought of it in terms of feminism but I recently read the second book in the series. Sophie in that book is a completely different person - she's confident and strong. While she's no longer the main character, she's a powerful character. Of course, it makes me want to return to the first book and the movie (over and over again).

    1. Sara:

      My daughter is reading CASTLE IN THE AIR as we speak! I don't remember it that well; I'll have to take a look after she's finished it...

  3. I have neither seen Howl's Moving Castle (though I really should view more of Miyazaki's work than just Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) nor read the book on which it's based, but is it possible that the differences are due to the difference between written and visual media?

    Visual media has a hard time dealing with interiority and films often need to condense stories and the number of characters, Sometimes that's actually for the better. (I'm thinking of Akira Kurosawa'a version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which simplifies the story considerably and leaves out most of the political wrangling.) So the change to Sophie's looks may (also) be a function of the difference between visual storytelling and written storytelling.

    One reason I mention this possibility is that what I've seen of Miyazaki's work is far more female-centric than equivalent Western works of the same period, Spirited Away especially, which has a female child protagonist and women, including two older women, in critical supporting roles. (For all that Princess Mononoke is named after a girl, she's not the protagonist.) Another is that sometimes I find the analyses here to lack nuance.


    1. One reason I mention this possibility is that what I've seen of Miyazaki's work is far more female-centric than equivalent Western works of the same period

      I think I've seen all of Miyazaki's films (most of them recently), and my impression is the same as yours. I'd take a Miyazaki film over a Disney "princess" film any day.

      When I watched Howl's Moving Castle, I took the emphasis on beauty to be a metaphor for Sophie's overall self-esteem -- which is, after all, so true of so many people with body image issues -- rather than as purely an obsession with physical beauty. I haven't read the book, though.

    2. Oh, yes, Lawless, I'm sure that some of the changes were made due to the different medium in which the story is being told. We have far fewer characters than in the book; we can keep so many straight while reading the slower-paced book than we might have been able to watching a fast-paced film. And using Sophie's looks as a metaphor for issues of overall self-esteem makes sense for the visual medium of film.

      But functional changes have ideological impact, don't they? Impact that an adaptor may not have even intended, but impact all the same. Like anonymous here, I'd still take Miyazaki's films over Disney's any day, but I'd take a Diana Wynne Jones book over them both.

      If you read the book and watch the movie, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on them.

  4. I actually did my thesis on Hayao Miyazaki and his portrayal of his female protagonists so I could talk a lot on this subject. One of the important things I will note is that, when I analyzed the movie, the shifting of age was more strongly related to Sophie's identity in that she looses the curse slowly as her identity is rediscovered. She returns to her youthful state when she is engrossed in something else like cleaning, sleeping, or defending Howl to Madame Suliman. As she becomes more assured of herself, she begins to break the curse. If you look carefully, the curse was pretty much broken already before Sophie saves Howl, when the city is being bombed. While Sophie is insecure about her looks, it is more suggestive of her desire not to be noticed in any way. Sophie also rescues everyone, not just her love interest. She saves Turnip head first and then he helps her out. She saves Howl not just to save him but to save everyone. She breaks numerous curses and spells and she even ends a war. She is quite a powerful character.

    It should also be noted that Howl's Moving Castle is first and foremost a Japanese film. That is why it is important to consider the cultural aspects of the movie. I found that the way the movie was dubbed into English actually removed some of Sophie's agency and feminism. For example, in the original movie, Sophie says that she hired herself because the castle was so disgusting. In the English dub, she claims Calcifer did it. Later, the English version changes the line "I will find you" to "Find me". Even the line you mentioned, where Howl seems to be talking down to Sophie, is different in the original. You can even try to watch the movie in Japanese with English subtitles if you want to see what I'm talking about (although even the subtitles don't fully capture the cultural meaning). I'm not saying that all issues are translation issues but it does play a role when you consider the culture and language of Miyazaki.

    Sorry for the long rambling post but these are my favorite book and my favorite movie respectively and I have spent a lot of time thinking about these issues. I hope you still enjoyed them both and will continue to do so.

    1. Hi, Izumi:

      So cool to hear of someone studying Miyazaki and his portrayal of girls & women! Thanks for sharing your thinking on HOWL in this context, and for pointing out significant differences between the Japanese-language version and the English-language one. A translation of an adaptation has not one, but two levels of change we need to be aware of to get the entire story...