Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Howl's Moving Castle and Male Adaptations of Female Work (From the Archives)

I originally published this post last year.

The first time I saw Howl's Moving Castle, five or six years ago, I was delighted. I'd seen Spirited Away, but other than that I'd never seen any Miyazaki films, and as far as Miyazaki films go, HMC is a tad more accessible to Western audiences. Plus, they dubbed the animation so well that a friend convinced me the film was not, in fact, a translation, but that it had originally been done in English.

Well, that wasn't true. It's definitely a dubbed film. But I was surprised, a month ago, when my older sister handed me a copy of the book Howl's Moving Castle and recommended I read it. She said it was a little like The Princess Bride, in that the book was different from the movie but still delightful. And delightful it was - but I was surprised by the ways the story and characters changed when it was transferred from a Welsh novel written by a woman, to a Japanese film directed by a man. Miyazaki did a fantastic job with the film, and I still love it, but his adaptation places more focus on male characters and all but strips Sophie of her power. On the flip side, the film complicates age and evil witches in a really interesting way.

I want to make it clear up front that I don't know enough about Japanese culture and Welsh culture to comment on how culture has impacted this transition. In fact, I haven't even seen the movie undubbed. Accordingly, this review will compare a book that was published in English, to a version of the film that was released in English though Disney, and which was marketed to an American audience.

This romantic imagining of Howl says it all
(source: Dreamhuntress on flickr)
First of all, in the movie, Howl is the main event. He's dashing and pretty, and he swoops into Sophie's boring life to save her from the soldiers who are flirting with her. Yes, Sophie doesn't really need saving from those men, and Howl in fact puts her into more danger when the Witch of the Waste sees him with her and decides to put a curse on her, but there's still something heroic in the gesture. These heroics don't show up so soon in the book - instead of scaring off unwanted suitors, Howl is the unwanted suitor. Sophie gets nervous when he tries to buy her a drink, so he chuckles, offers to escort her wherever she's going, and backs off when she doesn't want him to. And the Witch of the Waste doesn't curse her because she's seen with Howl - she curses her because of a misunderstanding and a mistaken identity. I can see why Miyazaki simplified the witch's motivations here, mind you.

The Witch of the Waste is a complicated character in the book, in ways I won't fully describe here, since I hope you'll all read the book for yourselves. But I will say this: while the film complicates the idea of witches by turning the Witch of the Waste into a victim you can sympathize with, who is ultimately an ally, the book complicates the idea of witches in other ways by making Howl's struggle into one where he's trying to avoid becoming like the witch. She isn't evil by virtue of being a powerful woman, (and every powerful woman in the movie is, in fact, evil - even the witch only turns good after losing her powers). She has turned evil over time because she made the same choice Howl made, and his only hope is to undo that choice before it hurts him like it hurt her.

And gaining power in the book doesn't corrupt all female characters. While the movie carries a warning to all magical beings - all the other wizards and witches in the land are losing their humanity to war - the only witches we meet (Madam Suliman and The Witch of the Waste) use their power for evil, while the wizards we meet (Howl and his apprentice) use their magic to help people/ to hide. In the book, however, we meet several witches who are good, including Howl's teacher, a woman who teaches magic to Sophie's sister, and Sophie herself. Yeah, that's right, Sophie herself has magical powers in the book. In fact, in the book Sophie is able to save Howl because of her magical powers, not because they're in love - although they are.

And that last point transitions nicely into my last critique of the movie - the movie is more a love story, where the book is more a coming of age story. Accordingly, it follows traditional patterns of love stories in ways that downplay how powerful women are and play up how powerful men are, while also reinforcing the Beauty and the Beast myth that a virtuous woman can save a dark, brooding man from his animalistic nature. In the book, Sophie plays a huge role in defeating the evil force they fight toward the end. In the movie, it's mostly Howl, and Sophie's role pertains mostly to Howl's heart, which, remember, she is moving through their emotional connection and not through her own power. To reiterate: in the movie, her power and influence are defined in relation to Howl, but in the book she has her own power. 

Still, there's a silver lining to all this: the movie and the book are both about a young woman who only finds herself after losing her youth. How feminawesome is that?? Also, the characters are interesting and fleshed out in both mediums, and the movie's approach to war is interesting. And the animation and music - just incredible. So if you love the movie, I hope you keep on loving it. But take the time to read the book too so you can appreciate the powerful side to Sophie's nature. 

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