Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Honor of Diane Wynne Jones

Young adult fantasy author Diane Wynne Jones died today from a long bout of lung cancer. If you have never read her Howl's Moving Castle series, get thee to a library now friend. And if you haven't read the series, well, maybe stop reading now, because this post contains a lot of spoilers.

Howl's Moving Castle may possibly be one of my favorite young adult books. And Sophie and Howl one of my favorite couples. At the beginning of the book, Sophie is a meek, down-trodden older sister working in the family hat shop she doesn't particularly like, but feels like she has to keep working there to allow her younger sisters to realize their dreams (one sister is a witch, the other a baker). Out of the blue, the infamous Witch of the Waste, hereafter known as WotW, comes in one day, and puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. It takes Sophie most of the book it learn why, but it turns out that Sophie is also a witch with great potential, the WotW felt she was a threat, which is why she cursed Sophie. Sophie takes the opportunity to leave the job she hates. Sophie also uses her curse as a freedom to finally break free and to say and do the things she has been thinking to been to scared to say. She winds up at Howl's castle (the castle has doors that led to several countries, hence the name of the book), Howl is supposedly a hideous wizard who eats young women's hearts. It turns out Howl isn't quite that bad, but he is a total drama king, always overreacting, pouting, kind of self-absorbed, cynical, a total coward; and yet somehow awesome, endearing and underneath it a really good person. He tolerates Sophie muscling into his castle surprisingly well and Sophie refuses to put up with his dramatics and hysterics, and eventually it's love (Howl can see through the curse and knows Sophie is a young woman). Anyway, it's a fantastic book, funny, very well written, and highly entertaining. There are two loosely related sequels--Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, although Sophie and Howl aren't the main characters in either and only show up about halfway through.

Studio Ghibli did an animated adaptation of the book, which was highly lauded, as most everything by Ghibli is; but unfortunately, in this case, they got it wrong. Ghibli is usually pretty good with potrayals of women, especially when compared to Disney or Pixar. However, the plot was changed quite a bit, and some of those changes completely reduced or took away whatever power the women had in the book.
So, in the film they left out the sisters completely. Sophie's sister Lettie, the witch, when she finds out that Sophie is an old woman and working for Howl, sends a dog (who, in a somewhat involved and lengthy plot, is a human wizard who was turned into a dog) protected by charms to Sophie to try to protect her from the bad wizard Howl. Lettie also at the end, when there is a battle brewing with the WotW, comes to help however she can.
And then after this epic battle Howl and the WotW in the film, the WotW is totally defeated and she is stripped of her power. But no, that's not enough. She is also stripped of her memory, having absolutely no clue who or what she was before; and stripped of her personality, so she becomes this harmless sweet old granny. So harmless and sweet in fact, that Howl and Sophie take her in to the castle to live with them. In the book, she's killed, but at least she retains her power and her memory and isn't stripped of everything that makes her her before she goes.
So one of the things that Sophie can do in the book is talk to things and make them live or grow. When making hats, she would talk to them, and the things she would say would translate to those who wore the hat--making them look younger, marry a rich man, have good luck, etc. She inadvertently brings a scarecrow to life by talking to it, and it begins to follow her about; the wizard/dog her sister sends to protect her knows that Sophie has the power to free him, and he really takes to her. Well, in the film, at the end, both scarecrow and dog are made human, and declare they were following Sophie because they loved her! So we go from the motive being because of her power, to being nothing more than a stereotypical romance. Oh, and in the book, the wizard/dog loves her sister, not Sophie.
But the largest insult is that in the film, Sophie is not a witch, she has no magical powers whatsoever. And this is the biggest loss and changes the plot and themes in a massive way. So much of what happens in the book is because of Sophie's powers. While they left her a sassy old woman, it isn't enough to make up for what they took away from her. The book is about Sophie growing not just as a person, but growing in her power and strength; finding courage and facing off against the WotW's demon; realizing she can shape her own destiny; and helping Howl, as well as several others, get out of a multitude of curses and other jams. Bad form Ghibli.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, can you send me your e-mail and mailing address? You have won the Linda Brewster book from the Kidlit Women's History Month blog! Please respond by 4-3 so I can have the publisher get the book out to you. You can e-mail me at margo_tanenbaum (at) yahoo (dot) com.