I’ve yet to meet someone unsurprised to learn that the Studio Ghibli anime, Howl’s Moving Castle (dir. Hayao Miyazaki) was based on a 1986 novel of the same name, and the first of Wynne Jones’s Castle trilogy.
The book being so little known is probably due to the radical approach Ghibli takes to its adaptations; other western fantasy novels adapted by Ghibli include Tales From Earthsea, from the Earthsea novels by Ursula Le Guin, Arietty based on The Borrowers series by Mary Norton , and Ponyo, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
As Howl’s Moving Castle goes, book and film are a study in opposites. Jones avoids the conflict of war; Ghibli gives us a magical dogfight. The book’s sense of place and imagery is weaker than the vivid look of the film, but the plot is more detailed and expansive. Jones’s kingdom of Ingary is more logical than the groundless magic typical of Ghibli.
Despite these radically different approaches, Jones’s Sophie is still at the centre of a Bildungsroman, but with a stronger sense of agency, her own magic, and holds her own against Howl’s tantrums. Howl’s back-story is fleshed out with an almost C.S. Lewis parallel world absent from the film; Howl is pathetic, and a more overt womaniser, making the ending hard-earned and satisfying.
The book is far and away the stronger narrative, but the film has Ghibli’s inimitable aesthetic presence. The two versions of the story support one another; they’re both too good to need to compete.