Howl's Moving Castle at the State Theatre

Howl’s Moving Castle had its Australian premiere on the last night of the Sydney Film Festival. I’d never been to the Festival before, but when I saw the listing I thought I’d probably go along to Howl’s. Then, a week after tickets went on sale, I read an article that said it was the fastest selling film in the whole Festival. I phoned up the next day – it was almost booked out, but I managed to get seats way up in the circle.

Although I’m not a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan, I read Howl’s Moving Castle a few months ago (see my comments on it), in preparation for the film. It didn’t make an overly strong impression on me, so going into the film I found I could only remember the broad outlines of the plot and characters. Even so, it was enough to know that the film was very different from the book – in fact, I’d hesitate to call it a “film version” of the book. I think it existed in a grey area between “based on” and “inspired by” – sort of like the Olivier film of Wuthering Heights. It took characters and events from the book, but added to, excised from and reworked the material to produce something that was fundamentally different at all levels.

Because I’m not passionate about the book, this actually didn’t bother me in the least. Although I recognised that many things were very different, I was quite happy to go along with the flow and enjoy it as a completely new story. When I did notice differences, my reaction was more along the lines of “that’s changed – what an interesting decision” rather than “that’s changed – and it’s completely wrong“. In fact, the only thing that threw me slightly was the changing of the Donne poem. Obviously once it was translated into Japanese it wouldn’t have had any cultural significance, and it didn’t have the same relevance to the plot that I remember it having in the book, but it was still odd to read in the subtitles something that looked like it had gone through a double translation process. I’d be interested to see how it is treated in the dubbed version.

I liked the mechanised Victorianism of the setting (my mental image of the book – rightly or wrongly – was set much more in “once upon a time” land) and I thought the war scenes (which, as far as I recall, were completely not-appearing-in-the-book) were incredibly visually compelling.

I also enjoyed the humour – it was enough to keep you engaged, without actually undermining the serious aspects of the plot, or becoming too Disneyfied (although I have to admit, the dog came close).

The characters of Sophie and Howl seemed (as far as I could remember) to be rather different from the book – I first thought “simplified”, but maybe it was just a significant shift in emphasis. In any case, I found them both interesting, and I cared what happened to them – one of my key criteria for whether or not I enjoy a film. And I think Howl was probably the sexiest animated character I have ever seen!

My initial reaction was that the world was a lot less rich than Spirited Away, but maybe it was just that I found it more culturally accessible. At this point I’m not prepared to say which I prefer of the two films – I think I’d need to see Spirited Away again first.

Coming out of the film, my reaction was that I liked it better than DWJ’s book. However, it has inspired me to re-read the book, and somewhat surprisingly I’m enjoying it much more than I did the first time around.

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