Howl's Moving Castle

Bear with me for a few paragraphs, while I approach a review of the Disney release of Howl’s Moving Castle from a very oblique direction.

I’m one of the people who prefers to watch movies that are dubbed instead of subtitled, all things being equal. This is, apparently, a controversial position. I don’t really understand how there can be any debate over this. If you have a movie with a superb dub, and a movie with great subtitles, the dub is the better movie. Period. Now, it’s true that there are many, many movies – particularly animated movies – that have dubs that are bad, or terrible, or completely unwatchable. That, as we like to say in the software industry, is merely an implementation detail. Of course it’s possible to record a dub which ruins a movie. It’s equally possible to lay down a subtitled translation that ruins the movie. And of course, we can imagine an actor’s vocal performance that is so singular that no dub can capture it. But be honest: this is not an issue in 98% of the films we watch. Would you really cry crocodile tears if they dubbed over Kevin Kline’s voice in Wild Wild West?

So what I’m talking about here when I say “dubs are better” is: the platonic ideal of a dub is better than the platonic ideal of subtitles. This is because popular cinema – and I’m deliberately excluding experimental film and formalist indulgence – is a medium which makes use of the written word but is not dominated by it. Subtitles dominate movies. Subtitling a movie takes a primarily visual experience (“watching a movie”) and converts it into a primarily lexical experience (“reading the dialogue, while periodically flicking your eyes upward to see what happened.“)

This is not to say that reading is bad. Reading is one of my favorite activities in all the world. Given the choice between a book and a movie, I’ll usually choose a book. But that doesn’t mean that I appreciate being distracted from a director’s carefully created composition by being forced to read. Neither would I appreciate turning the page of the book I’m reading and encountering a full-motion video.

I’m bringing up this discussion of subtitles in part because I think it’s an interesting discussion on its own, but primarily to use as an illustration for how small changes in presentation can transform a work. It’s a common phenomenon to hear people who have read the book a movie is based on grumble “They changed everything! And they left out this Really Important Stuff! And my favorite moment from the book was missing!”

Howl’s Moving Castle was adapted from a book. I’ve already read some criticisms of it along these lines.

Popular cinema is a medium. Books are a different medium. The two mediums place different requirements on how a story should be told. Just as putting subtitles on a movie changes its essential nature, so can other aspects of how we tell a story transform the nature of a work. In other words: if you tell the same story the exact same way in a book and a movie, you will end up with either a lousy book, or a lousy movie. The first Harry Potter movie is a great example of a film that would have been better if the director (well, if some hypothetical director with talent) had attacked Rowling’s book with a carving knife and used only its heart. Instead, the film was a slavish page- by-page adaptation that removed all the joy from the text.

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Howl’s Moving Castle

The reason this discussion of subtitles, audio dubs, and the nature of film as a medium is relevant is because I recently read the Diana Wynne Jones novel Howl’s Moving Castle, and had the opportunity to see the Miyazaki film of the same name yesterday. Both works tell the story of a young woman named Sophie who encounters magic and is transformed by it. I enjoyed both immensely. I was therefore surprised when I read Christina’s opinion that Miyazaki mutilates and abandons Sophie’s story. I respectfully disagree with Christina. I think what Miyazaki is abandoning is the form of the fable, and in doing it he finds Sophie’s heart. If the movie had been “true” to the book, it would have been a less interesting movie. The medium required a different view of the story.

Christina correctly points out that the book is strongly redolent of European fairy tales. The movie, unapologetically, isn’t. Fairy tales are not personal stories, even though we treat them as such, or though we may feel possessive and intimate about them. Fairy tales, at their heart, are archetypal stories meant to scare children into behaving and listening to their elders. Little Red Riding Hood is a story about rape, murder, and cannibalism. Scratch a fairy tale, find a nagging parent: look no further than The Boy Who Cried Wolf. This is why the witch in Hansel and Gretel is so much more interesting than the protagonists, who by definition must be blank slates onto which children can project themselves.

Wynne Jones was telling a fable; Miyazaki was not. This is why Miyazaki’s Sophie is so much more compelling than Wynne Jones’s dreary young heroine. In the book, Sophie serves merely as a caricature against which the author can reflect the much more subtly realized Wizard Howl. In the movie, their roles are reversed: Howl is the caricature, composed of nothing more than hair and spun sugar, while Sophie is the emotional center of the film. The fact is, while reading the book I wanted to know what happened to Sophie. While watching the film, I cared about what happened to her. This is why if you told me I could only experience Howl in its book or film version (and both are quite good), I would choose the film without hesitation.

It is this empathy that is one of the strengths of film. Books have the luxury of being able to tell you about things. Movies have to show you things, or else be soul-crushingly boring.

On to specifics, without spoilers. The voice talent is of nearly uniformly high quality. There is one high point (Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste) and one low point (Billy Crystal doing his tired-when-he-started Borscht Belt schtick as Calcifer).

Miyazaki, as always, incorporates his obsessions into the narrative: aging, the loss of family, the loss of humanity, war, industrialization, the environment, and above all (no pun intended), the beauty of the fantasy of flight. Some of these elements weren’t in the book. But if you haven’t read the book, you won’t notice.

They used to say that Johnny Cash never did a cover. When he sang someone else’s song he took it, changed it, and made it absolutely his own. If you’ve ever heard his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”, you know this is true. Miyazaki, it seems, is much the same. This Howl is his own.

One thing I feared going in was the dreaded Miyazaki doldrum: as I have alluded earlier, I found some of the middle parts of Princess Mononoke to be slow enough to cause me to gnaw my own leg off, like a trapped wolf, in order to escape the theater. I needn’t have worried. Howl has the best pacing of any of his films since Castle in the Sky. If I have any complaint about the film at all, it might be that it wraps things up rather quickly, and a bit too neatly. But this is just mere quibbling about plot.

At its emotional core, where it counts, Howl works superbly.