Fat Books & Thin Women

Book vs. Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle

Book: This was my first Diana Wynne Jones and it was – well, I guess not quite what I was expecting. Sophie, a teenage girl who works for her stepmother in the hat shop her father ran until his death, doesn’t expect to have an interesting life because of her place in the birth order. The oldest child is never the one to go off on adventures, but the one to stay home. She’s turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and leaves her home, finding refuge in the moving castle that’s been looming over her town. There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon, and Howl’s apprentice Michael. Sophie makes a place for herself as a cleaning woman, promising Calcifer that she will find a way to break the agreement he has with Howl that keeps him in the castle; in return, Calcifer will break the Witch’s spell over Sophie.

With Howl Sophie is living a more exciting life, but it’s still a quiet one. Jones has these fantastic elements to the story, like the door to the castle opening to four different places (one Howl’s birthplace, our world), Seven League Boots, fire demons being fallen stars, but these things often seem haphazardly thrown into the story. Some parts of the story aren’t sufficiently developed, so that Sophie and Howl’s declarations of love for each other at the end of the novel come as a surprise; these are characters who throughout the book may develop a certain respect for one another, but don’t show any growing affection until, bam, they do. The fight scenes are lackluster, Jones’s descriptions not adding any urgency or clear choreography to the scenes. Howl’s Moving Castle has countless intriguing and magical elements to it, but they all read as flat.

Movie: The animated film of Howl’s Moving Castle makes countless bizarre departures from the source material, and while the film may be good on its own, it was hard to watch after reading the book. Many of the changes made to characters and storyline are impossible to understand; for what reason does Howl’s apprentice, Michael, go from being 15 years old to a child? Why is the wizard Suleman changed into a woman and made the villian? Why does the Witch of the Waste turn from the villian into a goofy, often harmless old woman? Why does the door that in the book leads to Howl’s home country (in our world) lead here to night skies that Howl flies around in bird form? Why the war?

Visually, the film is stunning. In terms of plotting, nothing’s been gained by the filmmakers’ changes; the story doesn’t become any more coherent as a result of their retooling of characters and plotlines.

Winner: Book.

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Book vs. Movie: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Book: There is a frenetic caffeinated energy to this novel. Nick and Norah take alternate chapters and after reading the wretched doubled narration of Megan McCafferty’s Bumped it was such a relief to see this working. Nick and Norah both seemed older than they are, even when they’re reminding me of how old I am getting. (I kept doing the math, not quite believing it. I know that being 25 doesn’t exactly make me ancient, but I still find it hard to believe that I am seven years older than either of these characters.) Nick’s been dumped by his girlfriend of six months but she shows up at one of his band’s shows anyway, so he asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes to throw Tris off. Norah agrees, which leads into a night of music, debating what this means for either of them, how they feel about their exes, what they are going to do with their lives, whether it’s possible to meet someone and know, that night, that they are the right person. Norah especially sometimes reads as too screwed up to be eighteen years old but I couldn’t slow down reading long enough to really care about that.

Movie: It wasn’t until rewatching this after reading the book that I realized how much the film departs from the book. Unlike the book, the movie goes for the gross-out in its focus on Norah’s friend Caroline (the scene of her vomiting into a bus station toilet, dropping her phone and gum in, reaching in for the phone – then the gum) and it turns a few of the characters into caricatures, which works better in some cases than in others. Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Tris, loses the humanity she has in the book; here, she’s nothing more than a lying, cheating, Lindsay Lohan-style Mean Girl, and watching her is never not painful. One of the pleasures of watching the film, though, is to see what they’ve done with Tal – he wasn’t a real sympathetic character in the book so there isn’t much departure there, but to see Jay Baruchel who is always so adorable and puppy-like (have you seen Undeclared or Knocked Up or She’s Out of My League?) play the part of a raging asshole is kind of wonderful.

Maybe because we can’t access the inner monologues of Nick and Norah as we can in the book, the movie makes its focal point finding Where’s Fluffy rather than Nick and Norah finding each other. I mean, they do, of course they do, but that’s all kind of secondary, a benefit to their efforts to find Caroline and then the band. The movie gives you what you want, which is finding the band, Nick and Norah realizing they like each other, Tal and Tris getting their comeuppance, and lots of good jams and potty humor. My one major complaint is that Kat Dennings is so much prettier than Tris – and in the book she’s not, not by a long shot. I guess when you make a film you gotta have your leading ladies be gorgeous, but it’s still kind of a disappointment even though I like Kat Dennings.

Verdict: Tie.

These two versions of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist don’t seem like the same story so much as they do riffs on a theme. They’re good in different ways and in different places and I can’t say that one is better than the other. They’re different, that’s all.

Both the book and movie also serve as a healthy glimpse of what I’m headed back to once I finish my service here in Macedonia. Things that wouldn’t have annoyed me too much before (like Nick driving a Yugo – such a teenage hipster move, imagine the effort required to find a Yugo in the States) drove me nuts now that, you know, I live in a country that was part of Yugoslavia and where a lot of people, including my host family, drive a Yugo if they’ve got a car. I wanted to tell Nick to stop using his Yugo (a) to tell the world he doesn’t have enough money for a different car, and (b) as an expression of irony. I am not sure how well I’ll do living in Brooklyn when I get back, or anywhere for that matter. Maybe I should give the two Nick & Norahs a win and me a lose, for now.

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