I read the novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones recently, and it sparked in me some thoughts about adaptations and reimaginings in anime.
We’ve had a lot of controversy about some of those recently. Take Ghost in the Shell, for example, one of the most widely adapted of the anime franchises. I am sure everyone has heard of the new movie, currently in theaters. This isn’t about taking an anime and bringing it to a Western audience, with all of the troublesome whitewashing that can ensue. This is about how a franchise can be reimagined and adapted within Japan, and also about how stories made here can cross the pond in that direction.
Anime does an interesting thing in adaptations, in that an anime can sometimes take the heart of a story and really twist it about, all while keeping to the spirit. Specifically, I’m interested in print-to-screen adaptations – when an anime is adapted from a book or manga, versus movie adaptations from similar print sources – though there is a lot to unpack in terms of anime adaptations from anime. (A good example of this last is AIR, the original episodic series showing an entirely different, though no less heartbreaking, storyline from AIR the movie.) For this post I prefer to focus on Howl’s Moving Castle, which is a young adult novel from the early 2000s, and contrast that to The Hunger Games adaptation (mostly the first movie).
So let’s start with The Hunger Games. Despite some freedom taken in the later movies (thank goodness) the first movie adaptation of the titular novel in the series is pretty flat. I vividly recall going to see this movie with my S.O. He is not a SFF reader or watcher, particularly. That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally get into a good movie or book that I bring home, but his native lands are predominantly nature documentaries, old World War II dramas, and nonfiction of all stripes, but most especially nonfiction regarding mushrooms and politics. He hated that movie. A lot of his dislike was centered around how closely the script of the movie stuck to the book, though he certainly wouldn’t have put it that way. He could not access The Hunger Games as a movie because none of the actions of the characters, none of the logic of the world, was readily understandable and accessible to him.
Why was that the case? I think that a lot of it was to do with how the book was written, and how the script was adapted. In the book, Katniss is explaining so much to the reader about her world and the rules of it. None of that explanation makes it explicitly into the movie, since the script adaptation works to only bring in accurate dialogue to the original text, for the most part. You can argue that you need a whole rewrite of the opening scenes to make all of these things make sense to the average, non-reading viewer. A deviation from the original text might, in this case, make a stronger movie. In fact, I would argue that a deviation from the source text often makes for a stronger movie, if done correctly. It worked in Mockingjay: Part I, for sure.
On the other extreme, you have Howl’s Moving Castle.
Now I can’t lie. Having reread Diana Wynn Jones’ book, I would love to see some of the scenes that got cut here illustrated in Miyazaki’s trademark style. Especially the parts with the other fire demon. (Yes, there are two fire demons in the book, unlike in the movie – one of many changes.) And there are certain changes that I don’t entirely feel sanguine about. (For example: did you know that Sophie is a witch in her own right in this book??? I am so sad that didn’t make it into the movie.) But generally I think that Miyazaki did a powerful job maintaining the elements of Jones’ world that most move the heart to wonder, while condensing the content into something movie-sized. The entire ending of this book is rewritten drastically, and yet, the end is the same. Two people fall in love and live a life of magic and wonder. A girl who is staid, responsible, and a little boring, becomes magical and alive not in order to capture a man’s heart, but in order to heal her own. To become her best self, to free of a curse, she journeys out into a wasteland and trips upon her destiny
Miyazaki cut out a lot of complexity to do this. Howl’s character background was drastically rewritten. The Witch of the Waste is a completely different character as well. Suliman was combined with another character and also made a somewhat antagonistic character (though she seems to be more oriented towards power and order than vindictiveness). The king is a braggart, and his daughter is nonexistent. The turnip-head is actually Suliman under a curse in the book, and falls in love not with Sophie, but with Sophie’s sister. Oh, and Sophie has not one but two sisters, one of whom is in training to be a witch herself. Yet the story does not suffer. The inspiration is clear.
I can’t say that I entirely favor the extremes that Miyazaki went to, but they are extremes that I don’t think would ever make it in American movie-making, and that intrigues me. Especially in light of the rigidity of The Hunger Games it provides a startling contrast.
So what is your take on print-to-screen adaptations? Are you a purist, or are you a wild reimaginer?