forgot to say that, without Howl chasing girls and Sophie resenting him for it, the film completely erases part of the point of Sophie being old. Wynne Jones is using an idea that Beauvoir talked about - that being an old woman is both tragic (as we lose male attention/attractiveness) and freeing (as we are freed from the male gaze). the idea is that with being old comes liberation, and the true meaning of what it is to be a woman, as society no longer forces gender norms on us.
Sophie is free from Howl’s attentions and therefore safe from harm (a big part of the book is the fact that Sophie believes he eats women’s hearts, and him chasing girls proves this to her). she takes solace in the fact that she’s old, and finds it freeing. when she learns more about Howl (notably: that he doesn’t eat hearts and that he’s not evil), she starts to curse her age and resent him chasing girls. BUT she remains old OF HER OWN VOLITION - Howl notes that she’s perpetuating the spell by wishing to remain “in disguise”. there are SO many layers to this, and lots to do with gender politics - if she’s still old Sophie can’t get hurt, she likes the freedom, etc. but of course on a personal level being old is her denying her feelings for Howl, and also a representation of her low self esteem - being old is a defence mechanism and protection, both on a gender level and a personal one.
and the film kinda… loses this? the only thing that remains is being old = low self esteem. which really sucks. because there’s SO MUCH MORE to Sophie being old in the book (perspective I already mentioned), and a HUGE amount of this is gender politics. that the film just erases.
Also there’s the subversion of that in the book. Sophie’s belief that she’s safe from Howl, isn’t quite true because he fell in love with her while she was under the spell (and in the book, there’s no switching between looking young and old. Sophie is looking ninety the entire time, and Howl falls in love anyway.)
Also, her belief that being old means she can’t go to her stepmother or her sisters, that they’d fail to recognize her or reject her, is also unfounded. Fanny almost immediately recognizes her at the end of the book, and hugs her and cries over her and asks why Sophie disappeared. Sophie’s belief that the love of her family, friends and even her romantic interests is somehow conditional on her appearance is shown to be completely false at the end, which I think is absolutely beautiful.
Like, there’s definitely gender politics and commentary going on about beauty and youth and age and the male gaze and male violence going on, but there’s also this message about how love, real love, transcends all of that.
I actually adore the movie on its own merits, but I think it absolutely did a disservice to Sophie as a character. When I was doing a reread last month, what hit me was that Sophie is every bit as much of a volatile emotional disaster as Howl is, and that’s pretty heckin’ great.
Howl is a pissy, dramatic asshole even when he’s at his best. He dissolves into green slime when his hair looks wrong. He deals with his problems by getting falling-over drunk and makes the walls shake every time he sneezes just so everyone will take pity on him. He’s a self-proclaimed coward who has to trick himself into taking responsibility for anything.
Movie Sophie deals with this as well as she can. She learns to look past his drama and sees his tender heart and noble intentions. She becomes the mature one in the castle, fixing everyone’s problems, essentially taking up a motherly role to all the other characters.
Book Sophie does the same… but she does it while dealing out as good as she takes. Howl is chasing after every woman except Sophie? Sophie meticulously cuts up his suit into triangles. Howl floods the room with green slime? Sophie hate-magics weed killer strong enough to melt concrete, and chucks it at Howl’s head. Howl can’t stop avoiding his problems? Meet the queen of avoidance, who clung to her curse to avoid confronting her feelings for Howl. Howl has to basically trick himself into taking action? I would like you to meet Sophie, who was too scared to leave her home her whole life, but the moment she’s under a curse is like “WELP, GUESS I’D BETTER LEAVE HOME RIGHT THIS MOMENT AND NEVER COME BACK.”
The moment of Howl and Sophie getting together in the book isn’t “Sophie fixes everything through her inherent goodness.” It’s “Sophie realizes that Howl has been secretly scheming to fix all her problems exactly the same way that she has been secretly scheming to fix all his problems because neither of them is a normal functioning adult, and they both look forward to yelling at each other for the rest of their wonderful lives.” And losing that, losing all of Sophie’s flaws and ridiculous moments as well as Howl’s efforts to fix her life as much as she’s trying to fix his, means that we’re left with a typical romance trope of a woman having to fix all of a man’s problems and be the perfect, mature one in the relationship, while he can coast purely on charm. The revelation that half of Howl’s antics were actually schemes to break Sophie’s curse or even just make her happy is important because for once it goes both ways. Not just “woman fixes man with her love,” but “people fix each other with their love, sort of, except for all the parts that will never change and that’s okay because flaws can be just as attractive as virtues, and if he laughs when you throw weed killer at him then he might be the one.”