Lost in Translation

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and very few novels get through the horrors of film adaptation without drastic change. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. JK Rowling had enough clout to make Warner Bros stick to the books of the first three Harry Potter films, but by all accounts Goblet of Fire was much improved by savage pruning of its massive storyline.

More often the original book is much disimproved. Harry Harrison still winces at what happened to his grim novel of overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!, when it became Soylent Green. MGM stripped out the birth-control message for fear of offending Catholics, and added a daft shock-horror climax about cannibalism: "Soylent Green is people!"

According to Harry, the best Hollywood deal is when the movie never gets made but the studio keeps renewing its rights option. That way you receive a nice regular cheque, and no widescreen embarrassment ...

So it was a slight surprise that other authors I know are pleased with recent film versions. One is Brian Aldiss, whose very strange Brothers of the Head features Siamese-twin rock stars who are played by young twin actors strapped into the same costume. The 2005 film even includes Brian Aldiss as a walk-on character, acted rather convincingly by Brian himself. The DVD appears this year. Says Brian: "I call it 'England's First Surrealist Movie'.'

Then Diana Wynne Jones revealed that she loved the Hayao Miyazaki animation of Howl's Moving Castle, which reached the Oscar shortlist. That's less surprising: most fantasy authors would give several major organs to have their work adapted by Studio Ghibli (now working on Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea).

Watching Spirited Away convinced me that Miyazaki was the right man for Diana's book. He clearly loves transformations, disguising spells and strange magical journeys, all part of the deliriously complex plot of Howl. He also loves airships, which didn't feature but were written into Howl anyway.

Watching that film left me boggled. It's wonderful to look at, with gorgeous 19th-century Ruritanian settings, but if you know the book well the changes leave you wrong-footed. Of course I expected some things to disappear, like the use of a knotty John Donne poem ("Go, and catch a falling star") as a combined curse and prophecy. Also, the huge cast list is reduced to make the story filmable. Enchanter Howl, also trading as Wizard Pendragon and Sorcerer Jenkin, is really Howell Jenkins from Wales: Miyazaki dropped the whole subplot about his Welsh family. Several other people vanished, including one of heroine Sophie's two sisters and most of the royal family.

Howl has a dangerous contract with a fire demon called Calcifer, who powers the moving castle. His arch-enemy the Witch of the Waste also has a fire demon – written out of the film, along with its unexpected human disguise. A spectacular battle of magic between Howl and the Witch has vanished (shame). Instead of being killed, the glamorous Witch is eventually changed into a harmlessly dotty old lady with enormous jowls.

Just as in the book, the Witch transforms Sophie into a crone and has already converted someone else into a scarecrow. Yet another unfortunate in the novel appears as a dog, but the movie dog confusingly turns out to be a real animal. (In animation, I mean.) It seems that Miyazaki also loves comical pets. Even the castle has developed enormous chicken legs and stomps about the hills like Baba Yaga's hut.

Although the ending may not actually make sense, it all looks marvellous: "The film is goluptuously splendid with breathtaking animation," as Diana proudly said. I alternated between gasping in wonder and scratching my head over upheavals in the familiar storyline. I'll have to watch Howl again; but first, to restore sanity, I had to read the book again. This is why I am not a movie critic.

As I write, Chris Priest still hasn't seen the coming film of his novel The Prestige, directed by Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins. Chris was highly impressed by the Nolan script: "It's a stunning piece of work." It dramatically rearranges his story about rival Victorian stage magicians with bizarre secrets – including an SF gadget built by maverick scientist Nikola Tesla, here played by David Bowie. Shooting reportedly finished in April 2006. We may yet have another contented author.

David Langford has just realized with horror that none of his SFX columns have been optioned for film.

PS: Ursula Le Guin had very mixed feelings about the Studio Ghibli Earthsea.