How does one translate the weirdness and wonder of fantasy into accessible drama? As the eponymous heroine confidently tells her tutor in Willy Russell’s classic Educating Rita, the answer is simple: “Do it on the radio.”
I thought of Rita when I heard the BBC had adapted Diana Wynne Jones’s 1986 novel Howl’s Moving Castle into an hour-long Christmas radio play. It follows young Sophie, who can charm life into hats, after she is cursed by the Witch of the Waste. Transformed into an old crone and forbidden from revealing her fate, Sophie seeks refuge as a cleaning lady in the floating castle that appears above her town, inhabited by the terrifying wizard Howl, “who amuses himself by collecting young girls’ hearts and sucking out their souls”. Except perhaps he’s not quite as scary as he likes to pretend – could he break the spell?
Wynne Jones’s book was made into an anime film by Studio Ghibli in 2004, to great acclaim. It was an Oscar nominee for best animated feature film – and I adored it. But some of the magic is lost in the visual medium. The radio play, in contrast, is pure escapist wizardry. Sound effects that might seem basic – creaking doors, eerie music, the strange knocks and groans of the castle – conjure an enchanting atmosphere; our imaginations fill in the rest.
This isn’t a Tolkien-esque epic that takes itself too seriously. There are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, such as when an errant spell results in a disastrous dye-job. “This is no way to express your feelings,” old-woman Sophie exclaims as Howl’s anguish pours out in a torrent of oozing green slime, conveyed so viscerally you can almost feel it. It has a moral, as all fairy tales do, and there’s a love story along the way. But the underlying surrealism guards against cliché, and somehow the cast (who are clearly having the time of their lives) ensure moments of joy never veer towards the saccharine. A sense of marvel pervades – in this audio-only fantasy world, anything could happen. Rita was right.
Howl’s Moving Castle
BBC Radio 4
12 December, 3pm
[See also: This year’s Reith Lectures ask: will artificial intelligence save or destroy us?]
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special