I remember first hearing about how the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki himself was going to adapt the book “Howl’s Moving Castle”. I yelped out loud and began shaking. My favorite Japanese animator, animating my favorite book by my favorite author? It was just too good to be true. While the film’s departures from the novel had me longing for a more faithful adaptation, it still brought to mind how Miyazaki’s studio, Studio Ghibli, was virtually incapable of doing no wrong. Every film they make is just magic — flawless animation, 3-dimensional characters, sweeping music, thoughtful design, and love in every rendered frame.
Another thing the team at Studio Ghibli is good at doing is taking a simple or bare-bones story and turning it into something at a mythical level. Yes, Studio Ghibli does take stories from other places. A lot of the time, in fact. While most of their most recognizable characters are original — such as the creatures from Spirited Away and forest god of fluff Totoro — a lot of their stories are lifted from printed material.
And so to christen this blog and sail it out into the wide world, have a list of all of Studio Ghibli’s films that are also adaptations.
1. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE
Of course we’re starting with this one.
Howl’s Moving Castle was penned by British fantasy writer, Dianna Wynne Jones. When Jones signed away the rights to her characters, she had no idea that Hayao Miyazaki himself would be the one working on the film version. He personally visited her to screen his ideas, and she ended up quite happy with the product despite the differences.
When Sophie is cursed by the dreaded “Witch of the Waste” to turn into an old woman, she departs her mother’s hat-shop to go adventuring. Ending up at the home of another sorcerer with a fearsome reputation, Howl Pendragon, she decides to become his housekeeper. From there, the film takes a much more romantic tone with a lot of high-flying adventure scenes, while the book remains in Jones’s favorite wheelhouse of anachronistic comedic-fantasy. While the differences don’t end there — Sophie is much more stubbor in the novels, Michael is a child in the film but a young man with a love story of his own in the book, the villains are VERY different — the film still turned out every strength in the Ghibli playbook and immortalized the work to audiences who had no idea it existed prior.
That being said, Howl, Sophie, and other beloved characters from the books have further adventures in Jones’s Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways. Do yourself a favor and go down to your bookstores immediately.
2. TALES FROM EARTHSEA
In the fantasy world of Earthsea, the wizard Sparrowhawk, the runaway prince Arren, former priestess Tenar, and a mysterious girl Therru, must work together and pool their abilities to confront an evil force whose ambition threatens to plunge the world into chaos. Also, there are some cool looking dragons.
Tales from Earthsea is adapted from the well-known fantasy series by Ursula K. Le Guin, and adopts small bits from all four books. There was a confusing bit of history behind the development of this project, with the idea of adaptation starring from Hayao Miyazaki but moving to the hands of Goro Miyazaki. Le Guin herself penned a response to the film, expressing her disappointment with how several visuals differed from her own imagination, and that several themes in the book were lost in what she felt was an entirely new story. Indeed, talking about the differences between series and film would would be a whole article in itself.
But while, overall, this is considered to be one of Studio Ghibli’s most dividedly received works, it is still one you’ll have to watch at least once, as it does have that usual Ghibli beauty and animation that needs to be seen instead of described. Also, dragons.
3. WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE
Anna travels to visit her aunt and uncle, but finds herself drawn to a girl named Marnie living in a grand but dilapidated house at the other end of the nearby marsh. She begins to realize that Marnie is not all that she seems — she and the other residents in the house are sometimes not there, she inexplicably disappears when they’re together — but she nevertheless wants to stay with her.
While the Ghibli film transports the setting from Norfolk to Sapporo, most of the narrative is lifted from Joan G. Robinson’s novel. Is this a drama? A love story? A ghost story? A story about family? A story about mental illness? All of the above? It doesn’t really matter. It’ll grip your heart in a vice all the same, and the ending, even if you seen it coming, will still make you say “What the HELL” out loud.
4. (THE SECRET WORLD OF) ARRIETTY
Arrietty was based on the novel “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, about tiny humans who make their home in the cracks in your walls and their furniture out of the tiny things they borrow from you. It’s actually scary if you think about it, but luckily the story’s cute enough that you don’t.
This adaptation retains the original plot, with the borrowers having been discovered by a sick boy visiting the human home that they live in. With Arrietty and him striking up a friendship, she tries to help him feel better through his sickness while he has to help them protect themselves when the owners of the house try to fumigate the unseen pests.
The Borrowers was also a 1997 film, starring Jim Broadbent, John Goodman, and Tom Felton of all people, although it was rather different from the book. This A.V. Club review elaborates on it far better than I could
5. FROM UP ON POPPY HILL
This beautifully rendered story plays on two classic themes: growing up and falling in love for the first time, and a father lost at sea. This is up there along with lighter, slice-of-life Ghibli fare. It doesn’t bring as much visuals as Spirited Away, but it still brings the feels.
The film is actually based on a 2-volume manga by Sayama Tetsuro and Takahashi Chizuru, published in 1980. You can find a better breakdown on the differences between the original and the adaptation and how it plays with the depiction of the temporal setting at Giblicon.
6. KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
Kiki is a young witch. Part of her training is to spend a year in a town without any other witches, and make a living of her own. With no one but her talking cat Jiji to help her, she must make new friends, carve out a new life, and find out about new parts of herself.
While the plot and Kiki’s innocent charm came from Kadono’s Eiko pen, it was Miyazaki’s gifting of the character with a simplistic design topped with the iconic huge red bow that truly resonated with worldwide audiences. Since then, Kadono had turned this into a series, with the most recent novel being published in 2009.
There was also a live action Japanese film based on the books in 2014, with Koshiba Fuka in the lead role.
7. THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
And now, my favorite film on this list.
Takahata Isao’s vision for adapting the classic Japanese fairy tale cum myth “The Legend of the Bamboo Woodcutter” caused the film release to be delayed several times, but it was all more than worth it.
The story begins with a poor, old woodcutter who one day finds a tiny baby in a shoot of bamboo. He raises her as his own, and she turns out to be a celestial being of great beauty who makes men of all status fall for her. As is the power of the medium, the film expounds a lot more on the Princess’s growth — how she balances feeling displaced, with wanting to please her father.
The result of combining an unconventional tale with a less unconventional animation fare even by Ghibli’s standard is a true work of art, that is bound to make you cry for about ten minutes straight by the time it wraps up. That this, along with Song of the Sea and How To Train Your Dragon 2, lost to Big Hero 6 for the Best Animation Oscar is a travesty.
8. WHISPER OF THE HEART
This film was based on manga one-shot “Mimi o Sumaseba” by Hiiragi Aoi, with a sequel entitled “Mimi o Sumaseba: Shiawase na Jikan”. The film, meanwhile, was directed by Yoshifuki Kondo before his sudden death.
Shizuku notices that all the books she borrows from the library always has the same name written above hers — “Seiji Amawsawa”. Throw in a fat cat that seems to want to be followed, violin-making, and a cat figurine with jade eyes and you have a story that manages to be both magical and everyday at the same time. If you’re watching the film, throw in an extra dash of American classic “Country Home” and you’re bound to get the feel-goods pumping.
9. ONLY YESTERDAY
Single but successful Taeko takes a break from her busy life in Tokyo to try and relax a bit in the countryside she grows up in. As she reminisces on her childhood, past begins to blend into the present and she begins to question where her life is now headed.
This is a Takahata-directed film, based on a manga by Okamoto Hotaru that has been compiled in two volumes. It’s among Ghibli’s more quiet and less-discussed fare (mostly because it took so long to be distributed by Disney to Western Audiences), but it is still a damn good film which will have you waxing lyrical about your own long-gone-days.
10. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
It’s a long-running joke on the internet that Ghibli’s “Grave of the Fireflies” can and will make you cry. There is truth behind it though — how else are you supposed to feel about a movie that starts with a 14 year old boy starving to death while clutching a tin full of his sister’s ashes? That’s not a spoiler. That’s literally the first two minutes. And I hate to break it you, but it doesn’t get any better
This grim depiction of how the fire-bombings on Japan affected people on the groun level was based on an autobiographical short-story by Nosaka Akiyuki. Akiyuki’s own account of his experiences with his baby sister during the war is burgeoned with his own overwhelming guilt, and is just as difficult to get through, if not more so.
For a good overview of both the film and the short story and their impact, read this article
11. THE WIND RISES
Miyazaki’s always had a passion for both planes (that’s where the name “Ghibli” came from) and being anti-war, and both of these culminate in “The Wind Rises”. This fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi who designed the fighter aircrafts used by the Japanese empire in World War 2. But before the story unfolded onscreen, Miyazaki actually had a brief manga run covering the same story, although with briefer and more comedic tone. The prime difference of course was that Jiro in the print version has a pig snout along with many other characters, while the fully human film counterpart is voiced by the father of “Evangelion”, Hideaki Anno.
You can see a lot more about “The Wind Rises” behind the scenes if you watch the Ghibli-centric documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness”, as all footage was being taken while this film was in production.
This was also the last film helmed by Miyazaki himself before he announced his retirement in 2013. But that announcement has since unstuck and stuck again several times in the years that have followed, much to the cautious joy and continuing anxiety of fans everywhere.
12. PORCO ROSSO
Similar to the previous entry, Porco Rosso is a film about good-hearted men who love old-timey planes that originated as a watercolor manga by Miyazaki, himself a good-hearted man who loves old-timey planes. Except instead of a man depicted as a pig, we have an actual man-pig.
“The Age of the Flying Boat” was just 15 pages long, and done in 1992. Again, as was the case in “The Wind Rises” in manga form, the love story was originally basically non-existent and the tone is much more light-hearted. That being said, we should be grateful for the adaptation, as it gave us Cary Elwes delivering that flawless southern accent.