Sophie Hatter knows her fate. When her widowed stepmother, Fanny, looks at the expenses and what the hat shop brings in, she thinks it only reasonable that Fanny apprentices her own daughter, Martha, to a witch, sends her other stepdaughter out to prentice at a bakery, and keeps Sophie with her as an apprentice in the shop. After all, as the oldest daughter, Sophie's fate will be the worst if she sets out to seek her fortune.
Meanwhile up the hillsides, there's a castle that keeps moving about. At first they had thought it was -- horrors -- the Witch of the Waste. Then they learned it was the Wizard Howl, which isn't much better, because he ate girls' hearts, or so it was said.
But when the Witch of the Waste comes to view the hats, and leaves a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman, Sophie sets out to seek her fortune nonetheless. It involves a face in blue flames, a walking stick, a walking scarecrow, a skull, an orphan apprentice, a wizard's sister and niece and nephew, a poem by John Donne, a door that opens four places, a dog that shifts form, what exactly the Witch is after, and much more.