"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“No one knows you like a person with whom you’ve shared a childhood.”
- Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic
For over two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that goes wrong in their Massachusetts town. Rumors of witchcraft have encircled the family for generations, denying them any hope of living an ordinary life. Dwelling in a conspicuous old house with their eccentric aunts, two orphaned sisters stare out their attic window into a world that fears them. Shunned by the small minds in their small town, the sisters grow up depending on one another, and their intuitive gifts and unbreakable bond are the foundation of Alice Hoffman’s spellbinding novel. Adapted for the screen in 1998, the film takes a more supernatural approach, summoning everything from curses and ghosts to blood oaths and exorcisms in its telling of the story. Although, Hoffman’s lyrical femininity and powerful depiction of romantic and familial love permeate, the adaptation conjures its own brand of magic.
For those who haven’t yet been bewitched by Practical Magic, the plot follows sisters Sally and Gillian Owens (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman), who as adults have distanced themselves from their magical upbringing much to the disappointment of their devout aunts, Frances and Jet (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest). Having witnessed the aunts brew countless potions for lovesick women over the years, the disparate sisters approach love in varying ways. The logical Sally, who longs for a normal life, marries and starts a family only to be widowed at a young age, while the fiery Gillian runs toward love without abandon, resulting in a series of passionate but rocky relationships. Cursed by their jilted ancestor Maria, the sisters struggle in their pursuit for happiness, as it is known that any man loved by an Owens woman is doomed to suffer an untimely death. When an accident leads to the death of Gillian’s abusive boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), the sisters’ abilities and relationships are tested as his spirit returns, endangering their entire family.
Since its release twenty years ago, Practical Magic has become a Halloween staple with its autumnal atmosphere and charming blend of witchcraft and romance. A love story with a dash of divination, the film takes the best ingredients from Hoffman’s novel and mixes in a playful sense of humor. While the femininity coursing through the narrative could be attributed to the presence of Robin Swicord (Little Women) as one of the film’s three screenwriters, it’s more likely a testament to Hoffman’s impeccable and vivid source material that the characters feel completely realized on screen. The talented cast of actresses embody the Owens family with such grace and intimacy that they are forever imprinted on your mind. Kidman is captivating as the free-spirited Gillian, while Bullock feels right at home as the level-headed Sally. Channing and Wiest are immaculate as the wise aunts, allowing events to unfold as they must while secretly intuiting every disaster. Rounded out by the two young actresses portraying Sally’s daughters (Evan Rachel Wood and Alexandra Artrip), the film is fueled by feminine energy.
The innate power among women and the bond of sisterhood are the connective threads between the book and the film. Although many beloved moments in the adaptation aren’t present in the novel – there are no phone trees or midnight margaritas – the force of women united is the theme that resonates, much more than the film’s romantic slant. Sally and Gillian’s intuitive connection is never broken, and the feature beautifully depicts their ability to sense one another's pain and heartache from a distance. But it’s the scene where Sally enlists the women in town to form a coven to save her sister that illustrates the true meaning of “sisterhood,” a term not bound by blood relations in a story about witchcraft. There have been many stories and movies about witches, but few offer such an in-depth perspective of the feminine energy that drives the power behind magic. In Practical Magic, a woman’s unbearable pain is the root of a curse that impacts the Owens women for generations, and only the power of a sisterhood united can break the spell. As Aunt Jet says, “There’s a little witch in all of us.”
Oddly enough, the feature is often thought to have been directed by a woman, an assumption that actor turned director Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London, After Hours, Addicted to Love) takes as a compliment. As a lifelong friend of Carrie Fisher and nephew of Joan Didion, Dunne is no stranger to powerful and influential women. While his adaptation’s rom-com flavor (AKA cheese) may distract some viewers, the magical elements of Hoffman’s novel permeate every frame. Everything from the sets and costumes to the house we’ve coveted for twenty years comes alive to the point where you can feel the autumn breeze and smell the scent of lavender from the garden. Cue the voice of Stevie Nicks and Alan Silvestri’s whimsical score, and there’s no escaping Alice Hoffman’s soulful spell.
While there have long been rumors of a potential remake or series, Hoffman has already written a prequel, The Rules of Magic, exploring the lives of the inimitable aunts. Should you inevitably find you're still drawn to the magical realm of the Owens women after seeing the film, this is one time I'd recommend saving the books for last.