Book vs. Movie: Practical Magic

With the recent theatrical release of The Help, the debate over book vs. movie has been reignited on Twitter (there’s also been some controversy over The Help, but I’m not getting into it because I haven’t read the book or seen the movie). I rarely find that a film is better than the book it’s based on; I generally feel the adaptation is on par with the book, despite the changes the scriptwriter and director had to make. Occasionally, there will be that film that makes me stare in horror as the credits roll and that will have me toying with the idea of writing an angry letter to the studio (The Other Boleyn Girl, I’m looking at you), but those are almost equally rare as those films that are better than the books.

This week, I was surprised to discover a book that I liked less than the film.

Practical Magic is one of my top five favorite movies of all time. It’s easily one of the most played DVDs in my collection (and I’ve only owned it since Christmas of last year), and even though I own the movie, I have to watch it when it’s on T.V. It’s one of those movies that is the total package for me: great setting, great story, magic, a romantic element that’s not too nauseating, and strong performances all around. When I turn it on, it immediately conjures fall weather, warm fuzzies, Halloween with friends, and all good things.

For those who have never seen Practical Magic (and if you haven’t, Netflix and/or rent it, pronto), it’s about a family of witches whose powerful ancestor put a curse on the female line that their husbands will all die. Sally and Gillian are the latest in this line of Owens witches, and they both rebel against their heritage in different ways: Gillian moves from man to man and refuses to settle down with anyone, while Sally tries to suppress her powers altogether. Eventually, Sally falls in love with someone (with a little help from Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet) and has two children, but the curse works its magic and he dies. Sally is devastated and moves back in with the aunts, and she forbids them from teaching her children magic.

Gillian gets involved with an abusive boyfriend, Jimmy, and calls Sally for help. He dies, accidentally, and rather than call the police, Gillian insists they bury him in the aunts’ backyard. Jimmy starts to haunt the family, and things get worse when a police officer, Gary Hallet, comes knocking because Jimmy is wanted for murder. Sally is horrified that she can’t lie to Gary. Things come to a head, Gillian gets possessed by Jimmy, and they have to banish his spirit. In the process, Sally owns who and what she is, and the town accepts the Owens women as well.

I can watch Practical Magic a million times and still feel the same emotions when Sally and Gillian create the bond of blood, or when the women gather together to form a coven to banish Jimmy’s spirit, or when the Owens women jump off the roof and fly.

It took me two or three viewings of the movie to see the “Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman” credit, and it took a little longer for it to click in my head that there was a book! I could read Practical Magic, and it would be even better than the movie, because that’s how these things go. The world would jump off the page and hit me just like the movie. My beloved characters would be captured as the author intended. I immediately reserved it from my library, and it came in just in time for the weekend.

It was about halfway through the book that I realized that the book and the movie were extremely different. The characters in the book were sullen or careless to the extreme, and the lighter moments of the film that came in the form of Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet were completely missing in the novel, because they were miserable too! Sally and Gillian, and then Sally’s daughters, also don’t grow up surrounded by magic. The aunts still work their love spells, but the girls aren’t learning spells, and it doesn’t feel like the home and magic go hand-in-hand. The action also moved away from the aunts’ house in the book, and the way Jimmy haunted the family was different as well. Because of all of this, one of my favorite moments, the aforementioned coven, didn’t happen. Instead, the family banished the spirit together, which had the similar effect of making the Owens women come together and acknowledge who they are once and for all, but I felt it wasn’t as powerful as the film.

When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but wonder how fans of the book reacted to the movie. There are only very vague resemblances between them; they could be two different stories. I felt more than a little wrongfooted that I didn’t like the book all that much. I thought it was well written and I liked reading Gary’s perspective of how he felt when he met Sally for the first time, but I detested the characters and I missed the sense of community that the movie did so well. When I watched the movie again on Sunday, I realized it was official: I thought the movie was better than the book.




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14 responses to “Book vs. Movie: Practical Magic

  1. Rio Tehama Burkholder

    I did a Google search for: Practical Magic is a better movie than book, and I found your post. I was looking to see if anyone agreed with me about this odd occurrence. I have never read a book that I didn’t enjoy more than the movie.
    My roommate and I were very excited to find the book at our local used book store, or as I like to call it the save a book store. She read it first because I was busy with another story and she warned me that the movie was better, I told her she was crazy because the book is always better.
    I just finished the book and now here I am searching on the internet trying to justify to myself that I am not crazy, because you are right, the movie kicked the books butt.
    Now I have to wonder if it’s because I fell in love with the movie years ago and that the book is so much different , if this is the reason why the book couldn’t hold a candle. I wonder if someone who read the book first would agree with us.
    Thanks for sharing

  2. Anonymous

    thank you two for saving me and wife the trouble. we can continue enjoying the movie as is, again and again!

  3. Anonymous

    I feel the exact opposite. The characters in the movie are so one-dimensional. And it has such a mushy, Hollywood ending. This book is one of my favorites of all time!

  4. Linda

    I read the book years before I got around to watching the movie. I’ve read the book a few times and it’s one of my favorites. When I saw the movie I was absolutely horrified. Whoever allowed them to butcher this book so badly should be punished. Just awful. The characters are hardly even similar. I can’t.

  5. secrtsqurl

    The book and movie are two different animals. The movie screenwriter wrote an original movie. I liked the book, but a movie just like the book would have sucked. The movie on the other hand, created characters and background that I would like more of.

  6. Anonymous

    I agree with secrtsqurl – and think you just have to appreciate them separately for what they are…my favorite thing about the book is all the great thoughts (or one-liners) Hoffman so eloquently wrote; my favorite is probably, “My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal isn’t necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.” The fact that they used that one in the movie is the glue for me.

  7. IC

    Love the movie, it’s one of my all-time favourites! Hated the book though, I was extremely disappointed when reading it. I probably would have liked it better if I hadn’t expected to read something similar to the movie plot, because I love everything about the movie. But the book was boring.

  8. Gina McLendon

    It’s been my experience that whichever you do first… read the book or see the movie… you will always prefer the one you did first… because you go into the second experience with pre-conceived notions and expectations.

  9. Rhiannon

    I like the book and movie both. I love the length of time the book goes through, more of the daughters, more of the sisters. I love the movie too, I tear up in the circle scene when they do the blood bond and Maria appears.
    They are 2 different entities and can be appreciated as such.

  10. connie johnson

    I agree. Try reading garden spells by sara allen addison. You will love it!

  11. I’m with you all the way. I read ge book after tearing the movie many times and was deeply disappointed. The book was boring, dark in an uninteresting way, and forgettable. The movie is just the opposite.

  12. HBoss

    I was never able to actually finish the book. I found the constant references to sex, underage sex, and sexual assault to be a huge turn off. The characters felt miserable and depressing, and the writer seemed obsessed with the smell of lavender and lemon, writing about both multiple times, almost not even changing the content of the paragraph.

    After seeing the movie, I was hoping for more of that lightheartedness and family and community and hope and love, that makes the movie worth watching again and again. Instead I found miserable people being miserable, and it just made me sad.

  13. Devo

    I just got to the third part of the book and googled what everyone else did and thank you for saving me the time, I love the movie and this is just not what I like. Years later, you’re still saving readers!

  14. I just finished reading the book, and I needed to see if anyone else felt the same way I did. I’m with those who watched the movie first and started reading the book, expecting a sweet and light-hearted tone only to be blind-sided by the dreariness and melancholy. I was so disappointed, I wanted to throw my ipad through the window after getting two-thirds of the way in and saw no light in sight. I abhorred all the characters in the book and all of their rash actions. It almost felt like a disgrace that they shared the same names as the characters of the movie I so loved growing up.

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