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.