Book vs Film: Practical Magic

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Practical Magic tells the story of two sisters descendant from a long line of witches, learning about magic and curses and dealing with the many issues that would undoubtedly present themselves when you’re a witch. I can remember seeing the movie, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, when it came out in 1998. I was with a group of girlfriends and we all left that theater thinking that being a witch seemed pretty awesome. Whenever the movie was on TV I’d watch it, so I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. But it wasn’t until last year that I noticed that Practical Magic is based on a book. And when I found that out I immediately went to the library to pick up the novel, written by Alice Hoffman.

Something occurred to me as soon as I started reading it: how the hell is this the first time I’ve read anything by Alice Hoffman? She’s written a lot of books, and she’s pretty damn good at it. One of the best reasons to read Practical Magic is that Alice Hoffman is an incredible writer. The way she puts words together makes this book such a joy to read. Here’s an example of a passage that I liked:

“…if a candle burns blue, that is something else entirely, that’s no luck at all, for it means there’s a spirit in your house. And if the flame should flicker, then grow stronger each time the candle is lit, the spirit is settling in. Its essence is wrapping around the furniture and the floorboards, it’s claiming the cabinets and the closets and will soon be rattling the windows and doors.”

But while the book is wonderfully written and completely worth reading even if you know the movie off by heart, I would strongly suggest not comparing the book to the movie at all. Seriously. Not even a little. Treat them as completely separate things or else you’ll find fault in both no matter what. The movie lacks the novel’s intricate plot but the novel doesn’t have midnight margaritas or a brilliant soundtrack. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of the many differences between the book and the movie, if you’re interested. After reading the novel I felt that one story barely resembled the other, and that I was okay with that. The movie is, as this article puts it, “a wonderful way to pass 105 minutes of your time.” But the book Practical Magic is so different from the film, so you kind of have to appreciate it for what it is instead of what it isn’t.

One thing I really liked about the book is that it doesn’t have all the Hollywood-style romance and schmaltz that the movie threw in. So obviously if you’re a fan of that kind of thing, you might want to stick to the film on this one. And speaking of romance, Jimmy is a much more interesting character in the book. Hoffman writes about him beautifully: “A man who doesn’t close his eyes, even for a kiss, is a man who wants to keep control at all times. Jimmy’s eyes had cold little flecks in the center, and each time she kissed him Gillian wondered if what she was doing wasn’t a little like making a pact with the devil.”

A good portion of Hoffman’s story is focused on Sally’s teenage children, Antonia and Kylie. And while the aunts play a big (and memorable) part of the movie, they aren’t even present for the majority of the book. When they do show up, they seem pretty miserable. Come to think of it, most of the characters in the book seem pretty miserable. And you know that curse that plays such a huge part in the movie? Yeah, that doesn’t exist in the book. In fact, I’d go as far as as to say that the book has very little to do with magic at all.

I’ll be one of many re-watching Practical Magic sometime during the month of October, and when I do I won’t compare it to Hoffman’s novel. I will sit back and enjoy the movie, get goosebumps when the good songs come on, and feel thankful that movies don’t always have to be completely faithful to the book they are based on, because then we wouldn’t have gems like Practical Magic in our lives.

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