Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic
The film "Practical Magic," starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, has captivated its fans, but the book might not be worth the same adulation. (Image via Google Images)

The Book That Inspired ‘Practical Magic’ Might Not Be What Fans Expect

The cult classic film has garnered a dedicated following, but those who read the movie’s source material will probably not be impressed.

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Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic
The film "Practical Magic," starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, has captivated its fans, but the book might not be worth the same adulation. (Image via Google Images)

The cult classic film has garnered a dedicated following, but those who read the movie’s source material will probably not be impressed.

Practical Magic,” an adored cult classic from 1998, starred many well-known actors, including Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Stockard Channing and Dianne West. The film focuses on two sisters, Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) Owens, who come from a long line of witches that began with their ancestor Maria Owens. At the ages of 11 and 10, these two girls tragically lose their parents and go live with their aunts, Frances (Channing) and Jet (West), in Massachusetts. Throughout the film, Sally and Gillian face many hardships, and the only way they overcome each obstacle is together.

The inspiration for the film came from a novel of the same name written by Alice Hoffman. Like most movies based on books, this one strays quite far from its original plot. Unlike most movies based on books, however, this one outperforms the original in every way. Fans of the film may even find the novel highly disappointing and possibly appalling.

The Owens’ Legacy

There are a few elements that play vital roles in the cinematic version of “Practical Magic.” One is magic itself. The Owens family comes from a line of witches that began about 200 years before the story begins. During the opening sequence, the aunts tell young Sally and Gillian about their ancestor, Maria Owens, who started it all. Each descendant of Maria (always female) inherits magical powers — a factor made evident numerous times throughout the movie. The aunts teach the girls how to use magic. Young Sally can create and cast spells, light candles by gently blowing on them, and, as an adult, you see her stirring beverages with her powers many times. Every Owens woman in the film uses witchcraft at one point or another, except for Sally’s young daughters, Antonia and Kylie.

However, magic rarely makes an appearance in the book. Only the aunts use their abilities, and it’s normally to help love-sick women claim the person they desire. Sally refuses to believe in magic, Gillian never uses it and Antonia shows no signs of having powers. Once Kylie turns 13, she gains the ability to feel the emotions of others, but this never plays out as an important element in the story other than to see Jimmy’s ghost later in the plot. In fact, the only “magic” that consistently appears is found in the physical beauty of certain Owens’ women, which instantly captivates any man who sees them.

Love or Lust

Love is another key component in the movie — the love between family and romantic relationships. The strong bond between Sally and Gillian plays a key role throughout the whole film. Viewers can easily see the love the entire Owens family has for each other. The movie also teaches the importance of falling in love with the right person.

The novel takes an entirely different approach to love. Sally and Gillian have self-absorbed personalities and never find a deep and meaningful relationship compared to their cinematic counterparts. Antonia treats Kylie like dirt throughout most of the book. The only person Sally appears to truly love is her deceased husband, and the author waits until the last chapter to explain how much the aunts love the nieces they raised.

To make the relationships more awkward, the author depicts all romantic affairs in a highly perverted fashion. She constantly refers to lustful behavior as love, and her ideas of a “healthy and loving relationship” are quite disturbing.

Bad Boyfriend

Not only are the more specific elements of the movie and novel different, but the wider plots differ as well. One of the two main conflicts in the film version of “Practical Magic” starts with the death of Gillian’s abusive alcoholic boyfriend, Jimmy. Sally tries to rescue Gillian from the clutches of her psychotic lover and ends up fatally poisoning him. After unintentionally offing Jimmy, Sally and Gillian freak out over the idea of going to jail for murder. They decide their best course of action is magic. Borrowing the aunts’ spellbook, Sally and Gillian successfully bring Jimmy back from the dead. Once revived, Jimmy tries to pick up where he left off and continues strangling Gillian. Sally responds by banging him over the head with a frying pan until he dies again. Since plan A failed, the sisters move on to plan B: burying Jimmy in the backyard.

With Jimmy twice dead and buried, Sally and Gillian believe they can move on. However, due to the spell, Jimmy turns into a powerful evil spirit who haunts Gillian. Eventually, he possesses Gillian and once again tries to kill her. To permanently get rid of him, the aunts conduct an elaborate ritual to banish him. This event brought the story to its climax and solved multiple ongoing issues in the movie.

In the book, the Jimmy scenario is only one of many meager incidents that transpire. One day, Gillian drives over to Sally’s house with a dead man, Jimmy, in her car under the assumption that she slowly poisoned him to death. To protect Gillain, Sally cleverly decides they should bury him in the backyard. Similar to the movie, they believe their problems are over. But somehow, Jimmy, without the use of magic, turns himself into an obnoxious poltergeist. When they grow tired of his parlor tricks, Sally and Gillian summon the aunts to get rid of him. After pouring an odorous concoction over the burial site, Jimmy is gone, and the problem is solved. The reader also learns that Gillian did not cause Jimmy’s death. The aunts can sense that his death was caused by some other unknown source.

The Curse

The second main conflict in the film is the Owens family curse. The first thing viewers learn while watching the film is that Maria Owens placed a curse upon her family that any man who dared to love an Owens woman would die. The curse first rears up when Sally and Gillian’s father die when they are only children. Their mother dies of a broken heart and the two girls end up moving in with their aunts. The curse shows up again many years later with Sally’s husband who also dies from the curse. One of the many issues resolved after the ritual that took care of Jimmy was the removal of the curse.

The “Practical Magic” book has no curse in it. Sally and Gillian’s parents do die, and so does Sally’s husband. None of these deaths have to do with the curse, however. These deaths only serve the purpose of moving the story along.

Usually, movies based on books lack essential story-building details, character development and other essential components that make the novel far more enjoyable. However, now and then a film succeeds in outshining its published forerunner. The 1998 “Practical Magic,” with its lovable characters, heartwarming story and touch of magic, happens to be one of those bewitching exceptions.

Writer Profile

Becky Hardin

University of Arizona Global Campus
(BA) Journalism and Mass Communication

My passion for becoming a writer developed during college. Every writing assignment was an exciting opportunity to develop skills in writing, editing and research. I enjoy writing about various topics.

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