Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Practical Magic

Practical Magic is a 1998 American romcom fantasy film, based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Alice Hoffman. The film was directed by Griffin Dunne and stars Sandra Bullock, and Nicole Kidman as Sally and Gillian Owens, respectively. The movie starts with Sally and Gillan’s Aunts Francis (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), telling their young nieces about the first witch in their family, Maria, and how she cast a curse that caused any man who loves an Owens woman to die. This is what happened to the girl’s father, because of this their mother died of heart break, leaving Sally and Gillian to the care of their aunts. In their aunts’ home they learn the craft, but also have to deal with their peers making fun of them for their strange family legacy. As Sally and Gillian grow up their paths diverge from each other. Sally ends up falling in love, getting married, and having two daughters (Evan Rachel Wood & Alexandra Artrip), but Sally’s husband ends up dying because of the curse. Gillian on the other hand runs away, and has a series of bad relationships. Eventually the sisters come together again when Gillian’s boyfriend Jimmy (Goran Višnjić) becomes abusive, setting off a chain of events that lead to many changes in their lives. In this blog post, I will be looking at changes made to the characters and plot when Practical Magic was adapted to film. 

First looking at the characters in the story, it is Sally’s daughters who changed the most between the mediums. Of the two girls, Antonia  is the oldest and takes after her aunt Gillian in looks and personality. Then there is Kylie, who besides looking like her mother, was also born with Sally’s talent for magic. When the conflict of the story arises, the girls are 16 and 13 years old and for the most part have lived their lives without magic being raised away from their great-aunts. In the book, the reader gets to see much more about the girl’s lives and what types of personalities they have, which is something that is different in the film. There were several changes made to their characters, the most noticeable being the fact that they are aged down, with the girls looking between 10 about 7 years old. Once the characters become established though it is made clear that instead of the older, red-head being Antonia and the brunette being Kylie, the filmmakers choose to switch the girl’s names. When they did this they also gave the film version of Kylie the powers she had in the book. Given that the girls are so young in the film, it also makes sense why their personalities would be so different between the two mediums; with the older versions having personal lives outside their family while the younger ones only interact with their family and learn more all about magic. The decision to age down the characters could have come from the fact the filmmakers wanted Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman to play the main character, and the two women didn’t look old enough to be the mother and aunt of two teenagers.               

Moving into the changes made in the plot, it becomes very obvious early in the film how different it is from the book. The first example is when the aunts are telling the young Sally and Gillian about how their parents died. In the movie it says their father died from the curse and their mother from heartbreak, whereas in the book the girls’ parents died in a fire. The biggest changes happen around the death of Gillian’s abusive boyfriend, Jimmy. Looking at the scenes leading up to Jimmy’s death, the audience sees Sally go to help her sister but when they are about to get away Jimmy grabs Gillian. He forces Sally to drive his car, abducting the two women, eventually she is able to get some of her sister’s belladonna into Jimmy’s alcohol. Sally gives him a lethal amount, killing Jimmy and saving Gillian from the abusive relationship. After realizing that they killed him, the sisters drive back to the aunts’ house and bury the body. In the book this happens quite differently, with Gillian believing that she accidentally poisoned Jimmy when she gave him too much nightshade, which she was using to make him sleep so he wouldn’t abuse her. Gillian ends up at Sally’s house (in the book she doesn’t live with the aunts) and asks her for help getting rid of the body. For this instance, the filmmakers may have changed it to show the sisters together, because for a good portion of the book they are separated. Then in the last 20 minutes of the movie, they do a big spell with some of the townswomen to banish Jimmy’s ghost. The spellcasting scene makes for a really intense and exciting climax. In the book this is different, only the six Owen women do the magic to get rid of Jimmy’s ghost and instead of a spell, they use a potion which Aunt Jet and Aunt Francis made. It seemed like the filmmakers really wanted to give Sally and Gillian a happy ending in all aspects of their lives, as can be noted in the film’s decision in having the townswomen help banish Jimmy. A choice that makes sure they are officially accepted in their town and Sally’s daughters could grow up without being bullies. The book’s ending is much more subtle, because after they vanquish the evil spirit they just go back to their normal happy lives.

I had never seen the movie Practical Magic before, but I figured since it is spooky season it would be a good idea. When I researched the movie I found out it was based on Alice Hoffman’s novel and realized it would be a great adaption to look at for this blog. Though I love both versions of the story, I found that I was liking completely different things about the characters and plot. With the film, I really liked the characters of the aunts which I think was in big part to the actresses playing them, Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest. Whereas for the book, I liked the fact that Sally’s daughters played such a big role in the plot and overall story. Overall, I think that this is a great modern witch story that is fun to indulge in whether you are reading it or watching. For my next blog post I will be talking about the 1994 Interview With a Vampire directed by Neil Jordan and based on the book by Anne Rice.                   

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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