‘Practical Magic’ prequel is exactly right in the age of Trump

Updated 12:04 PM EDT, Thu August 22, 2019
Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet in the 1998 film "Practical Magic."
Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest as Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet in the 1998 film "Practical Magic."
PHOTO: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Editor’s Note: Breena Kerr is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, entertainment, travel, science, and current affairs. Her work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, Rolling Stone and many others. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) —  

“Practical Magic” has been a staple film of the witch movie genre since it came out in 1998, and fans rejoiced this week when HBO Max, the soon-to-be-launched streaming service, announced that it had greenlit a TV pilot of the film’s prequel, “Rules of Magic.”

Breena Kerr
Breena Kerr
PHOTO: courtesy of Breena Kerr

Stories about witches are still trendy, and with good reason. We live in an era of existential uncertainty and underdog heroes give us glimmers of hope. Looking back at the fan favorite, “Practical Magic” worked in its era, but by today’s standards, it plays things small. I’m hoping that “Rules of Magic” can inspire us in ways the original film adaptation didn’t, without losing the sense of whimsey and wonder.

“Rules of Magic,” based on the Alice Hoffman book of (almost) the same name, will be set in 1960s New York City, when the adult aunts from “Practical Magic,” also based on a Hoffman book, are in their youth, according to a statement from HBO Max. Franny, Jet, and Vincent Owens (the brother we didn’t meet in “Practical Magic”) “wrestle with the ‘abnormalities’” of their untapped gifts, the statement said. But eventually, it is revealed that they are, always have been, and always will be, witches.

The story has been described as “an aspirational journey towards self-discovery and self-acceptance,” where the characters will “contend with grief, war, bigotry and dark magic, not to mention a centuries-old curse designed to keep them away from love.” It’s a tantalizing promise, one that’s edgier than the 1998 movie that viewers have already seen.

When I heard the announcement for “Rules of Magic,” I went back and watched the 1998 film, hoping to get a hint of what the TV series (if it’s picked up) might have in store. What I found was a movie that, while charming and occasionally progressive in a passively pop-y, feminist kind of way, hasn’t aged well.

In “Practical Magic,” which, based on the very of-the-moment hairstyles, was set in the contemporary world of the 90s, sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman) are orphaned girls who go to live with their witchy aunts. The heroines both have magical powers, but want nothing more than to fall in love and just be normal. We watch the plot unfold in a lulling series of domestic and small-town settings: The sisters fall in love, grieve loves lost, and commit a few murders and resurrections – all with numbingly little self-reflection.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the Owens sisters in "Practical Magic."
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the Owens sisters in "Practical Magic."
PHOTO: Getty Images

I was young teenager in the 1990s and back then, I wasn’t alone in loving the genre – those were the years that brought movies like “The Craft” and television shows like “Charmed” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” into our lives. At that age, the kind of plot “Practical Magic” spun from the theme of witchery captivated me. Falling in love and being accepted felt like the most important things in the world. But today, those simpler dreams fall flat, and not just because I’m in my 30s. Now, we simply contend with larger issues. Global warming, school shootings, threats of nuclear war, and racism in our cities and at the border has pulled many of us out of our insulated lives to watch, and in many cases participate in, the world beyond ourselves.

Even today’s teenagers, who are of course still obsessed with falling in love, are nonetheless also staging “lie-ins” to demand gun law reform and starting global climate protests. It’s simply a time when a movie about lovesick witches who use their powers to stir coffee and make midnight margaritas without ever touching the blender button has become irrelevant.

In much of “Practical Magic,” the Owens sisters’ power is either dismissed as an impediment to being accepted in suburbia or wasted on the small things, like petty love spells and trifling with a dead, no-good boyfriend. In these times, when essential feats like preserving life on this planet seem like they could require a miracle or an act of magic, too, who has time for tales of squandered talent?

Magic is a metaphor for personal power and the things that we can do when we set our minds to something. That’s why movies about wizards and witches are so relatable – people sense magic stirring within them when they think about something they believe in. Magic, in the real world, is that sense of possibility that we can change a current reality. And therein lies the opportunity for “Rules of Magic” to make the fictional Owens family relevant again.

In Hoffman’s book, “Rules of Magic,” Franny, Jet, and Vincent grow up as the Vietnam War rages, as San Francisco’s counterculture Summer of Love reaches its fever dream peak, and as the Stonewall Riots launch the gay rights movement.

The witchy siblings don’t exist outside that background either – they get pulled in. Vincent is a queer character who falls in love with a man and pays dearly for it. He’s also drafted into the Vietnam War. His sister Jet wanders, grieving and depressed, through an event based on the Human Be-In of 1967, accidentally ingests LSD and almost drowns before the experience motivates her to recover from her own sense of hopelessness. The dominant themes of self-discovery and the search for love are still there in spades, but unlike the film we know, these characters live in confusing, intimidating, dynamic times not unlike our own. And that setting could be used by the show’s creators to make this series a story about what it’s like to live in a world that feels like it’s gone mad.

I’m not saying that the Owens sisters from “Practical Magic” didn’t face real adversity (they did), nor am I saying that they didn’t go on a journey of self-actualization. But their struggles felt more like their struggles, not the world’s struggles. Their world wasn’t mad, it was benignly and predictably hostile, filled with neighborhood kids who called them “witch” and threw rocks. Our world, like the world of the 1960s, is more than that, and that gives the three siblings in “Rules of Magic” the chance to change their world and be changed by it in deep and relatable ways. If they do it right, the series will provide a backstory that will make the quirky, loving, and frivolous aunts of “Practical Magic” even more sketched out, more lovable to fans than ever before.

In an interview, Hoffman described the book’s setting in the 1960s and 1970s in terms that sound remarkably contemporary. “I think of the ‘60s and ‘70s as my time period,” she said in a book club Q&A. “It was when I began listening to Dylan and going to Greenwich Village and I lived for a while in Northern California. It was such a chaotic time, with so much violence. Our country was divided, and it was nearly impossible to talk to someone ‘on the other side.’ At the same time, people were fighting for their rights, and they came together in an amazing way.”

If you decide to watch or re-watch “Practical Magic,” in advance of the new pilot, some streaming services, like Amazon, offer a feature that displays movie trivia as a pop up while the film plays. The first such fact I read stated the entire set of the Owens’ house was an architectural shell that was torn down after filming. “Even the blossoms (on the trees) are fake,” it says.

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I think that’s what “Practical Magic” got wrong and what “Rules of Magic” could get right. In order to inspire and endure, magical tales need to be rooted in the dirt and struggle and conflict of real life, while inspiring us to change the world and allowing it to change us. Falling in love will or won’t happen in its own time, and “fitting in” is so passé.