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.
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" t
o 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.