by Liam Lacey, published on May 9, 2008|
Margaret Laurence's 1964 novel The Stone Angel may be a cornerstone of contemporary Canadian literature, but it presents daunting challenges for anyone attempting a contemporary movie adaptation. For years, screenwriters have tried to come up with a way to bring it to the screen.
Technically, the book's structure is an invitation for flashback overkill. Written as a first-person monologue by Hagar Shipley, an ill woman in her 90s, the story shifts back and forth between her reminiscences and the present day, when she's about to be put into a nursing home. Time-wise, the zigzagging story is forbidding.
Thematically, it's austere. Who is the contemporary audience for this story of a hard woman who realizes, too late in life, that she lived by uncompromising convictions rather than empathy? Except for her obsession with social standing, Hagar probably isn't the sort of heroine for audiences accustomed to Sex and the City and Gossip Girl. Bridging the gap to a younger female audience seems to be part of the mission of writer-director Kari Skogland (The Size of Watermelons, Men with Guns) in the version of The Stone Angel she brings to the screen.
The adaptation emphasizes incident-filled plot more than dour Calvinist pride and repression, for a story in the Gone with the Wind mode of indomitable feminine passion and pluck.
Among other changes, Skogland has moved the plot ahead about 30 years, which has significant thematic implications. Instead of coldly seeing her son Marvin off to the trenches of the Great War, Hagar sends him off to more hospitable peacekeeping duties in Cyprus. The new Hagar is no more a victim of deep sexual repression and there are erotic scenes that didn't exist in the novel.
Young Hagar (played by winsome Christine Horne in her screen debut) is portrayed as a firecracker with a racy reputation for having sex all over town with her strapping bad-boy lover, Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser). At one point, the elderly Hagar even puffs on a joint. Not to spoil anyone's buzz, but the title really isn't The Stoned Angel.
To her credit, Skogland is respectful of Laurence's humour, language and characters, played by a game and talented cast. Oscar-winning actress and feminist heroine Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) is dominating as the elderly Hagar, bigger and sharper than life, wavering between fear and grim pride. The victims of her scorn include her milquetoast son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his nattering wife, Doris (Sheila McCarthy), a platitude-spouting preacher and a doctor with bad art in his waiting room.
Skogland's script holds together best in the earlier present-day sequences, where Hagar chides her minders and makes an escape plan. When she finds herself alone, she leaves the house, persuades a bank teller to cash a cheque and gets a ride north to the country. As she travels, her mind rolls back through the decades and she remembers her relationship with her proud Scottish father and her rebellious marriage to Bram (played, at different times, by father and son actors Wings and Cole Hauser).
Perhaps The Stone Angel would have been better served as a three-part television miniseries. As the film progresses, there's a sense that the movie is pushing to cram a lot of story in quickly, and characters we've barely met trigger important turning points in the story. The plot moves on to Hagar's years of social disgrace as wife of the town drunk, and her relationships with her son John (Kevin Zegers) and his girlfriend (Ellen Page). Finally, the past catches up to the present when the elderly Hagar, lying on the floor of a ruined house next to a stranger, finally recognizes that the code of her life has turned her into a kind of monster.
Neither a revelation nor a travesty, the movie version of The Stone Angel is essentially what you might expect: There is a reverence for the idea of Laurence's book but ultimately, in spite of its spiced-up sex scenes, it's much tamer and more conventional.
There's a scene near the movie's end when Hagar's son Marvin grins and says to a nurse about his mother: "She's a holy terror." You can't help thinking that, in Laurence's original version, Hagar was much closer to an unholy one.