The Stone Angel (2007): Book Into Film

** The following review contains spoilers**

Since its publication in 1964, this is the first time The Stone Angel is adapted into a movie. As I mentioned in my review of the book last week, whoever that attempts to do this has a formidable task. This classic Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence is a depiction of memories encased in deep inner turmoil. The fleeting and random reminiscence of 90 year-old Hagar Shipley juxtaposing with the present would also prove challenging to bring on screen.

Director, screenwriter, and producer Kari Skogland has made a bold attempt at filling this tall order. Filming the movie in rural Manitoba, The Stone Angel delivers some nice shots of the prairie backdrop, even though Manawaka is a fictional town in the story. The sequences of flashbacks are aptly dealt with quite seamlessly.

The movie has its greatest asset in the cast, in particular Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 1974) as Hagar Shipley, and Christine Horne as her younger counterpart. Canada’s own Ellen Page also plays a minor role as Arlene, the girl Hagar’s son John (Kevin Zegers) wants to marry, and of course, against the wish of his mother. The two Ellen’s have some tense moments together. Page’s screen time may be too short though to gratify her fans.

Any fine actor, however, can only perform within the confines of the script. Here lies my major concern: the alteration of the crux of the story, maybe to appeal to a contemporary or a younger audience. The film is a much more mellow and sexed up version of the book. The fiery, ingrained pride of Hagar is much subdued. In fact, she has been changed to an even amiable character. Further, I feel the shifting of the time from the 60’s to modern day somehow trivializes the story. Who would have thought Marvin (Dylan Baker) would be talking on the cell phone and Hagar smoking marijuana…one item off her bucket list?

What author Margaret Laurence has depicted is not just any ordinary stubborn, grumpy old woman, but Hagar Shipley, the tragic heroine, however disdainful. She rages against the dying of the light and doesn’t go gentle with just about everyone because of her deep-seated hubris…even while facing death. The book’s final image of her wrestling the glass of water from the nurse, drinking it without help, wraps up the life of this fierce character. And it’s pathetic to see her pride leading her to make decisions and to act in ways that could well have caused the tragedies in her life.

The scene at the abandoned shed should have led to the poignant, climatic revelation. In the book, Hagar tries to run away from the fate of being confined to a nursing home. She spends a night in this derelict shack and encounters a stranger. During their conversation, she unknowingly verbalizes the pain and guilt she has been carrying all her life by talking about the tragic end of her beloved son John. The name of this newly formed confidant, Murray F. Lees, yes, Flees, points to her perpetual running away from constraints, or maybe even from herself.

But in the movie this stranger is Leo (Luke Kirby), who uses the shed to make out secretly with his girlfriend and then goes on to discuss forbidden sex and share a ‘joint moment’ with the 90 year-old woman.  In the theatre, I heard laughter.  The pathos that should have accompanied this pivotal scene either did not materialize or has been much lessened.

The portrayal of young Hagar played by Christine Horne, while proficient, may have also missed the gist of the story. We see a beautiful red-hair Hagar and a romanticised Bram (Cole Hauser) immersed in blissful courtship and marriage, at least in the first part of the movie. In the book Bram Shipley, a widower-farmer fourteen years her senior, is as rough and callous as Hagar is proud and obstinate.  Their marriage is rocky even from the start, reinforcing the notion that in defying her father, Hagar has made a decision that would later bring her great torments.

By depicting a softer Hagar, and toning down her abrasive pride, the film has diluted much of the poignancy and intensity of the conflicts. The strained relationship between Hagar and her favorite son John has not been sufficiently developed to elicit the emotional impact of the tragedy. Hagar has long placed her hope on John, whom she has esteemed to be worthy to wrestle with the angel, but he ends up breaking her heart. The swift dealing of the mother son relationship in the film fails to depict Hagar, like the stone angel, has been blind to her circumstances. Fortunately, the film has kept the authentic scene of Hagar reconciling with her elder son Marvin, who has taken care of her in her old days. It is Marvin who has wrestled with the angel and won.

The final scene with the Pastor Rev. Troy (Ted Atherton) singing the hymn, touching even the ‘holy terror’ in her death bed, draws the film to a poignant and peaceful close. The audience sees a yielding Hagar going gently into the good night. The voice over of Dylan Thomas’ quote seems inconsistent with what we see.  If Laurence could have her way, she likely would have concluded with the last image of the book where Hagar stubbornly tries to drink from the glass without the help of her nurse, defiant to the end.

I have a reader, a student apparently, once asked me whether he should skip a book he was studying in class and just use the movie version for his course work.  My advice is, watch the movie for entertainment, but read the book for your assignments… the two could be very different entities.

~ ~ ½ Ripples

The Stone Angel: Book Review

To read my review of the movie The Stone Angel (2007), Click Here.

I first read The Stone Angel years ago. In Canada, if you miss it in Grade 12, you’re bound to read it in your university literature class. Now that the movie adaptation has just been released, I dust off my old copy and re-read it, wondering how much of the book I actually could appreciate when I first read it as a teenager.

The epigraph containing Dylan Thomas’ famous lines sets the atmosphere of this classic Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence:

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Readers soon find Hagar Shipley, the 90 year-old protagonist, doesn’t just rage against the dying of the light. Throughout her life, she has been raging against most anyone who wants to have a say in her life, first her father, then her husband, and ultimately, The Giver of that very Light.

Born the daughter of Jason Currie, a storeowner of Scottish descent and one of the founding fathers of Manawaka, Manitoba, Hagar takes after her father in her tenacity and brimming family pride. Fiercely independent, she has always sought her own way, and heeded only the bidding of her own will. So was it when she refused to comfort her dying brother Dan when she was a child, so was it when she despised her remaining brother Matthew’s meek acceptance of death when he too later died, so is it now as she rebels against her son Marvin’s decision to send her to a nursing home. Pride is her fuel, and she intends to use the very last drop to sustain her independence.

Telling her story in first person narrative, Hagar switches in time as her failing memory randomly darts back and forth. From these glimpses of her past, she frantically grasps whatever that can remind her of her own self: her childhood, marriage, motherhood, and now, her old age.

In her younger days, Hagar’s father had tried to stop her from marrying Bram Shipley, a widowed farmer fourteen years older than Hagar. “Common as dirt…lazy as a pet pig”, her father said of Bram. But she insisted her way:

There’s not a decent girl in this town would wed without her family’s consent” he said. “It’s not done.”

“It’ll be done by me,” I said, drunk with exhilaration at my daring.

As a result, she was disowned by her father, who upon his death, gave all his inheritance to the town instead of his only child left.

Was it love at first sight that Hagar decided to marry Bram Shipley after dancing with him in the townhall? Or was it her admiration for his raucous demeanor and rough independence, accountable to no one, to spite his class-conscious father? Regardless, by marrying Bram Shipley, she chose to live a life in poverty and crude existence. Yet this is the story of Hagar, like the Hagar in the Bible, an outcast from the house of Abraham, wandering in the wilderness, struggling for her own survival and striving for some sort of dignity.

Banished from the Curries, Hagar later in her marriage left Bram and took her younger son John to live on her own, working as a housekeeper, a self-imposed exile. And now in her old age, she flees to escape the plight of confinement in a nursing home. Hagar’s life is one of exiles and wanderings. John, her beloved son, was to her an anchor in her drifting existence.  Yet he only brought her heartbreaks and utter despair. His tragic end turned an already callous heart to stone-cold.

Hagar’s escape finally ends as she comes to terms with the tragedies that have riddled her life. During this last escapade, she takes shelter in a derelict shed. The inner turmoil and pains are verbalized as she unknowingly thinks out loud, sharing her past with a stranger there, someone by the name of Murray F. Lees. Yes…Flees.

Her son Marvin finds her the next day and she is hospitalized. By this time, her ailing body cannot sustain another flight. As Mr. Troy the pastor visits her, Hagar asks him to sing:

All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with joyful voice. Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell; Come ye before Him and rejoice.

Upon hearing the words in the hymn, she asks herself:

I must always, always, have wanted that–simply to rejoice. How is it I never could?

Thus sends Hagar to an awakening, however fleeting:

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine?

The stone angel, which stands hovering over the Currie-Shipley grave, has long been Hagar’s conception of the divine, cold, blind, and mute. But as she rages against fate, or God, she finally sees her own part in the tragedies of her life, a harsh reality she has long been escaping, too painful to face, until now.

Like the stone angel, she has also been blind to her own self and circumstances.  At her death bed, she finally sees Marvin as the true Jacob, gripping her tightly for her blessings.  The reconciliation is poignant but short-lived, for soon after she recoils into her own prideful cocoon.  Wrestling the glass from the nurse, she will not be helped.  Laurence finishes the story of Hagar Shipley with this final image:

I’ll drink from this glass, or spill it, just as I choose.  I’ll not countenance anyone else’s holding it for me….I hold it in my own hands.  There.  There.

And then–

Turning such a piece of literary work, so full of internal turmoil, symbolism and deep characterization into a movie? An arduous endeavor indeed. I look forward to the visual experience.

~ ~ ~ Ripples