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