The Stone Angel reborn

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      For many Canadians, hearing that a favourite Margaret Laurence novel has been adapted for the big screen might be a bit like finding out that someone has painted over an original Emily Carr.

      The dangers of taking on a CanLit classic were, of course, not unknown to writer-director-producer Kari Skogland, who spent years developing her version of The Stone Angel, a school-assigned novel familiar to millions of former teenagers in this country.

      “Of course, it wasn’t always part of the mainstream,” Skogland told the Georgia Straight in a meeting just before the finished film made its first local appearance, at the Vancouver International Film Festival, last September. “You have to remember that it was banned from all schools for part of the ’60s. It was viewed as being very rebellious, and when they brought it into the curriculum, it was very much taught from that perspective.”

      When Skogland reread it as an adult, she discovered that her view of the book had changed.

      “On my first exposure, I know that it really affected my perception of adults, particularly of older women. I discovered that they had lives. But they really didn’t go into depth on the other aspects. When you pick it up again years later, with some life experience, it contains a wealth of other meanings in other layers.”

      The veteran writer recalled that it was difficult for a teenager to grasp the intensity of the sexual connection between hard-raised prairie girl Hagar and her ill-fated future husband.

      “I think what a lot of reviewers missed on is that the story is really an extended conversation with God. It’s an epic story about the various shades of love: passionate, lustful, horrific, destructive, and pious love, all of that wrapped up by the idea that love, in its purest form, must be unconditional, and that’s where you get into God’s territory. I certainly didn’t want it to be about religion but about this tussle we have with existence.”

      The tragedy of the tale is that Hagar ends up echoing the prejudices foisted on her by a shame-based, class-hobbled society.

      “That’s the legacy of false pride. It’s a universal theme, but maybe in Canada, as a former colony, we tended to feel it a bit more. There’s that whole class hierarchy we inherited from the English. One of my challenges was to update the book and make it relevant for an audience of today—and an adult audience, as well.”

      To do that, Skogland updated the book’s five-decade span so that the movie could end up somewhere closer to the present than 1964, which greeted the book when it arrived. In this vision of Laurence’s Manawaka, Manitoba, Ellen Burstyn and newcomer Christine Horne alternately play the long-lived Hagar Shipley, who yearns to escape local strictures. The father-son team of Wings and Cole Hauser play older and younger editions of Bram, the hotheaded man she marries.

      Best known for commercial and music-video work, the director has been travelling between Los Angeles and Toronto for a number of years now and is prepping a feature in the U.K. She saw other production teams try to tackle The Stone Angel over the decades, but—having lived outside the country—she felt that she saw a unique way back into the emblematic tale.

      “I came at it with an international perspective, I suppose—maybe not as precious. In the Canadian literary world, Margaret Laurence is this daunting, iconic figure. I kind of put that in a drawer and said, ”˜I’m not gonna let that mess me up.’ The book’s story is very internalized and is not an obvious adaptation. But I knew that sense of pioneering spirit on the Canadian prairie would be there, just because of the physical setting.

      “So when I first pitched my script to Alliance Atlantis, who helped me develop this project, I told them that this story had a lot more passion than a lot of people realized. In school, they didn’t teach us about the under-the-covers stuff. But it was there! I realized that this was really about her sexuality and how it was repressed by all these codes of conduct. You fell out of society if you did or didn’t do certain things.”

      Of course, what was shocking in 1964 (The Beatles? On Ed Sullivan?) seems tame now. So Skogland needed to act quickly.

      “I do feel that the film had to be made now, as some of the issues probably will resonate a lot less 10 years from now, especially for females. Interestingly, men seem to get just as involved in this story, I guess because everybody’s mother is going to die someday, and these emotions that come up, as your parents age, are complicated, and they haven’t really been addressed in movies all that much. I just know that all of my friends—all of them—are going through this with their parents right now. So I hope I caught the pulse of something that is part of our lives.”

      For the actor playing Hagar much of the way in, the film’s issues were a bit vague. In fact, Christine Horne hadn’t even read the book in school.

      “I knew it was the great Canadian novel,” said the York University graduate, sporting short, blond hair. “And I knew what it was about. But I didn’t actually pick it up until I knew I was going to audition for the part. At the time, I thought, ”˜I’m such a bad Canadian; I’m completely unqualified to play this role!’ But in hindsight, I think it ended up serving me well to be introduced to the novel and the screenplay at the same time.”

      In fact, her learning curve would be steep. Twenty-four when she shot the film, Horne needed to play Hagar from 15 to 43. The Aurora, Ontario, native had only done two small, independent films when she was hired to play the established star’s counterpart. She rented a batch of Burstyn’s early films, like The Last Picture Show, so she could compare the older version to her more youthful self.

      “I went from doing a couple of weekends with a crew of eight to shooting The Stone Angel, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to movie sets. And then it’s weird to be playing a part where your character is really being set by another actor. But watching Ellen really helped me figure out how the process of film works, as well as getting to study her gestures, her expressions—even the way she sits in a chair. Without just doing my best Ellen Burstyn impression, of course.”

      It didn’t help Horne’s adjustment when she needed to shoot her “oldest” scenes first. Or that Burstyn is brought in when the part is actually too young for her to play.

      “Well, they were really pushing me as it was—especially when it comes to the children,” Horne recalled with a laugh. “I mean, like, Kevin Zegers plays my younger son and I’ve got maybe a year on him.”

      Meanwhile, makeup artists had to work to age Burstyn well past her own 74 years.

      “It wasn’t that easy, because she looks absolutely fantastic.”

      After finishing the movie, Horne could only wait to see where her new movie career might take her next. “I was doing a lot of theatre before I made this film, and I went right back to it afterwards.”

      She has since played Desdemona in an upcoming TV production of Othello. We didn’t get a chance to find out if she read that one in high school. But these classics certainly have a way of staying relevant, even while social fashions keep changing.

      Director Kari Skogland will  be here in Vancouver for  a Q&A discussion after the Friday (May 9) 7 p.m.  screening and the Saturday (May 10)  1:25 p.m. screening at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.