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Margaret Laurence: The Stone Angel and Beyond

Margaret Laurence: The Stone Angel and Beyond

Margaret Laurence: The Stone Angel and Beyond

We recently acquired The Stone Angel, the film adaptation of the classic Margaret Laurence novel, as part of our partnership with Canada Screens. We’ve also recently added to the 1978 NFB-produced documentary about her life, Margaret Laurence, First Lady of Manawaka. So this week, we are going full Margaret Laurence for your viewing pleasure.

Margaret Laurencestone-angel wrote The Stone Angel in 1964, and though it was the novel with which she would be most associated for the rest of her life, it was not adapted for the screen until 2007, a full 20 years after her death. While it was a long time coming, the film was well worth the wait.

 Ellen Burstyn stars as Hagar, a 90-year-old woman who finds herself at a crossroads, remembering her often tumultuous life in the prairie town of Manawaka. The film is a beautiful ode to memory, spanning almost all of the character’s 90 years. We are there for the key moments in her life—the good, the bad and the ugly. The film manages to cover this entire period through flashbacks that never seem forced or intrusive. Burstyn plays Hagar from the age of 50 and up, while Christine Horne tackles the role of the younger version of the character (former indie-film favourite Ellen Page has a small role in the film as well).

Both actresses are sublime. There is never a maudlin moment in either performance. The elderly Hagar tries desperately to cling to her memories while fighting her son’s efforts to put her in a retirement home. The film includes flashbacks to Hagar’s youth, later showing her romance with a man her father does not approve of. We also witness the birth of their children and subsequent events in their lives, with all their hopes and tragedies. This is all handled seamlessly by director Kari Skogland, who uses the prairie setting to its full potential.

I must confess that I’ve never read The Stone Angel, but seeing the film adaptation has piqued my interest in the novel, which I’ve been told is set up as a series of vignettes that tell Hagar’s life story. I think the film manages to keep the spirit of this structure without seeming disjointed or rambling.

But what exactly motivated Margaret Laurence to write The Stone Angel? Our documentary bio Margaret Laurence, First Lady of Manawaka attempts to answer that question and others related to the author’s works. The film finds her in her Lakefield, Ontario, home, talking about her most famous novels and her inspirations. She talks a great deal about her childhood and youth growing up in the small Manitoba town of Neepawa and how this heavily influenced her novels. In them, the town has been fictionalized as Manawaka, but the spirit of both places is similar: dull, bleak, flat, uninteresting. This is how Laurence describes Manawaka, but it is clearly how she saw her hometown. We are treated to several passages from her novels read by actress Sheila McCarthy, including a number from The Stone Angel.

I was particularly fascinated to learn that she and her publisher struggled to find an appropriate title for this book and rejected several, including Old Lady Shipley and Sword in My Bones. Laurence then re-read the manuscript and came across her title in the very first line: “…above the hill brow the Stone Angel used to stand.” It immediately hit Laurence that this was the best possible title because, as she puts it, the Stone Angel is not just a figure in the cemetery, but a symbol of Hagar herself.

The result: a masterpiece that is now considered one of the greatest Canadian novels ever written.

Margaret Laurence, First Lady of Manawaka, Robert Duncan, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

I invite you to watch The Stone Angel and then view our documentary tribute to this wonderful writer.

Enjoy the films.


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