As in “Rachel, Rachel”, the film version of Margaret Laurence’s novel A Jest of God, the emphasis in the film “The Stone Angel” is on the story’s romantic relationship. And perhaps rightly so. The film makers had less than two hours to make both Hagars real. To bring her past into the viewer’s present.
Throughout the film, the action moves sharply across time, just as you would imagine that an old woman could slip from today into yesterday in a single moment. An old woman approaches a store and the door opens and the young woman walks through. It’s beautifully done. And the first lengthy instance of this occurs when Hagar returns to Manawaka after her studies and meets Bram Shipley at a community dance.
Yes, the most direct way to Hagar’s heart, is to focus on her determination to marry Bram, a decision for which her father disowned her, a decision that echoed throughout the rest of her adult life. Making it the heart of the film makes it easy to recognize links both between Hagar’s past and present and, also, between the experiences of women across the generations, with the ways in which that relationship both satisfied and dissatisfied the younger Hagar resonating fully with contemporary viewers.
Some aspects of this can be represented visually in a way that they could not be contained in the text. When Hagar reminisces about the physicality of her relationship with Bram in The Stone Angel, she acknowledges the power of her desire, but does not discuss it at length.
“His [Bram’s] banner over me was only his own skin, and now I no longer know why it should have shamed me. People thought of things differently in those days. Perhaps some people didn’t. I wouldn’t know. I never spoke of it to anyone.”
She is still a woman of her generation and while she can recognize the restrictions that were upon her, and acknowledge the ways in which society’s attitudes towards women’s sexuality have changed over the decades, it would have been out-of-character for her to have mused on this aspect of her relationship at length, which is something that the film maker’s are free to do. They can allow us to “see between the lines”.
Nonetheless, the decision to focus on her relationship with Bram does come at a cost. Other elements have to be set aside. Other characters. One of Hagar’s brothers is cut from the film entirely.
That’s a shame, because I think one of the key elements of understanding her character development surrounded an incident involving a choice that she made in those young years, when one brother desperately needed her to do something that she could not bring herself to do, something which the other brother had to do, instead.
(However, the screenplay does maintain another scene from her young years which does demonstrate something similar, but without the additional layer of meaning between family members; both situations are revealing in terms of the way in which she considers her own mortality, but only one of them also revealed her inability to connect with people close to her, something which influences every significant relationship she has, from that with Bram to that with her son, Marvin.) Tough choices.
But the only kind of criticism that I can levy is that I wanted more, and that’s not criticism at all, is it. Saying that I would rather have had a mini-series? That this simply increased my appetite? That’s praise of a sort.
This film evokes the spirit of Margaret Laurence’s novel sensitively and poignantly. Sure, some of the subtly that a novelist can rely on is lost (you can’t simply be told that Hagar is in pain but is choosing to hide it from Doris and Marvin, she must express it and then brush off Doris’ and Marvin’s concern, her tone sharp and dismissive), but an attentive screenplay and genuine performances conspire to make this film as effective as the novel in its own way.
It makes my shortlist of Films That Did the Book Proud.
Have you seen it? What did you think?
PS In addition to celebrating Margaret Laurence week, this film also this completes my Matinee commitment to the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge.