When she began adapting The Stone Angel from page for screen, Kari Skogland did so with a sense of terror.

“This is Margaret Laurence,” said the director of the film version of the Can-lit staple.

“They don’t teach you in school about all the passion in the book; they bypass that,” she said. “I did not remember it for that, so when I re-read it, it was full of it. I kept thinking, ‘That’s why it got banned.’”

The film — which opens at the Oxford Theatre tomorrow — tells the story of Hagar Shipley, a still feisty but ailing octogenarian who is at odds with her grown son. With death approaching, she sets out on a journey into her turbulent past.

Playing the older Hagar is Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn, while Toronto-based newcomer Christine Horne plays the younger version of the character. The film also starts Kevin Zegers, Cole Hauser, and Halifax’s Oscar-nominated Ellen Page.

“I didn’t want it to be sentimental, but I wanted it to be funny in parts and for us to enjoy who she is. But I didn’t want us to feel sorry for her,” said Skogland, who first read the 1964 novel as a high school student.

“I discovered that ‘Gee, old people have lives.’ It never occurred to me before. At 14, you are pretty egocentric and anyone over 20 is ancient.”

Later, when she was in her early 40s and looking for a new film project, Skogland picked up the novel again, re-reading it with older eyes.

“Suddenly, it was a whole new story, because it has a tremendous sense of depth as to who you are when you are that age. It spoke to my life in a couple of different ways — which is the brilliance of Margaret Laurence’s writing.”

Skogland said she was thrilled when Burstyn agreed to play the main role, adding the actress had no vanity issues with playing a character older than herself.

“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘You must make me look 90,’” Skogland said. “I knew I had the right person.”


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