With all the Oscar buzz swirling around Ang Lee's taboo-busting drama, our literary liaison wants us to not forget the stellar short story it's based upon.
It was no surprise to me when Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News was adapted for film. It seemed cinematic enough. But when I heard that her short story, Brokeback Mountain, was being made into a feature length film by Ang Lee director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon I was taken aback.
Like The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain is no stranger to accolades. Published in The New Yorker in 1997, it was heralded for its humanity and went on to win the O. Henry Prize and the National Magazine Award. But with it clocking in at a mere 55 pages, the story itself barely suggested a feature film.
As a work of short fiction, Brokeback Mountain is a tightly crafted little tale about a love that could never be. Not new stuff to the literary or film world, but the fact that the passion is between a ranch hand named Ennis Del Mar and a rodeo cowboy named Jack Twist in 1962 Wyoming makes the story both compelling and risky. Even though their affair spans 20 years, the two men can never fully realize or manifest the way they feel about each other. The repercussions they would experience if anyone ever found out would just be too dangerous. Instead, they both go on to have "normal" lives after their initial affair. They get married and have children. They're only able to convey their feelings in private on quarterly trips back to their 'Mountain' meeting place.
The short story is a sparse piece of fiction written tersely and with restraint. Despite the economy of the language used, Brokeback Mountain was apparently a difficult and extremely emotional challenge for Proulx to put on the page, as she tells in her essay "Getting Movied", included in the new book Brokeback Mountain: From Story to Screenplay (Scribner, December 2005). The screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana also declare their own literary issues: Ossana claimed to be overcome by "deep, gut-wrenching sobs" upon first reading, while McMurty called the story "a masterpiece."
Like the text, director Lee is frugal with the dialogue and allows most of the intensity to come through the surging yet suppressed emotions between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). The screenwriters, showing their reverence for the source material, keep conversations from the story intact, word-for-word, and develop the silences the text skips over. Because they had to draw out the story rather than compress it (unlike what most screenwriter's must do when adapting a book to a screenplay), they were able to get creative along the way.
The biggest adjustment from story-to-screen is the beefed-up roles for the women in these men's lives. In Proulx's version, Ennis and Jack's wives aren't fleshed out and serve mainly as background characters in order to provide conflict. Similarly Ennis's daughter, Alma Jr, who is just a name in the story, grows up before our eyes in the film and eventually becomes the young woman played by Kate Mara.
Michelle Williams plays Ennis's wife, Alma, a quiet young woman whose defeated and brooding temperament throughout contrasts nicely to William's childlike looks. Like the two men in the film, Alma is brimming with restrained emotion. Her big eyes water a lot and she looks tired most of the time. When she catches her husband devouring Jack Twist's mouth one day, she never confronts him. Instead, she simply seethes in silence. In a way, she is the antithesis of Jack's gal Lureen, played by Anne Hathaway, who is sassy and sexy never afraid to say what's on her mind. Hathaway is captivating with her bad clothes and hair that gets blonder and bigger as the movie progresses. Her most shining moment occurs near the end of the film when she has a chilly but poignant conversation with Ennis over the phone. Her facial expressions twitch beneath a lid of bleached hair as she spits her words through stained teeth.
Unlike the actresses, the actors are purposefully picture perfect. This is something that always manages to get my purist panties in a bunch: the physical transformation of the characters from inadequate human beings on the page to beautiful Hollywood icons strutting across the screen. In Proulx's story, Jack Twist is described as short, bucktoothed, a bit portly, and curly-haired. In Lee's version, we get the tall, lean, glossy-haired Gyllenhaal swaggering around, even posing at points, and flashing his collinear pearly whites. Yes, he is a sight to behold and yes, he's a fantastic actor, but couldn't they have uglied him up a bit for the integrity of Proulx's vision? Can you imagine if they hired someone like Paul Giamatti for the role instead?
Likewise, Ennis Del Mar, according to the text, is less physically blessed than Heath Ledger. In the story he is described as having a "high-arched nose and narrow face" and "scruffy and a little cave-chested" with "a small torso" and "long, caliper legs." This makes me think of someone like Willem Dafoe, not the robust and flawless Ledger. But since Hollywood dictates that all lead characters in a love story must be physically flawless, I imagine the movie wouldn't be as likely to draw audiences if Giamatti and Defoe were seen hoofing around in tight wranglers and cowboy hats, tackling each other half-naked.
Despite their good looks though, Gyllenhaal and Ledger literally act their cowboy boots off. There are a slew of intimate moments in the movie, beginning with the most graphic love scene between the two men in a tent on Brokeback Mountain. The scene follows the story closely as Jack brings Ennis' hand to his crotch. Initially Ennis fights Jack off but then suddenly unbuckles his belt, heaves Jack on all fours, and violently does the deed with a little help from his own spit. The scene is explicit without showing any skin and I can imagine it wasn't easy filming it for the two straight actors especially since they continued to kiss and cuddle semi-naked throughout the rest of the film.
From a performance point then, Heath Ledger makes you believe he is Ennis Del Mar. Not once during the film did I think of him as Heath, Naomi Watt's ex-boyfriend. His slow drawl and pained looks made me believe he was the tortured sheepherder who was so wrapped up in all of this Marlboro Man-love. Similarly, energetic and charmingly emotional Jake Gyllenhaal had me convinced he was Jack Twist the feisty one, determined to make the relationship work despite all the odds working against it.
Like Proulx's story, the movie is careful not to over-sentimentalize anything. It is what it is: a love affair that could never come to fruition, destined to end tragically due to societal intolerance and ignorance. There is no sweeping Hollywood denouement. Instead we are treated to a literary ending: a closing shot of Ennis emblematically closing the door of a closet containing a picture of Brokeback Mountain itself. Yet while the closet door may indeed be closed, Proulx is very clear that you can't lock away true love. It's the most important point of her story. Thankfully, it's the most important part of the cinematic translation as well, making Brokeback Mountain a true rarity: an adaptation that believes in, and builds on, its source.