Adaptation Week: Brokeback Mountain – the choices we make and those we don’t
[*Warning: includes significant spoilers*]
I must admit I was delighted when Vulpes announced they were having a book/film adaptation week and that Brokeback Mountain was one of the subjects on offer. It’s a story I’ve loved for years, along with the whole of Annie Proulx’s original collection (Close Range: Wyoming stories), and I’d been singing its praises for a long time before Ang Lee even picked up his film script to begin – or whatever it is directors do first.
Let me put my cards on the table from the off and say that while I do love the film (it may actually be the best adaptation of a book since The English Patient), I think that the story in its original form is even better. There are things you can say in text that you can’t fully and deeply convey in a visual medium. I’m not sure, for instance, how on earth Mr Lee could ever have hoped to express the opening paragraph of Proulx’s story in film, a paragraph all but shimmering with memory, loneliness and loss:
Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everyone off the day before, the owner saying, “Give em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.
Really, it’s all there – all the aspects and themes of the story are contained in this paragraph, but the reader isn’t allowed to know the full meaning of them yet. It’s one of those astonishing paragraphs that are incredibly punchy to start with, but when you come back to them after you’ve finished the story they take on a whole new meaning: the shirts; the poverty of Ennis’ life; the transitory nature of the work he does; the choices he makes and doesn’t make; his difficult family situation; the way he saves the mention of Jack until the very end of his thought process; and how that opens out a whole baggage of painful emotions that both breaks through into and is contained by the physical facts of his life. Hard to get all that into film then, no matter how good the actor.
It’s also astonishing how Proulx managed to take the ultimate literary genre cliché of the gay cowboy and turn it into something rich and very human. Part of the way she does this is to meld the glorious description of the scenery with the emotions of the characters. Consider this passage where the two men are travelling down from the mountain back to their usual lives:
The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light, the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong irreversible fall.
Here the landscape is almost completely overwhelming – a powerful entity under which no human can stand. The same is true of the very intense, almost obsessive love shared by Ennis and Jack, a love that separates them from their actual lives and also from those around them. Ennis says at one point:
“Shit. I been lookin at people on the street. This happen a other people? What the hell do they do?”
One of the many charms and strengths of this short story is the length of time – nearly twenty years – that the text encompasses. It’s quite rare in a short story for such a long time period to go by, and Proulx uses the landscape and the men’s relationship both as a binding factor and a driving force. Time is also used in the tale to create tension, especially the passing of time, and the accompanying sense of a rapidly approaching grief:
One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough.
Set against this are the moments of joy Jack and Ennis share, particularly the long and half-asleep hug that takes place during their summer on Brokeback. Here we see Jack’s response to it years afterwards:
Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not then embrace him face to face because he did not want to see nor feel that it was Jack he held. And maybe, he thought, they’d never got much farther than that. Let be, let be.
In the book, this scene carries a lot of power and the embrace lasts for a long time, while in the film it feels rather cut short – I do feel Lee could perhaps have made more of it at that point. However, this concept of time and its fluidity, as well as the contrast between deeply-held moments and the rapidity of life is something that the fiction writer can play with far more easily than the film-maker. Indeed it is fascinating to note that one of the major differences between the book and the film is that the book shifts its time period back and forth as the story is told, whereas in the film the timeline is largely linear. Perhaps it has to be. A film without a linear timeline is rather challenging to watch, though not impossible. However, the loss of the book’s rich time shifts has to be compensated for in the visual medium, and it is here that the film comes into its own: the mountains and meadows, the rocks, the grass, the skies knit their own voluptuous tapestry across the screen, as indeed does the music, – itself an essential part of the Brokeback viewing experience.
I have also to consider the end of the story. In the same way that I think the beginning of Proulx’s tale is far superior to the film version, it’s my opinion that so is the end of the written text far superior to that offered by the visual medium. In the film, Ennis stands, after his daughter has gone, and gazes at the two shirts that have come to mean so much more than the reader could know at the start. As he talks, he’s half crying and the shot then fades. It’s very powerful (though I’ve seen it before and know exactly what happens, I was still in tears), but here’s Proulx’s final scene:
And he (Ennis) would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.
There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.
We’re back to the beginning again, but all the reader’s sensibilities and understanding have utterly changed in response to this incredible journey of love, loss, grief, pain and supremely difficult choices that we have been on in the company of Ennis and Jack. Nothing is different but everything has changed. Impossible for any film to catch even a quarter of that kind of emotion.
That said, the film itself is a powerful entity and in some aspects I have to say it succeeds more effectively than does the book, opening out areas and deepening secondary characters that Proulx only chose to touch on. It is this I wish to turn to now.
As I’ve already mentioned, the film starts in a different place and we’re straight into Jack and Ennis’ first meeting at Joe Aguirre’s ranch office in 1963. As I watched it once more for this article, it struck me for the first time how powerful Lee’s use of silence is. Nobody talks for a long, long time and when someone does finally speak, it’s Aguirre, giving instructions as to how he wants his operation run.
For those of you who’ve read the book, it’s quickly apparent how much of the actual dialogue from the short story is used in the film script throughout. Lee has kept very close to the words Proulx used and the themes she has focused on and I can only admire him for that.
There are also some themes, however, that Lee explores more fully than Proulx. The lives of the two men apart from each other are seen in much more detail and the balance between Jack’s family life and Ennis’ one seems more well-matched. In the short story, for instance, we never see Jack’s wife, Lureen, directly, but in the film she becomes an interesting and ultimately moving character in her own right. It is Lureen who ensures that she and Jack somehow manage to motor through life with some sense of connection at key moments, which Ennis and Alma never do. Witness her subtle and delighted smile when Jack finally stands up to her bullying father during a Thanksgiving Dinner. And I love the way that Lureen’s telephone conversation with Ennis after Jack’s death reveals her loss and contained grief as she realises what Ennis has been to her husband – all this purely from the expression on her face and the tone of her voice. The words are the same as in Proulx’s book but the interpretation is vastly different; Proulx only shows us the conversation from Ennis’s side and as a result Lureen is seen as ultimately cold and unyielding. But in Lee’s version, Lureen’s final moment of compassion and generosity when she offers her husband’s lover the chance to bury his ashes is a tour-de-force of unexpected humanity and Anne Hathaway’s acting skill. This same sense of the humanity of women is found in the extended scene where Ennis visits Jack’s parents after his death. The whole scenario is thick with tension but the simple silent act of Jack’s mother in laying a comforting hand on Ennis’s shoulder when he’s unable to speak at all and, later, in putting the two shirts in a bag for his journey speaks volumes.
It’s interesting too how the Jack and Ennis reunion scene is filmed differently from the book. In the book, the scene takes place indoors, on the landing outside Ennis and Alma’s home during a storm, whereas in the film it’s outside in their yard and the weather is good. To be honest I don’t know the reason for the change, although it may have been considered that the storm motif symbolising destructive passion is too overworked in film. It also could have been decided that the outdoor sunshine was quieter and gave a sharper focus to what is going on between the two men. If so, that was probably a good decision – perhaps storms work better in books than on screen.
I also enjoyed the greater focus on the relationship between Ennis and his elder daughter, Alma Junior. There is a particularly touching scene not included in the book when as a child she asks to be able to live with him rather than her mother after their divorce. However, Ennis refuses, ostensibly due to his work commitments, although we know the real reason are his plans to see Jack. And to keep on seeing him. I found this particularly powerful and realistic – Ennis has to make an instant choice as to whether love or family is more important, and the choice he makes is right for him but wrong for his daughter.
Later it’s Alma Junior who brings some sense of light and hope to Ennis’s bleak and difficult life. In the penultimate scene of the film (again a scene not included in the book), Alma announces her impending marriage and once more asks her father to be part of her life on that occasion. Ennis mentions the demands of work, but then agrees to attend. Because of Jack’s absence, he’s finally able to come through for his daughter, and this move towards a more uplifting note gives an essential glimmer of hope that we can carry into the last scene, after Alma leaves, of Ennis talking briefly to the deceased Jack.
As I’ve already mentioned, another aspect of the film which is, by default, impossible for the book to include is the score. Written by Gustavo Santaolalla, an Argentinian composer, it won an Academy Award for Best Original Score in 2005 and deservedly so. I don’t actually think you notice the music when you’re watching the film. Because it suits the story and the scenery so well, it becomes part of the whole experience and I think it would be a significantly lesser film without it.
Finally, Proulx herself had very interesting things to say in a 2005 interview about the book and the film, and the reactions she’s had to both. It’s well worth a read. In any case, for me, both book and film demonstrate beyond all doubt the devastating power of choices in our lives – those made and not made. In this way it goes beyond a simple tale of two gay cowboys in the wild west and becomes a story that can speak to us all: about the choices we make, the people we leave behind; and those we cling to. It’s both a story and a film about how we live now.
The short story of Brokeback Mountain was published in Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories in 1999 and can now be found in a multitude of formats.
The film of Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005 and is available on DVD.
[Anne has a soft spot for gay cowboys and Jake Gyllenhaal. Not necessarily in that order. To discover more about the choices she’s made and not made, please click here.]
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Brokeback Mountain is about the simultaneity of love and loneliness, and is a story filled with contradictions and juxtapositions. It begins at the end, with a memory, a dream. The main character, Ennis del Mar, awakes and recalls his murdered lover, Jack Twist. The remainder of the story then revolves around the memory of Ennis and Jack’s deep and troubled homosexual love affair, which began during a summer when the two men worked as ranch hands on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming.
Author Annie Proulx’s renowned and heartbreaking short story Brokeback Mountain was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1997. It was awarded the O. Henry Prize in 1998, and later adapted into a highly publicized, award-winning film by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee, released in 2005.
Much has been said about this moving film, or as it has come to be commonly called, “the gay cowboy movie.” However, Jack and Ennis were not working as cowboys when they met and fell in love, but rather as shepherds, who have often been portrayed as living on the margin of society. The story is about two these young Wyoming ranch hands who unexpectedly (for the reader and characters alike) fall in love as teen-age boys and continue their ill-fated affair in secret for the next 20 years, until Jack is murdered.
Jack and Ennis fall deeply in love on Brokeback Mountain, but they are unable to articulate their feelings or overcome their fears, or even admit to each other or themselves that they are homosexual. And so they leave the mountain and part ways at the end of the summer of 1963, trying to lead the lives deemed “acceptable” by society – lives filled with work, marriage and children. Yet Ennis and Jack discover that they are unable to forget or truly separate from one another, or the memory of the happiness, fulfillment and love they experienced on Brokeback Mountain. They sneak away together intermittently for short trysts in the wilderness, but their existences primarily consist of emptiness, frustration and misery; and finally the two men’s lives are destroyed, along with their families. Ennis’ marriage ends in divorce, and Jack’s become a sham as he secretly seeks affection from other men, and then is ultimately murdered by those who discover he is gay. Additionally, in the film adaptation, we see the ill affects on Ennis’ daughters and girlfriend.
The story has been compared by some critics to a Greek tragedy or the story of star-crossed lovers, similar to Romeo and Juliet, But more accurately the story is about two rugged men living in a rugged terrain and a homophobic society, and it is a story about a relationship that simultaneously transcends and destroys both heroes as they try understand what drives their love and desire for one another and strive to have some kind of satisfactory relationship in the face of fear, denial and cultural stigma.
When Proulx first presents us with Ennis and Jack together, they are being told by their new employer, Joe Aguirre, to “pitch a pup tent on the q.t. with the sheep, out a sight and he’s a goin a SLEEP there. Eat supper, breakfast in camp, but SLEEP WITH THE SHEEP, hundred percent, NO FIRE, don’t leave no sign” (Proulx 6). From the beginning of the story, Ennis and Jack are being instructed to sleep where they are not supposed to – to sneak around out in the wilderness.
The notion of place and the role of nature are crucial in Proulx’s work, perhaps more than almost any other contemporary American writer. As she herself stated in an interview with the Missouri Review,
"Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.”
Nature plays a crucial role both in Proulx’s original story as well as in the film adaptation of Brokeback Mountain. Proulx uses nature expertly within her short story to create a great economy of words, allowing for the concentration of meaning in these images as symbols. Wyoming’s wide-open and rough terrain becomes an important backdrop to the story. Brokeback Mountain itself, of course, is the most significant natural symbol in the story. It looms before Ennis and Jack, beautiful but massive and unattainable, representing a place they can never revisit and a time and feeling they can never recapture after their first summer together. While the two are only truly happy here in the wide-open spaces of a natural setting, they are also miniscule in the mountain’s presence. Nature is much larger than either of them. Proulx writes, “During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain” (Proux 9).
However, Ennis and Jack also believed that Brokeback offered them the protection to carry out their relationship unobserved by society. “There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. They believed themselves invisible…” (Proulx 15).
While Proulx tells us in her story that Jack and Ennis visit many other mountain destinations during their getaways together, they never return to Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack are never able to return to the place where they were most happy together. This is less clear in the film, and in fact, in contrast to the book, it is suggested that the pair do return to Brokeback. The mountain depicted on their last trip together appears to have the familiar peaks of Brokeback, and Jack angrily states, “All we have is this,” sweeping his hand across the vast and beautiful landscape that stretches out before them.
Throughout the book, the wind is an unsettling and driving force, underscoring several of the scenes. In the beginning of the story, the wind accompanies our first introduction to Jack in Ennis’ waking memory: “The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence” (Proulx 4). An early snow is the precursor to Jack and Ennis being called down off the mountain and once again the mountain and the wind portend a dark future for the couple: “The mountain boiled with demonic energy,” writes Proulx, and she describes the wind as having a “bestial drone” (Proulx 16-17). As Jack and Ennis part at the bottom of the mountain, “The wind tumbled an empty feed bag down the street until it fetched up under his truck (Proulx 18). Wind also attends Ennis’ imagination of Jack’s murder: “Under the wind drone he heard steel slapping off bone, the hollow chatter of a settling tire rim” (Proulx 46).
A storm frames the return of Jack to Ennis four years later. As Ennis waits for Jack to arrive, we are told, “The day was hot and clear in the morning, but by noon the clouds had pushed up out of the west rolling a little sultry air before them” (Proulx 20). Thunder rolls in as Jack arrives, and as they lie together in the hotel room, “A few handfuls of hail rattled against the window followed by rain and slippery wind” (Proulx 23). Proulx utilizes the image of rain, often used in literature and film to signify change, cleansing or a re-birth, to underscore Jack’s return and the rebirth of Ennis’ and Jack’s relationship. But, her use of the term “slippery wind” tells us that this union will be a fleeting one, soon wrapped only in memory.
Interestingly, this device of menacing weather to frame these scenes was not used in the film. However, nature and place do play crucial roles in the cinematography. For marketing purposes, the film’s tagline is “Love is a force of nature.” This suggestion that that Ennis’ and Jack’s love was a force of nature over which they had no control might be one meaning of the use of nature as symbol in this story. But, neither Proulx nor the film’s director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto, uses nature to represent this message solely. Rather Prieto’s photography captures the magnificence of the natural setting, while successfully echoing Proulx’s use of the outdoor environment to suggest both natural beauty as well as the feeling of remoteness, isolation and loneliness of the American western terrain.
By contrast, just as the outdoors is represented as expansive, beautiful and overwhelming, the domestic scenes are portrayed both in the book and the film as dull, claustrophobic and constraining. In the film, whenever Jack and Ennis are depicted in their homes, they look cramped and boxed in. Ennis is also often portrayed in reflection in a mirror in these scenes, perhaps suggesting the double life he is leading, or that his life only an image, not a real or full life.
Following Jack’s death, when Ennis travels to Jack’s parents house to try to retrieve his ashes to take them to Brokeback Mountain (as Jack has requested), we see the house in which Jack grew up. It is stark and completely whitewashed, inside and out. Jack’s father sits nearly motionless and unexpressive, and it is as though the whitewashed house represents his denial of his son’s true self. Here the first of two heart wrenching scenes featuring Ennis in a closet takes place.
In the first of these scenes, Ennis is invited by Jack’s mother to visit Jack’s old room. In the back corner of Jack’s small closet, he discovers two shirts — his own and Jack's, from their summer on Brokeback Mountain. Both have bloodstains from their tussle on one of their final days there. In the film, Ennis mentions that he believes he has lost his shirt on the mountain. In the book Proulx writes:
"It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here in Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands" (Proulx 52).
In the film, Ennis is shown standing inside Jack’s small closet in his parent’s whitewashed house, grieving Jack, holding the shirts and weeping silently.
The second scene featuring Ennis and a closet, and another piece of lost clothing does not take place in Proulx’s original story, but is a powerful and poignant addition to the film adaptation. At the end of the film, Ennis is in his trailer and is visited by his now-grown daughter, Alma Jr., who comes to tell him that she is getting married, and asks him to attend the wedding. Ennis at first refuses then agrees, and they have a toast. After Alma leaves, Ennis discovers she has forgotten her sweater. He opens his closet door to put it away, and we see that he's created a small shrine to Jack inside his closet. Now we are returned to Proulx’s original:
"He pinned it up [the postcard of Brokeback Mountain] in his trailer, brass-headed tack in each corner. Below it he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears. 'Jack, I swear –' he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind." (Proulx 54).
Proulx’s and the filmmakers’ use of actual closets to symbolize Ennis’ inability to “come out of the closet” might at first seem to be a heavy-handed metaphor, but in both instances, these scenes are effective and very touching.
Proulx’s book ends shortly after this, with another of Ennis’ dreams. But, while his dream at the beginning of the story steeps him in reverie, with fond and happy memories of Jack, in his dream at the end of the story, there is a darker and menacing feeling, one of grief and sorrow, danger and death.
The film ends differently than Proulx’s short story. The camera pulls back from Ennis at his closet door to show us a wider view of the interior of his small cramped trailer, and then focuses in on a tiny window, which frames a constrained view of a field of bright yellow flowers and the blue mountain and sky in the background. This scene of the exterior – of the great outdoors stands in sharp contrast to the small and enclosed private interior where Ennis seems trapped, standing in his closet with his shrine to his dead lover.
There are other significant differences in the film adaptation of the story. In addition to echoing Proulx’s use of place and nature to enhance the story, the film also used music very effectively as an enhancement. A beautiful, simple score by Gustavo Santaolalla features a lone guitar, with long silences in the melody, a perfect complement to the themes of the story. The filmmakers did not choose to try to re-create Proulx’s device of book-ending the beginning and ending of the story with descriptions of Ennis’ reminiscences of Jack. Also, the character of Ennis’ oldest daughter, Alma, Jr., is developed much more in the film version than the book, and she is portrayed as a counterpoint to Ennis. Quiet like her father, “Junior,” as Ennis calls her, also has a difficult time expressing herself. However, the message seems to be that despite their similarities, she is promised a happy and fulfilled life of love with her new husband, in stark contrast to her lonely, homosexual father.
Other major variations from Proulx's original story are a few scenes that seem meant to portray Jack and Ennis as “real men” and more appealing and accessible to the majority of the American movie-going public. Ennis has an encounter with a bear on Brokeback Mountain. Later, in a completely incongruous scene, he picks a fight with two rowdy, drunken bikers at a Fourth of July celebration, a scene that concludes with Ennis standing larger than life and victorious against a backdrop of exploding fireworks. Ennis’ relationship with a girlfriend following his divorce is further developed in the film than the book, and we also see Jack challenge his father-in-law at a Thanksgiving celebration, in a depiction of a typical family scene in which he supports his wife’s wishes and disciplines his son.
Still, with all these additions and variations, for the most part the film stays remarkably close to the original text, and brings both Proulx’s dialogue and the characters to life. Proulx was impressed with the film adaptation, despite her initial concerns. She commented, “I feared the landscape on which the story rests would be lost, that sentimentality would creep in, that explicit sexual content would be watered down. None of that happened. The film is huge and powerful. I maybe the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”
While it is interesting to examine the similarities and differences in form and interpretation between the original short story and the film, it is also important to ask how and why this little story lent itself to such a critically-acclaimed, successful film at this time and what real impact on American culture the film was able to accomplish. Proulx mused on this in a recent interview: “There are a lot of people who see movies who do not read. It used to be that writing and architecture were the main carriers, permanent carriers, of culture and civilization. Now you have to add film to that list, because film is the vehicle of cultural transmission of our time. It would be insane to say otherwise, to say that the book is still the thing. It isn't.”
So, although Proulx’s original work enjoyed critical acclaim and a large audience of readers, it is undeniable that the impact of the film has been much broader. It has received numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Director and three Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. It has been seen and discussed by millions of movie-goers, but as Susan Wloszczyna wrote in USAToday.com article “Film Spurs Culture of Gay Cowboy Jokes”:
"'I wish I knew how to quit you' is the new 'Show me the money.' Gay cowboys are now the new penguins. Movie poster spoofs featuring every male couple from cartoon hero He-Man and foe Skeletor (Grayskull Mountain) to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay (in Kickback Mountain) litter the Internet. Against all odds, a Western romance about two men, Brokeback Mountain, has corralled the cultural zeitgeist, making it safe for our national funny bone to come out of the closet."
And, so it would seem that while the film adaptation introduced this story to a significantly wider audience than the original written work, this new audience has not been able to truly experience the power and depth of Proulx’s story. There is certainly nothing humorous about this tale, yet Brokeback Mountain has, in many cases, become the foundation for a national joke. Characters in the film were transformed into larger-than-life manly stereotypes in order to become more palatable to the movie-going public (as in the scene with Ennis standing tall with fireworks blazing behind him) and there seems to be the need to define and market this as a “universal” love story rather than a story specifically about the tragedy of a homosexual affair in a homophobic society.
After Ang Lee received the Golden Globe Award, he stated, “This is a universal story. I just wanted to make a love story.” But that is really not the case. Brokeback Mountain is not a universal love story, as Daniel Mendelsohn notes in his review, “An Affair to Remember,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books. “Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the ‘closet’ — about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.”
The tragedy of this story is that not only do Ennis and Jack lose each other, but they also lose themselves, and are unable to clearly articulate their love or live satisfactory lives. They are lost in memory, fantasy, fear and the constraints of their society. “It’s because of you that I’m like this – nothing, nobody,” cries Ennis toward the end of the story. And, Jack longs to be freed of his feelings, pleading, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” trying to deny the depth of his affection for Ennis, as Mendelsohn points out in his essay.
Brokeback Mountain indeed is riddled with numerous contradictions and juxtapositions: a short, 55 pages that were turned into a film of epic proportions that infiltrated contemporary American culture. It is a story written by a female author about two men. It is a romantic love story, yet the characters are two rough, inarticulate Western men who are never able to communicate their love for one another. The story begins in the 1960s – a time in American history typically associated by free love and experimentation. But clearly that freedom did not extend to two young gay men in the American West. It focuses on the desolation and loneliness of the West, yet the harsh landscape of this environment is also representative of the natural beauty and the love and closeness between Ennis and Jack. Proulx’s descriptions of the landscape are at once poetic and beautiful and hard and desolate. The book’s prologue is an epilogue; the tale begins at the end, book-ended by Ennis’ dreams that represent both happy reverie and gut-wrenching grief.
Ultimately the story is one of love and loneliness, and this is the most poignant juxtaposition of all, for those in love are just not supposed to be so devastatingly lonely.
Mendelsohn, Daniel, “An Affair to Remember, NY Review of Books, Volume 53, Number 3, February 23, 2006.
Proulx, Annie, Brokeback Mountain, Scribner, New York, 2005
Proulx, Annie “Getting Movied,” Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, Scribner, 2005.
TMR Staff, “Interview with Annie Proulx,” The Missouri Review, Volume XXII, Number 2, 1999.
Wloszczyna, Susan, “Film Spurs Culture of Gay Cowboy Jokes, USA Today.com, January 25, 2006.