Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.