Something that intrigued me most about Brokeback Mountain was how true it remained to the original source, in the sense that the film adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story was pretty much word for word, excluding a very few additions.
There’s an interesting interview with Annie Proulx, in which she discusses the story’s transition from the page to the screen. It is evident that she does feel warmly about Ang Lee’s adaptation, but she also indicates that the written story is something very different to the cinematic version. No matter how close they are in terms of what unfolds and what is said, the two mediums are (and are intended to be) understood and experienced completely differently.
If you haven’t already, I very very strongly recommend you take half an hour (or ten minutes if you’re the fastest reader in the west) to read the short story here, originally published in the New Yorker, 1997.
Ang Lee’s 2005 film adaptation with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal follows the frank rawness of the written text, opening with shots of sweeping vast plains, and moving to the smoky confines of Aguirre’s trailer. The two cowboys (one’s a ranch hand and one’s a rodeo) get hired for seasonal work herding sheep in the remote mountains. As natural as the rolling landscapes around them, the withdrawn and unassuming relationship turns into an agonising romance that spans over 20 years. A love story between two men in 1960s Wyoming is an interesting premise because it exposes something that will reach out and touch everyone, if you’re open to imagining the gut-wrenching tug of impossible love, painful loneliness or the aching memory of better times gone by. I don’t like to use the term that sounds spoofy, but you don’t have to be a gay cowboy to feel very emotional at Brokeback Mountain. That’s something both the written word and the cinematic experience can invoke in this case. But I did want to go into a bit more detail regarding what I liked about the film.
Heath Ledger (one of the many talented actor’s names that now comes with a wistful sigh) brought something special to the character of Ennis. He displays as Proulx describes (scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanc[ing] a small torso on long, caliper legs, and possess[ing] a muscular and supple body made for the horse and for fighting). But, to put it simply, Ledger does this thing where you have to concentrate to understand what he’s saying when Ennis talks. He mumbles through lips so tightened they are almost closed, as rusty-sounding speech is shoved out from the corner of his mouth. He walks and moves with similar toil, the John-Wayne-style limp. This is Ledger’s way of showing how difficult, almost painful, Ennis finds it to express himself. That’s what makes it all the more poignant when Ennis does break down on screen and reveal emotions so raw.
Aside from Heath Ledger’s work, one of the dominant pleasures of the screen adaptation is how it looks. Ang Lee’s camera gazes across many striking visuals and breathtaking landscapes often fill the frame. What I really like about this is how much the domestic scenes with Ennis or Jack (but especially Ennis) really grate against the natural beauty of the mountains. As viewers, we are set at ease and comfort and calmness when they’re in the mountains, as are they.
In contrast, during the domestic scenes, Lee’s camera is cramped into small spaces and a noisy, cluttered frame – kids screaming for attention, overflowing ashtrays, empty beer bottles, pots and pans, low ceilings, wifes with tired, emotively suspecting eyes. The colours are pale and washed out in these moments. It is palpable in one scene where it cuts to Ennis’s wife, Alma, scrubbing the clothes against the washing board in the sink. One moment we’re enjoying basking in the earthy, spacious shots of the mountain, then our peace is suddenly disrupted by the very straining activity of scrubbing clothes against the wash board. At the risk of being too tinselly here, it’s like a metaphor of how Ennis’s life at home grates laboriously with his life with Jack on Brokeback Mountain. That’s the conflict both characters are up against throughout the film, and we experience it with them. Amongst many other elements, Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack brings a tangible emotion to the cinematic adaptation – that man is a genius with the strings (I really loved his recent work on the Making a Murderer track, too).
Proulx’s story finishes with: 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. It does leave you with a few thoughts. Ennis spent his life being repressed – a theme that lingers throughout. But Jake Gyllenhaal’s character seems to accept his sexuality more willingly, he visits Mexico, where homosexuality is more tolerated than in Wyoming (only hinted at in Proulx’s short story, but there’s a scene in the movie where Jack walks away with a partner on the darkened street).
Seemingly because of this, Jack is the one that eventually meets a premature fate, but Ennis is the one who will suffer indefinitely. This notion is portrayed perfectly by Heath Ledger in the last few moments when he remembers Jack. His eyes fill with tears as he looks at their shirts, hanging intertwined. The last thing we see is the Brokeback post card beside the small, modest window frame showing flat fields in the distance, the two images contrasting. What Ennis is left with now seems to be the loneliness of his choices, the memories of his time with Jack, and the only resolution remaining: that is “you’ve got to stand it”.
Although I can say many things that make the movie something special, as Proulx has pointed out the two mediums are different, and intended to be read and received in different ways. Are the sweeping landscapes of Brokeback Mountain more fulfilling when we transpose them from the pages into our own imagination? Or is it more evocative to see the beauty recreated in front of us?
Please do comment if you feel a certain way about the adaptation, or the movie in general!