How to Make a Great Film Adaptation:
- 1. Find a brilliant but terse short story, preferably one with unconventional subject matter.
2. Convince a collaborator to help adapt it into a short, word-for-word screenplay. (Bonus points if your collaborator is the most acclaimed writer in the story’s genre.)
3. Send your first draft to the story’s author for a critique. Use her suggestions about developing aspects further to expand the screenplay to feature length. (Throw some nudity in there too. It is a movie, after all.)
4. Recruit a decorated director and some talented and beloved actors.
5. Win lots of awards.
I was a little nervous about this one. We’ve seen short story masterpieces marred by poor execution or hokey gimmicks before, and Annie Proulx’s writing is so region-specific that, in the wrong hands (or mouths), it has a lot of potential for a clumsy transition. Plus I felt that usual nostalgia trepidation, where you watch something that you loved years before, and you realize that it’s not very good and you were probably pretty immature back then. But I shouldn’t have worried.
“Brokeback Mountain” first appeared in the October 13, 1997, issue of the New Yorker and became an instant classic. Larry McMurtry (who adapted the story for the screen with his writing partner, Diana Ossana) called it “the best short story he’d ever read in the New Yorker.” Proulx, who had recently won all the literary accolades for The Shipping News, began receiving letters from men who saw themselves or their loved ones in the characters of Ennis Delmar and Jack Twist.
It’s not hard to see why. Proulx tells the heartbreaking tale of two lovelorn ranch hands in rural Wyoming in quiet, unintrusive prose that allows the reader to watch the story as much as read it. The omniscient narrator offers a window to Ennis and Jack’s lives, a view unrefracted by judgment or foreshadowing. Coupled with lengthy, vivid descriptions of the Wyoming landscape (which I will admit I tired of about halfway through, because I suffer the big-city pretension of finding nature boring), Proulx delivers a story cinematic in scope.
Ennis and Jack, the dogs, horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind.
Mmm. Beautiful. Can’t you just see that in a long, wide shot?
It’s a visual story, told in a straightforward, linear manner, without much subtext or symbolism that would translate awkwardly to film. Ossana believed it was “a near perfect story, in technique as well as emotion,” and “an excellent blueprint for a screenplay.” And indeed it is: although the story spans 20 years, it’s a collection of scenes; it doesn’t contain loads of exposition incommunicable in film outside of clumsy conversations or speeches. Ossana and McMurtry finished a draft in three months, using much of the story’s language.
Though Ossana and McMurtry worked quickly, they had eight years to go before Brokeback Mountain would see the light of day. Eventually it would star Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, with Ang Lee directing, and it would become one of the most awarded films of all time. But at first nobody wanted to make the “gay cowboy movie,” which is how it was pigeonholed before and even after its release. Five years ago, two men having sex and being in love on screen was such a big deal. Ultra-religious theater owners refused to show it; red-blooded ignoramuses fretted about its potential impact on their masculinity. Lots of conservative pundits said stupid things about it. And it famously lost Best Picture at the Academy Awards to Crash, a heavy-handed movie condemning a strain of ignorance and hatred that is more mainstream-acceptable to condemn than homophobia.
And then there were the critics who loudly proclaimed it a “love story,” as if applying that phase to gay men were a revelation in and of itself. And Brokeback Mountain certainly is a love story. The film’s marketers knew that, too:
But “Brokeback Mountain,” a love story? Not so much. Don’t take my word for it. Take Proulx’s:
Although they were not really cowboys. . . the urban critics dubbed it a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia.
“Destructive rural homophobia” isn’t the main theme I took away from the movie, and I doubt Lee, Ossana, and McMurtry wanted to feature it as prominently as Proulx did. My evidence lies in a small difference in the endings.
Take a look at this shot from the film’s last scene:
That image appears near the end of the story, after Ennis acquires a postcard with an image of Brokeback Mountain:
Below [the postcard] 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.
The end. Or is it? No, it’s not. The story actually ends with a couple of paragraphs on Jack’s haunting appearances in Ennis’s dreams:
. . . but the can of beans with the spoon handle jotting out was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he 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.
There, again, we have that tire iron: the one that killed the gay rancher in Ennis’s youth, the one that Ennis believes may have killed Jack, the one that prevents Ennis from living a good life. There is your destructive rural homophobia. And I don’t mean to minimize the film’s depiction of it; it’s there, most prominently in scenes with supporting characters. But the image we leave with, the most resonant image, isn’t the tire iron: it’s those empty, entwined shirts.
Brokeback Mountain may always be the gay cowboy Titanic to some, but it is also a great film, a near-perfect adaptation, and an extraordinary coming together of all the right minds—not to mention some superb source material.
Next week: Steven Milhauser’s “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and The Illusionist