Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

“Brokeback Mountain”: the book

In reviewing the movie “Brokeback Mountain” I looked forward to the DVD release so I could find out what some of the lines Heath Ledger’s Ennis strangled in enhancing the inarticulateness of his character. I did not have to wait that long. In addition to the book tie-in of Annie Proulx’s 1997 New Yorker story (which occupied only parts of 13 pages in the magazine, but was stretched to 55 pages as a stand-alone book), there is now a book that includes Proulx’s story, an October 2005 screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (which won a Golden Globe earlier this week and is all but certain to win a Oscar), a number of stills from the movie, and essays by Proulx, McMurtry, and Ossana.

(2018 photo of Proulx by Fuzheado)

I was most interested in what Proulx would have to say (even having read several interviews she has given in recent weeks about the movie). The original story is the best part of the book, but having read the story the day I received that issue of the New Yorker, and having it in a (signed) copy of her first book of Wyoming stories, Closer Range, that was not the reason I got the book. In reviewing the book, I do need to reiterate that this is one of the most powerful American short stories ever, in a league with “Big Two-Hearted River,” “The Killers,” “The Bear,” and “Noon Wine” (the latter two are much longer… and if you don’t recognize the titles, you need remedial American lit and can find them in the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway (the first two), William Faulkner, and Katherine Anne Porter). Proulx’s story has a similar tragic inexorability, and is a masterpiece of tightly packing an emotional wallop.

The screenplay retains all Proulx’s dialogue and scenes. The movie has the story’s main wallop (in a Wyoming closet) and several of the others (including the contents of Ennis’s tackle box). It adds a lot of middle between the 1963 beginning and the 1981 ending of a tragic story about social and emotional blockages and macho Wyoming men. As I remarked in writing about the movie, the midriff bulge comes close to interfering with the main love story arc.

Much of this middle fleshes out women who are shadowy victims in Proulx’s story (and gives speaking parts to some who either don’t exist or are only alluded to in the short story). I think that the confusion and unhappiness of the wives that two men who love each other but who feel that (heterosexual) marriage is compulsory and that the love of a woman will make them forget about their love or “cure” their sexual orientation marry is an important subject. Ossana and McMurtry show the costs to the women who don’t know how they are being used (in a socially prescribed manner) by men who don’t believe they are gay or queer and believe that settling down and raising a family will change their nature.

Ossana and McMurtry do not editorialize about this. They show rather than tell. I, however, want to stress that Jack and Ennis are following the program that continues to be prescribed by the Christian Right: try to forget about male love, get married, sire children, put aside “childish things” (a category including adolescent same-sex sex that must be a “passing phase”). Ennis, in particular, cannot conceive two men living happily ever after. And Proulx supplied him with an extremely vivid childhood lesson of what happens to those who try. Jack thinks it is possible and that it is lack of imagination (and commitment) on Ennis’s part that keeps their relationship brief, passionate reunions. Both can do the heterosexual deed. Jack sires a son, Ennis two daughters. The viewer/reader does not see how Jack’s son turned out and felt about his father, but shows a deep love between Ennis and his daughter Alma Junior. (It also shows that he is every bit as unable to articulate this love as he is his love for Jack, and she has disappointments similar to Jack’s).

Proulx supplied Alma searing lines of long-unexpressed pain in eventually articulating her knowledge (back to that already-mentioned tackle box). Showing the knowledge first hitting Alma (and that is definitely the appropriate verb) is a challenge for the actress (Anne Hathaway). The screenplay does not provide any help. What is on the page is “Alma has seen what she has seen, having aged years in a few moments.” Reads well, and as terse as Proulx, but leaving it for the actress to show it.

There are also a number of junctures in which Ledger as Ennis has to make visible what he feels. Jack is more verbal and, therefore, has better lines. (Though I have to say that the most tragic lines are Ennis’s: “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” and “Does he love you?”—the first supplied by Proulx, the second by Ossana and McMurtry in the ending they added.)

BTW, the screenplay showed that I interpreted “going on twenty years” correctly: that is, eighteen. This is an improvement on Proulx. Twenty would be fine, if the start was pushed back further. But it has to end by 1981, ’cause a whole new discourse began then.

The subtitle of this book is “Story to Screenplay.” In this printing, the story occupies 28 pages. The screenplay is 97 pages. The essays by Proulx, McMurtry, and Ossana add 24 pages, and the film credits run for 5 pages (without crediting the Mexican hustler, who was portrayed by the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto). And there are eight pages of photos. It seems to me that the book could have incorporated the initial screenplay by Ossana and McMurtry. For those interested in the process, this would have been very interesting. That’s my regret in regard to this book.

All three essays are interesting. I am perplexed that Ossana and McMurtry, who know a thing or two about westerns and adapting fiction to the screen, express puzzlement that others have not discovered that fleshing out short stories is preferable to cutting down novels. (McMurtry had wanted to adapt Cold Mountain before it became a big best-seller.) I remember very well John Ford’s discussion of his preference for expanding on stories rather than trying to film plays or novels (in the book of conversations with Peter Bogdanovich), and don’t know why Ossana and McMurtry don’t. (Among other things, it was Bogdanovich who directed “The Last Picture Show,” based on a McMurtry novel.)

The three essays are as much a mutual admiration society of the three writers as “making of” movies and some DVD commentary tracks. The stories of how each came to the story are interesting, Proulx’s the most so, since she is the one who first imagined the characters and their trajectories. To discuss them seems to me to be “spoiling.”

I do, however, want to quote Proulx on the “gay cowboy” label that I objected to in discussing the movie:

“They met herding sheep, animals most real cowpokes despise. Although they were not really cowboys (the word ‘cowboy’ is often used derisively in the west by those who do ranch work), the urban critics dubbed it a tale of gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia. Although there are many places in Wyoming where gay men did and do live together in harmony with the community, it should not be forgotten that a year after this story was published Matthew Shephard was tied to a buck fence outside the most enlightened town in the state, Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming.”

As McMurtry wrote, “Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy of emotional deprivation, as not a few western stories are, and the fact that Ennis and Jack and their families so often find themselves heartbroken in beautiful country only makes the heartbreak worse.”

That Wyoming is not just postcard-value scenery, but a hard place for those living with the wind and the mountains, I’d recommend Proulx’s corpus of Wyoming stories, collected in Close Range and Bad Dirt and McMurtry’s collection Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present (yet another volume in which I have Proulx’s story). Her essay “Getting Movied” does not mention the earlier experience with the filming of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News, but has a lot packed into a few pages (just as her stories do).

© 20 January 2006, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.