I picked up Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, a short story that was part of a collection of short stories, but because of the film, it's now in its own tiny book. It's rare that you can read the entire story faster than watching the film, but that's the nature of the short story: it's short.
I was surprised how much of the dialogue was used straight out of the story, but I shouldn't be. Adaptations often try to remain very faithful to the text. The opening scene with Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) explaining the job to Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is right out of the story. Basically, he wants them to herd sheep, but due to restrictions from the park service, they aren't allowed to camp near the sheep. Due to sheep loss, he wants them to camp near the sheep anyway, but no campfires to draw the attention of park rangers. They can hold camp in the legal spots which are some distance removed from the sheep.
Since the film is two hours, there are scenes, barely hinted at in the story, that are more fleshed out in the film. For example, when Jack talks about being in Mexico, there are scenes in the film showing him in Mexico. There are added scenes, too. When Jack is unable to meet Ennis as much as he wants, he tries to find other men. In particular, he meets up with a guy whose wife is a non-stop chatterbox. It's suggested that the husband is willing to have a fling with Jack, if, at the very least, to get away from his wife. This isn't in the short story.
Even a key scene at the end of the film was filmed at the beginning, and is only briefly mentioned in the short story. In effect, what the screenwriters did was to film scenes that were said in one or two throwaway sentences to fill up the two hour time.
The movie also changes some of the characters' personalities. I'm sure Annie Proulx did not envision Hollywood hunks, Ledger and Gyllenhaal, to play the leads. Ennis, in particular, is made out to be bucktoothed (or Jack...can't remember).
He's not made out to be the silent type, at least, as much as the film makes him out.
There was one issue I was interested in. When Spielberg filmed The Color Purple, he considerably toned down the lesbian aspects between Celie and Shug, which were, apparently, central to Alice Walker's book. Presumably, they weren't ready to make a film that explicit and potentially scare off an audience that has often been perceived as more homophobic than most. Many gay fans wanted more explicit sex scenes with nudity in it. It was said Ang Lee wanted to be more circumspect.
To this end, he has been. If anything, there's quite a bit more female nudity. Heath is shown blurred (due to depth of field filming) from behind. Jake is shown from his side, where nothing is visible. There's even a famous scene where the two are supposed to jump over a cliff into water that was photographed by paparazzi (it turned out to be Ledger and a standin), but as it shows up in the film, you can't tell it's either of them, since it's filmed from the side off at a distance, rather than the explicit nature of the paparazzi photos.
Were those scenes unfaithful to the book (as if that really matters)? Not really. The short story is quite short, and its scene suggest some roughness, but it's not erotica either. It's much more challenging to write those scenes explicitly than show them.
The film doesn't try to explain why the characters like each other, but then, neither does the short story. If anything, the point is that they were there, they were lonely, and they did it. A bond, presumably forged in solitude and despair.
I suspect Brokeback Mountain will merely extend the kinds of films that are made about gay experience, In particular, it may be more revolutionary in its treatment of cowboys than its treatment of gays. My housemate asked whether there was any shooting in the film, and, yes, technically there was. But it was Hollywood that somehow created this cowboy mythos of masculine men working in the untamed west, that the actual act of herding cattle is barely mentioned. That the task wasn't purely about fighting off Indians, but to move cattle.
Since this film is set in the 20th century, it presents a cowboy (or in this case, a shepherd) whose job is, indeed, moving sheep. The closest a recent popular film has come to this is City Slickers, which also made a task of moving animals.
Brokeback Mountain happens to explore an area of gay experience that hasn't been popularly portrayed in film. And by doing so, it talks about a kind of society that is far removed from what most people know. It may have as much to say about the treatment of women as it does about gays, and their role in society. As much as this is a throwback to an older time, it has elements that face modern America today, including the need for a two-income family, the poor man who marries into wealth, and the woman seeking divorce.
In an odd way, I wonder if this film is perhaps more misogynist that one would expect. Jack's wife is an indepedent rodeo cowgirl, who's much better at what she does than Jack. She's also a more shrewd businesswoman. Jack is the one who goes out to promote the product, and seems much more like the politician or coach's wife who's out there to support the husband. Ennis has to pay child support, and has never really wanted to make more out of himself than be a ranch-hand. He doesn't want a city job. It's Ennis's wife that wants more out of their ilves, to move into the city. She ends up working as a grocer.
Jack and Ennis's relationship is a way to get out of their trapped lives. They feel trapped by the women in their lives. They feel trapped by their poverty. They feel trapped by society that won't let them be together. If anything, it's almost like telling the story of two women, a hundred years ago, who are unable to escape the yoke of their husbands, and only find solace in each other.
As simple and unadorned as Brokeback Mountain is, labelled as "the gay cowboy" movie, it is as much a commentary on the changing gender roles of men and women in this period of time, at this location of the country. In its own way, this film is as much about women's liberation and male emasculation as any topical film or documentary about the movement in the 70s.
I suspect these kinds of issues, gender roles and their evolution, appeal to Ang Lee, particularly in The Ice Storm, but even, to some extent, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except that film focuses on women as the central characters. Even as minor characters, the women characters evolving power cause the men to lose a sense of their masculinity, and they ultimately try to reclaim it with one another.
It's an intellectually interesting conceit that doesn't come across from merely watching the film, but from thinking about the world that the film inhabits, and is therefore far more savvy than one would normally give it credit for.
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