January 2006

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Size Doesn't Matter: Brokeback Mountain

There's a real question when it comes to adaptations as to what length work adapts the best -- mainly because there's no pattern to be found. Novels can lose their depth in the course of the condensing process, short stories are stretched to an airy thinness.
An Oprah Winfrey favorite is reduced to long lingering glances, filling in the space left by the passages of inner monologue. Conceptually interesting genre vignettes with weak story lines become the set-up for sci-fi action spectaculars, their original resolutions tossed aside and replaced with an extra hour of fisticuffs and wry comebacks.

Recently, I've been reviewing material under consideration for film adaptation, and it's interesting to see how a small and slender book can pop with smart ideas and strong plotting, and a much thicker tome will ultimately have less story than the first twenty minutes of Hitch. It doesn't surprise me, though, because of Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain," and what it became with the guidance of director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.

I have to admit that I've spent the past several months squealing like a Teen Beat devotee over "the gay cowboy movie," in which Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play star-crossed lovers in Stetsons. After all, it's only natural that a girl will get all riled up when she reads Jake Gyllenhaal saying things like:

"Every man goes through a period of thinking they're attracted to another guy."

"We were talking about the kissing in the movie just recently. Clearly, it's pretty challenging material, but Ang said two men herding sheep was far more sexual than two men having sex on screen."

"He (Heath Ledger) grabs me and he slams me up against the wall and kisses me, and then I grab him and I slam him up against the wall and I kiss him. We were doing take after take after take. I got the shit beat out of me. ... We had other scenes where we fought each other and I wasn't hurting as badly as I did after that one."

To my credit, though, I might have gotten interested in the movie because of the hot wall-slamming action, but I fell in love with it (months before its release) because I read the short story. It's fluttered like a ghost around the internet, available at times on Amazon.com and the New Yorker website (the story was originally published in the New Yorker in 1997) and it's available in Proulx's collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. I've read it at all of these places. I've read it more than once.

After reading the story the first time, it became clear that there was no reason why Ang Lee's adaptation shouldn't succeed, at least on a script level. Proulx's brusque prose details the passing of years with brevity and elegance -- each intense emotion is given just enough breath to burst with life. The rough-spoken love story of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, two men ultimately kept apart by fear, takes the possibilities promised by a vast expanse of Western landscape and reveals how meaningless they are if left unpursued. It's a powerful piece of work. It is also a complete and thorough treatment for a movie.

Seeing the trailer after reading the short story a few more times, I began to suspect that maybe I wasn't the only one who saw that. Every story beat and every line of dialogue of the trailer were straight from the prose, including images that would make no sense to someone who hadn't read the story, like Heath Ledger clenching two button-down shirts to his chest. It was a good omen -- a good omen that didn't disappoint.

When I tell people that the entire movie fit totally into Annie Proulx's fifteen pages of prose, they honestly don't believe me. But the passing of years that Proulx so deftly skims over are broadened, enriched by elegant montages, giving the lives of the characters greater detail without feeling out of place (mainly because everything Ang Lee shoots tends to feel a little bit like a montage). And scenes glossed over in the story are given considerable screen time: a casual, after-the-fact reference to a bruise on Jack's jaw, for example, becomes an intensely physical and silent moment between the two characters, something that a few paragraphs of description might have captured, but not nearly so elegantly as the film managed.

The film, for the record, is great across the board. Directing, cinematography, music, and most especially acting. That girl from Dawson's Creek! That guy from 10 Things I Hate About You! That girl from Princess Diaries! And all of it simple, understated: in service of the story.

One of the reasons I've read the short story more than once is that I keep finding new details that I overlooked in previous readings -- little asides on Proulx's part that continually add to a deeper meaning. Brokeback Mountain is a movie made by people who read every word of the story every single day, wringing out its potential for drama like you'd wring out a soaked washcloth. The largest additions are in Jack Twist's passing of years, filling out details unexplored by the story's reliance on the Ennis POV, but of those scenes only one -- in which Jack stands up to his rich and domineering father-in-law at Thanksgiving -- feels at all out of place.

And the sum of all this is a small love story with an epic feel: a critical favorite, an Oscar frontrunner, and the only other film of 2005 that can challenge Sin City for the title of Year's Most Faithful Adaptation. A two-hour movie from a fifteen-page short story, with minimal addition.

Sometimes, with adaptations, you sometimes get to see a dull caterpillar transform into a beautiful butterfly, but most of the time you watch a beautiful caterpillar burst from the cocoon as a dull brown moth. Brokeback is the rarest of species -- it emerged transformed, but still recognizable. Still just as gorgeous as before.

Just a little longer.