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Comparison of Annie Proulx's 'Broke Back Mountain' with Ang Lee's Film Counterpart

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1893 words Published: 9th Sep 2021

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This essay will aim to compare the film version of 'Brokeback Mountain' with Annie Proulx's short story. It will explain, discuss as well as evaluate the ways in which Ang Lee represented key themes and ideas through-out the film. Many themes and ideas were dealt with in the film, some of which will be looked at such as, relationships, love, desire and the gothic.

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Ang Lee was able to express Jack and Ennis's masculinity through their physical features, the jobs that they undertook, as well as through their clothing, throughout the movie. The two men were seen to be working on the land, doing strenuous physical labour and played out the masculine roles in society. In both the movie and the short story Jack and Ennis' relationship with nature was masculine in the way that they spent a great deal of time in the open countryside at work. Their relationship with the land strengthened through the depiction of their love making on Brokeback Mountain which showed their deep connection and confidence with their surroundings. Even though the men were portrayed as masculine figures throughout both the film and the story, there was also a very prominent shift in the gender roles, as Jack and Ennis both alternated between the traditional roles of male & female. 'Central to Proulx's thinking is not only the subjectivity of people shaped by geographical constraints, limits and opportunities, but also that the social worlds produced reveal personal narratives of engagement which often question determined social roles.' It could be argued that the short story was wholly about the love of two men for each other and how this impacted on the lives they were expected to lead. However the movie focused more on their home life and domestic roles, such as Ennis failing to provide and care for his children. The short story only briefly mentioned Ennis' family life. In the movie, there was great insight into the men's married life whereas in the book there is not much emphasis on this. This would have helped the viewer to delve more deeply into their personal lives and therefore have a better understanding of them.

The women in the film version of Brokeback Mountain were more visible, referred to more and had a significantly active role in the story in relation to Jack and Ennis. The viewer was able to see life from the women's points of view and into the hardships of their lives. Whereas in the short story they were merely portrayed as obstacles that stopped Jack and Ennis from pursuing their romantic relationship. It could be argued that Ang Lee did not want women to merely be on the margin in this film, he probably wanted to bring the women to the foreground of the story since conventional relationships are between men and women, unlike Proulx whose version was more closely focused around the relationship between Jack and Ennis. In both versions the women were powerless to affect what was going on, especially after they eventually discovered that Jack and Ennis were more than just friends. There was nothing that they could do, as they were unable to effectively influence the situation in their favour,. '…and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis's straining shoulders….She had seen what she had seen.'  In addition, this story was set at a time when women were seen to be more dominant in the private domestic sphere, therefore they seemed to be naïve of about the goings on in the outside world and perhaps did not have a loud enough voice to stand up to men.

One of the main themes in Ang Lee's film version of 'Brokeback Mountain' was the added dimension of nature and the surroundings of the west in which the film was set. Proulx' references to the landscape to set the scenes were very descriptive throughout the story. 'The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone.' The amazing awe-inspiring shots of the landscape in Ang Lee's movie, gave a new dimension to the film as the shots of nature became just as much a part of the film as the story line. "The beauty of the shots nearly as important as dialogue" The impact that nature had on people who already felt comfortable in the open country were given more depth and significance.

Spending time together on Brokeback Mountain was like a retreat or a safe haven from society in which Jack and Ennis would have been judged because of the nature of their relationship. Whilst on Brokeback Mountain the emphasis on nature meant that they felt free and at peace away from society and were able to be themselves without the risk of being ridiculed or judged.

The image of the dead sheep on the mountain, in the film, acted as a metaphor for the idea that even though the men felt safe and free on the mountain they were still vulnerable in the eyes of society.

The main themes that ran through the film were that of love, relationships and desire.

There were great similarities in the short story and the movie in the ways in which the characters related to each other, their emotion and concern. The way that Jack was so caring towards Ennis, was expressed perfectly through both mediums. The way their relationship was portrayed was so painful as they could never be together was shown in different ways in both the short story and the movie." They have to privatise their feelings". The original dialogue from the story added another dimension to Ang Lee's film. As a lot of the time the characters whispered or spoke in a quiet manner, it gives the impression that what they were saying was not to be shared with others.

The scene in the movie where Ennis became hysterical after Jack's departure from Brokeback Mountain, was very much more heartfelt and emotional than in the short story, 'within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out...'. The emotion was not felt whilst reading the book, it was better conveyed in the movie. The reason for this may have been as a result of the musical soundtrack and the close up camera shots which showed Ennis as totally distraught. This was apparent also near the end of the film by the lines, 'I wish I knew how to quit you', which were spoken, the tone and volume of which this short line was spoken displayed the pain that Ennis and Jack were enduring by being apart.

In addition, in the final scene at Jack's house with the two shirts, one inside the other; the scene was portrayed better visually than in the book due to the impact that the music had over the scene, which was not achieved in the short story. However, it the words used in the short story were powerful in their simplicity. 'The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another inside it…the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.' On a literal level this scene added shaped to the story, as the story ended where it started, both with dreams, both with shirts.

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Both the movie and the short story expressed key elements of the gothic. Two of the most prominent elements were violence and mystery. Proulx's short story had an ambiguous ending in which the reader was unsure of how Jack died and who killed him. His family and Ennis were left wondering if it was an accident or if it was on purpose as a result of someone finding out about his secret relationship with Ennis. The ending was left for the viewer to decide and to use their imagination as to who killed Jack and how he was killed, quite like a murder mystery. "Not only did I want to be loyal to [Proulx's] writing, but I needed to do additional scenes to confirm her writing, because we don't have the internal depictions which she did most brilliantly." This was true consistently throughout the film.

There were many sections in the film that did not appear in the story, such as the argument between Jack and his father-in-law on Thanksgiving, and the scenes where Jack went to Mexico to explore his sexuality and the greater depth and insight into their family lives and the people closest to them. Scenes even appeared in a different order. However things that were missing from the film were filled with extended scenes that were also not in the short story. These extended scenes gave the viewer a greater insight into the lives of Jack and Ennis as well as those that they interacted with.

Futhermore in the movie Ang Lee used flashbacks as well as clips which gave the viewer a greater insight into the unknown, and to things that were below the surface of the characters initial thoughts. The viewer always had the fuller picture drawn out for them, which was pieced together by the actual storyline. This was present in the way that Ang Lee used a flashback to show how Ennis' father showed him what happened to a man who lived with another male however this was not presented in the same way in the short story.

The movie was quite direct and visual and the story had a definitive ending and the audience knew exactly what happened to Jack even if the other characters in film did not. The use of the movie as a visual aid meant that there was more freedom in the idea of the gothic with the gruesome scenes of the man who was castrated as well as the murder of Jack. The book ended as it stated that the love felt by Ennis was endured, but it was only an end to the physical but not emotional love. It was as if the story still continued beyond the text, and would continue to do so as long as society failed to move on. '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'.

The long silences and deep stares that were exchanged between Jack and Ennis throughout the film expressed their unspoken love, this was more effectively displayed in the film than the short story. 'Because of their stoic characters, the story has much to do with what is unspoken, with the shame and guilt that fills them' This made the film a lot more powerful than the story as a result of these silences. '...narrative detail is echoed by Ang Lee cinematically. The beauty and purity of the emotions is matched by the rustic majesty of the landscape; in reducing the story to a universe of simplicity of scenery and emotion, Lee was trying to create a new depth for a love story'. As a result of the shame and guilt that would have been forced upon them whilst in society Brokeback Mountain gave them a sense of freedom to do things that would not have been acceptable in society at the time.

'Ang Lee tells us that the focus on emotion cannot be articulated in words, and employs the imagined iconic solitude of the cowboy...' The use of camera shots such as panning and close ups helped to covey the emotion through the screen to the viewer, this therefore enabled the viewer to have a better emotional connection with the characters.

One of the main adaptations that Ang Lee made to the film version of Brokeback Mountain was his selection of his cast, especially the main characters. Whereas in the short story Jack and Ennis were not described as overly good looking men, however Ang Lee's cast did not portray this.


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