Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is a 2005 romantic drama directed by Ang Lee and stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway. The movie starts off in the year 1963, when the main characters Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) are hired as sheep herds that summer. Throughout the season they have an amicable relationship, but it isn’t until one night of drinking that their relationship starts. Jack makes a pass at Ennis while they are sharing a tent and initially Ennis is hesitant about the situation, but eventually gives in and the two men have sex. Afterwards, Ennis tells Jack that he isn’t gay, believing that he does not want to have sex with the other man again. Despite this the two end up having a passionate sexual relationship for the remainder of the time they are employed together. It isn’t until after the two men part ways that they realize they had also formed a strong emotional relationship. During their four years apart, Ennis and Jack both end up with wives (Williams & Hathaway) and children, but later the lovers reconnect and start an affair lasting almost 20 years. The film is based on Annie Proulx’s short story of the same name, originally published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997. In this blog post I will be analyzing the characters of Ennis and Jack between the two mediums; as well as how the beginning and ending of the film is different compared to the original story. 

Ennis and Jack are the two main characters in both mediums of Brokeback Mountain, but I would consider Ennis to be the protagonist of the short story so I will start with him. I say this because in the story the third-person narrator, though omniscient, focuses on Ennis when the two men are apart. Ennis Del Mar as a character is quite stoic, volatile, and isn’t the type to make small talk having had a rough life; this can be seen in the brief moments of happiness he experiences with his daughters and Jack. Even from the very beginning of the short story, the reader can tell that Ennis is the more grounded  and realistic one between the two characters. The movie is two hours long, which gives more time for examining these traits, as well as showing other emotions not seen in the short story. One of these being his love for his daughters, especially Alma Junior. From the first scene with the little girls you can tell he cares for them, but it isn’t until later scenes that the audience sees how he softens his stoic presents around his daughters. Telling them stories, making sure he doesn’t miss spending time with them, and being physically affectionate with them, are all things he does with his girls but has a hard time with when it comes to others. Even with Jack, Ennis more often than not keeps up his hard edged personality, never able to let his guard down; understanding better than Jack that the kind of relationship they are in puts them at risk. With his daughters though, Ennis feels free to show them his love which naturally puts him more at ease. He tries everything in his power to be in their lives, even after the divorce from their mother, willingly living paycheck to paycheck and missing time with Jack so he can still keep visitation time with the girls. 

Jack on the other hand is a much more upbeat and a dreamer, never having gone through some of the traumatic and rough experiences that Ennis did in his life. Jack lives life as it comes to him and always seems to come out on top of things. Even with only the brief glimpses of his life that the reader gets, those when he is with Ennis or when Ennis thinks about him, there is sense that he is always looking for the next best thing in his life. He sleeps with men and women whenever he wants, is trying to be a bull rider instead of a farmhand, and marries into money while still caring on extramarital affairs with other people; all of which he does without really thinking about possible consequences. One of the few complications to his life is how much he wants to be with Ennis, more than the few times a year they go away together. In those brief glimpses of Jack’s story mentioned earlier, we are actually able to see the moments in his life without having to learn about them after the fact from the narrator, Ennis or Jack’s retelling of them. The audience is able to see how much his time away from Ennis hurts him and how he goes about trying to feel full again when they aren’t together, which includes sleeping with prostitutes in Mexico and having affairs. Jack’s life is also complicated by the fact his father-in-law believes he is worthless, even going as far as to go around Jack when it comes to the parenting of Jack’s son. Which is when the audience can see how volatile Jack can be, a trait that is more associated with Ennis’s character. The film also shows how Jack enters a new relationship with another man, something that was only referenced in the story, and had talked about wanting to start a life with the new man on their own ranch. Showing that Jack may have started to move on from Ennis, because Ennis couldn’t give Jack the life he wanted. Jack’s dream for his life was to go back to his parent’s ranch and help his father take care of the land, something that he originally wanted to do with Ennis. Until the point it became clear that wasn’t something Ennis was willing to do, which is when Jack changed his idea to include the new man he was having an affair with. 

Next, I would like to discuss the beginning of the short story, the reasons why it differs from the film, and why this decision may have been made. The beginning of the short story takes place sometime after Jack’s death, which was when he was about 39 years old and is the catalyst that ended their 20 year affair. This part is only two paragraphs long and is italicized to let the reader know that this bit is happening in the present. From this short introduction the reader meets a middle aged Ennis having just woken up from having a dream about the deceased Jack, making it quite obvious to the reader that the rest of the story will be about their romance. The story then goes back in time to 1963 when Ennis and Jack, who are both 19, meet for the first time, making the short story seem like Ennis remembering their time together. By doing this the reader establishes a connection with Ennis first, which as the protagonist makes sense, but also makes the reader feel more for Ennis as the “memories” unfold. The film does not have this beginning scene, so there is nothing to foreshadow a relationship between the characters. Instead the filmmakers let the relationship speak for itself making the audience go on the journey of the men’s lives with them. Letting the audience meet Ennis and Jack at the same time, leaving the character a more level playing field for the attention of the audience. A choice that makes sense given the extended nature of the film’s story telling which divides a more equal focus between the two lovers.

Lastly, looking at the end of the film, there is an additional scene with Ennis and his 19-year-old daughter Alma Jr. who has recently become engaged. It is made clear, because of Ennis’s lack of knowledge about his daughter’s life, that the two haven’t had much contact in the last few years making the scene a bit awkward. It reestablishes the relationship between father and daughter, something which helped to make Ennis in the movie more well rounded, but more so, shows how Ennis is starting to move on with his life after Jack’s death. Ennis demonstrates a willingness to get fired from his job in order to go see his daughter’s wedding, something he had only really shown doing when it came to seeing Jack. It is the very last bit of the scene that is most interesting though, as it connects to that beginning part from the short story. Once Alma Jr. leaves her father’s home, Ennis goes to his closet where he looks at his and Jack’s shirts hanging together next to a postcard of Brokeback Mountain. From the short story we learn that Ennis did this following a visit to Jack’s parents house, after Ennis learned of Jack’s death. When Ennis had hung up the shirts and postcard he starts dreaming about Jack. One of these dreams is what woke Ennis up at the beginning of the short story, when it also mentions he is middle-aged. Given the fact that Alma Jr. is 19 in the final scene of the film, that would make Ennis 40 or 41 which puts him at about the same age as Ennis from the short story’s beginning. The two moments happen at about the same time, which seems like the filmmakers acknowledging Annie Proulx’s first scene of the short story which they choose not to use.

Brokeback Mountain is one of my favorite short stories because of how Annie Proulx manages to condense so much time, but still makes the relationship in her story emotional and believable. The film only enhances the story because of its ability to tell more sides of it, and managing not to change the ending or the overall message of the story given those additions. Having said that, I find it interesting how other fans of the story and film have taken to telling Proulx how the ending is bad and even writing their own fan-fiction to send to her, as if their ideas would make the story better. With these people believing that for whatever reason they understand the story better than the author herself. Yes, the ending is sad and no one seems to be entirely happy, but the story is about life and more importantly homophobia in the rural United States. Proulx is trying to show hardship and how culture affects the reactions of people when it comes to homosexuality. For people to believe that the story is just a romance about two cowboys falling in love, seems very short-sided to me and would take away from the overall reading of  Annie Proulx’s story. For my next blog post I will be looking at The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) directed by Andrew Adamson and originally written by C.S. Lewis.

Proulx’s Short Story in The New Yorker:

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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