Brokeback Mountain is about the simultaneity of love and loneliness, and is a story filled with contradictions and juxtapositions. It begins at the end, with a memory, a dream. The main character, Ennis del Mar, awakes and recalls his murdered lover, Jack Twist. The remainder of the story then revolves around the memory of Ennis and Jack’s deep and troubled homosexual love affair, which began during a summer when the two men worked as ranch hands on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming.
Author Annie Proulx’s renowned and heartbreaking short story Brokeback Mountain was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1997. It was awarded the O. Henry Prize in 1998, and later adapted into a highly publicized, award-winning film by screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and director Ang Lee, released in 2005.
Much has been said about this moving film, or as it has come to be commonly called, “the gay cowboy movie.” However, Jack and Ennis were not working as cowboys when they met and fell in love, but rather as shepherds, who have often been portrayed as living on the margin of society. The story is about two these young Wyoming ranch hands who unexpectedly (for the reader and characters alike) fall in love as teen-age boys and continue their ill-fated affair in secret for the next 20 years, until Jack is murdered.
Jack and Ennis fall deeply in love on Brokeback Mountain, but they are unable to articulate their feelings or overcome their fears, or even admit to each other or themselves that they are homosexual. And so they leave the mountain and part ways at the end of the summer of 1963, trying to lead the lives deemed “acceptable” by society – lives filled with work, marriage and children. Yet Ennis and Jack discover that they are unable to forget or truly separate from one another, or the memory of the happiness, fulfillment and love they experienced on Brokeback Mountain. They sneak away together intermittently for short trysts in the wilderness, but their existences primarily consist of emptiness, frustration and misery; and finally the two men’s lives are destroyed, along with their families. Ennis’ marriage ends in divorce, and Jack’s become a sham as he secretly seeks affection from other men, and then is ultimately murdered by those who discover he is gay. Additionally, in the film adaptation, we see the ill affects on Ennis’ daughters and girlfriend.
The story has been compared by some critics to a Greek tragedy or the story of star-crossed lovers, similar to Romeo and Juliet, But more accurately the story is about two rugged men living in a rugged terrain and a homophobic society, and it is a story about a relationship that simultaneously transcends and destroys both heroes as they try understand what drives their love and desire for one another and strive to have some kind of satisfactory relationship in the face of fear, denial and cultural stigma.
When Proulx first presents us with Ennis and Jack together, they are being told by their new employer, Joe Aguirre, to “pitch a pup tent on the q.t. with the sheep, out a sight and he’s a goin a SLEEP there. Eat supper, breakfast in camp, but SLEEP WITH THE SHEEP, hundred percent, NO FIRE, don’t leave no sign” (Proulx 6). From the beginning of the story, Ennis and Jack are being instructed to sleep where they are not supposed to – to sneak around out in the wilderness.
The notion of place and the role of nature are crucial in Proulx’s work, perhaps more than almost any other contemporary American writer. As she herself stated in an interview with the Missouri Review,
"Geography, geology, climate, weather, the deep past, immediate events, shape the characters and partly determine what happens to them, although the random event counts for much, as it does in life. I long ago fell into the habit of seeing the world in terms of shifting circumstances overlaid upon natural surroundings. I try to define periods when regional society and culture, rooted in location and natural resources, start to experience the erosion of traditional ways, and attempt to master contemporary, large-world values. The characters in my novels pick their way through the chaos of change. The present is always pasted on layers of the past.”
Nature plays a crucial role both in Proulx’s original story as well as in the film adaptation of Brokeback Mountain. Proulx uses nature expertly within her short story to create a great economy of words, allowing for the concentration of meaning in these images as symbols. Wyoming’s wide-open and rough terrain becomes an important backdrop to the story. Brokeback Mountain itself, of course, is the most significant natural symbol in the story. It looms before Ennis and Jack, beautiful but massive and unattainable, representing a place they can never revisit and a time and feeling they can never recapture after their first summer together. While the two are only truly happy here in the wide-open spaces of a natural setting, they are also miniscule in the mountain’s presence. Nature is much larger than either of them. Proulx writes, “During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain” (Proux 9).
However, Ennis and Jack also believed that Brokeback offered them the protection to carry out their relationship unobserved by society. “There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended above ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. They believed themselves invisible…” (Proulx 15).
While Proulx tells us in her story that Jack and Ennis visit many other mountain destinations during their getaways together, they never return to Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack are never able to return to the place where they were most happy together. This is less clear in the film, and in fact, in contrast to the book, it is suggested that the pair do return to Brokeback. The mountain depicted on their last trip together appears to have the familiar peaks of Brokeback, and Jack angrily states, “All we have is this,” sweeping his hand across the vast and beautiful landscape that stretches out before them.
Throughout the book, the wind is an unsettling and driving force, underscoring several of the scenes. In the beginning of the story, the wind accompanies our first introduction to Jack in Ennis’ waking memory: “The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence” (Proulx 4). An early snow is the precursor to Jack and Ennis being called down off the mountain and once again the mountain and the wind portend a dark future for the couple: “The mountain boiled with demonic energy,” writes Proulx, and she describes the wind as having a “bestial drone” (Proulx 16-17). As Jack and Ennis part at the bottom of the mountain, “The wind tumbled an empty feed bag down the street until it fetched up under his truck (Proulx 18). Wind also attends Ennis’ imagination of Jack’s murder: “Under the wind drone he heard steel slapping off bone, the hollow chatter of a settling tire rim” (Proulx 46).
A storm frames the return of Jack to Ennis four years later. As Ennis waits for Jack to arrive, we are told, “The day was hot and clear in the morning, but by noon the clouds had pushed up out of the west rolling a little sultry air before them” (Proulx 20). Thunder rolls in as Jack arrives, and as they lie together in the hotel room, “A few handfuls of hail rattled against the window followed by rain and slippery wind” (Proulx 23). Proulx utilizes the image of rain, often used in literature and film to signify change, cleansing or a re-birth, to underscore Jack’s return and the rebirth of Ennis’ and Jack’s relationship. But, her use of the term “slippery wind” tells us that this union will be a fleeting one, soon wrapped only in memory.
Interestingly, this device of menacing weather to frame these scenes was not used in the film. However, nature and place do play crucial roles in the cinematography. For marketing purposes, the film’s tagline is “Love is a force of nature.” This suggestion that that Ennis’ and Jack’s love was a force of nature over which they had no control might be one meaning of the use of nature as symbol in this story. But, neither Proulx nor the film’s director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto, uses nature to represent this message solely. Rather Prieto’s photography captures the magnificence of the natural setting, while successfully echoing Proulx’s use of the outdoor environment to suggest both natural beauty as well as the feeling of remoteness, isolation and loneliness of the American western terrain.
By contrast, just as the outdoors is represented as expansive, beautiful and overwhelming, the domestic scenes are portrayed both in the book and the film as dull, claustrophobic and constraining. In the film, whenever Jack and Ennis are depicted in their homes, they look cramped and boxed in. Ennis is also often portrayed in reflection in a mirror in these scenes, perhaps suggesting the double life he is leading, or that his life only an image, not a real or full life.
Following Jack’s death, when Ennis travels to Jack’s parents house to try to retrieve his ashes to take them to Brokeback Mountain (as Jack has requested), we see the house in which Jack grew up. It is stark and completely whitewashed, inside and out. Jack’s father sits nearly motionless and unexpressive, and it is as though the whitewashed house represents his denial of his son’s true self. Here the first of two heart wrenching scenes featuring Ennis in a closet takes place.
In the first of these scenes, Ennis is invited by Jack’s mother to visit Jack’s old room. In the back corner of Jack’s small closet, he discovers two shirts — his own and Jack's, from their summer on Brokeback Mountain. Both have bloodstains from their tussle on one of their final days there. In the film, Ennis mentions that he believes he has lost his shirt on the mountain. In the book Proulx writes:
"It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here in Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands" (Proulx 52).
In the film, Ennis is shown standing inside Jack’s small closet in his parent’s whitewashed house, grieving Jack, holding the shirts and weeping silently.
The second scene featuring Ennis and a closet, and another piece of lost clothing does not take place in Proulx’s original story, but is a powerful and poignant addition to the film adaptation. At the end of the film, Ennis is in his trailer and is visited by his now-grown daughter, Alma Jr., who comes to tell him that she is getting married, and asks him to attend the wedding. Ennis at first refuses then agrees, and they have a toast. After Alma leaves, Ennis discovers she has forgotten her sweater. He opens his closet door to put it away, and we see that he's created a small shrine to Jack inside his closet. Now we are returned to Proulx’s original:
"He pinned it up [the postcard of Brokeback Mountain] in his trailer, brass-headed tack in each corner. Below it he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears. 'Jack, I swear –' he said, though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind." (Proulx 54).
Proulx’s and the filmmakers’ use of actual closets to symbolize Ennis’ inability to “come out of the closet” might at first seem to be a heavy-handed metaphor, but in both instances, these scenes are effective and very touching.
Proulx’s book ends shortly after this, with another of Ennis’ dreams. But, while his dream at the beginning of the story steeps him in reverie, with fond and happy memories of Jack, in his dream at the end of the story, there is a darker and menacing feeling, one of grief and sorrow, danger and death.
The film ends differently than Proulx’s short story. The camera pulls back from Ennis at his closet door to show us a wider view of the interior of his small cramped trailer, and then focuses in on a tiny window, which frames a constrained view of a field of bright yellow flowers and the blue mountain and sky in the background. This scene of the exterior – of the great outdoors stands in sharp contrast to the small and enclosed private interior where Ennis seems trapped, standing in his closet with his shrine to his dead lover.
There are other significant differences in the film adaptation of the story. In addition to echoing Proulx’s use of place and nature to enhance the story, the film also used music very effectively as an enhancement. A beautiful, simple score by Gustavo Santaolalla features a lone guitar, with long silences in the melody, a perfect complement to the themes of the story. The filmmakers did not choose to try to re-create Proulx’s device of book-ending the beginning and ending of the story with descriptions of Ennis’ reminiscences of Jack. Also, the character of Ennis’ oldest daughter, Alma, Jr., is developed much more in the film version than the book, and she is portrayed as a counterpoint to Ennis. Quiet like her father, “Junior,” as Ennis calls her, also has a difficult time expressing herself. However, the message seems to be that despite their similarities, she is promised a happy and fulfilled life of love with her new husband, in stark contrast to her lonely, homosexual father.
Other major variations from Proulx's original story are a few scenes that seem meant to portray Jack and Ennis as “real men” and more appealing and accessible to the majority of the American movie-going public. Ennis has an encounter with a bear on Brokeback Mountain. Later, in a completely incongruous scene, he picks a fight with two rowdy, drunken bikers at a Fourth of July celebration, a scene that concludes with Ennis standing larger than life and victorious against a backdrop of exploding fireworks. Ennis’ relationship with a girlfriend following his divorce is further developed in the film than the book, and we also see Jack challenge his father-in-law at a Thanksgiving celebration, in a depiction of a typical family scene in which he supports his wife’s wishes and disciplines his son.
Still, with all these additions and variations, for the most part the film stays remarkably close to the original text, and brings both Proulx’s dialogue and the characters to life. Proulx was impressed with the film adaptation, despite her initial concerns. She commented, “I feared the landscape on which the story rests would be lost, that sentimentality would creep in, that explicit sexual content would be watered down. None of that happened. The film is huge and powerful. I may be the first writer in America to have a piece of writing make its way to the screen whole and entire.”
While it is interesting to examine the similarities and differences in form and interpretation between the original short story and the film, it is also important to ask how and why this little story lent itself to such a critically-acclaimed, successful film at this time and what real impact on American culture the film was able to accomplish. Proulx mused on this in a recent interview: “There are a lot of people who see movies who do not read. It used to be that writing and architecture were the main carriers, permanent carriers, of culture and civilization. Now you have to add film to that list, because film is the vehicle of cultural transmission of our time. It would be insane to say otherwise, to say that the book is still the thing. It isn't.”
So, although Proulx’s original work enjoyed critical acclaim and a large audience of readers, it is undeniable that the impact of the film has been much broader. It has received numerous awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Director and three Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. It has been seen and discussed by millions of movie-goers, but as Susan Wloszczyna wrote in USAToday.com article “Film Spurs Culture of Gay Cowboy Jokes”:
"'I wish I knew how to quit you' is the new 'Show me the money.' Gay cowboys are now the new penguins. Movie poster spoofs featuring every male couple from cartoon hero He-Man and foe Skeletor (Grayskull Mountain) to lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay (in Kickback Mountain) litter the Internet. Against all odds, a Western romance about two men, Brokeback Mountain, has corralled the cultural zeitgeist, making it safe for our national funny bone to come out of the closet."
And, so it would seem that while the film adaptation introduced this story to a significantly wider audience than the original written work, this new audience has not been able to truly experience the power and depth of Proulx’s story. There is certainly nothing humorous about this tale, yet Brokeback Mountain has, in many cases, become the foundation for a national joke. Characters in the film were transformed into larger-than-life manly stereotypes in order to become more palatable to the movie-going public (as in the scene with Ennis standing tall with fireworks blazing behind him) and there seems to be the need to define and market this as a “universal” love story rather than a story specifically about the tragedy of a homosexual affair in a homophobic society.
After Ang Lee received the Golden Globe Award, he stated, “This is a universal story. I just wanted to make a love story.” But that is really not the case. Brokeback Mountain is not a universal love story, as Daniel Mendelsohn notes in his review, “An Affair to Remember,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books. “Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the ‘closet’ — about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.”
The tragedy of this story is that not only do Ennis and Jack lose each other, but they also lose themselves, and are unable to clearly articulate their love or live satisfactory lives. They are lost in memory, fantasy, fear and the constraints of their society. “It’s because of you that I’m like this – nothing, nobody,” cries Ennis toward the end of the story. And, Jack longs to be freed of his feelings, pleading, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” trying to deny the depth of his affection for Ennis, as Mendelsohn points out in his essay.
Brokeback Mountain indeed is riddled with numerous contradictions and juxtapositions: a short, 55 pages that were turned into a film of epic proportions that infiltrated contemporary American culture. It is a story written by a female author about two men. It is a romantic love story, yet the characters are two rough, inarticulate Western men who are never able to communicate their love for one another. The story begins in the 1960s – a time in American history typically associated by free love and experimentation. But clearly that freedom did not extend to two young gay men in the American West. It focuses on the desolation and loneliness of the West, yet the harsh landscape of this environment is also representative of the natural beauty and the love and closeness between Ennis and Jack. Proulx’s descriptions of the landscape are at once poetic and beautiful and hard and desolate. The book’s prologue is an epilogue; the tale begins at the end, book-ended by Ennis’ dreams that represent both happy reverie and gut-wrenching grief.
Ultimately the story is one of love and loneliness, and this is the most poignant juxtaposition of all, for those in love are just not supposed to be so devastatingly lonely.
Mendelsohn, Daniel, “An Affair to Remember, NY Review of Books, Volume 53, Number 3, February 23, 2006.
Proulx, Annie, Brokeback Mountain, Scribner, New York, 2005
Proulx, Annie “Getting Movied,” Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay, Scribner, 2005.
TMR Staff, “Interview with Annie Proulx,” The Missouri Review, Volume XXII, Number 2, 1999.
Wloszczyna, Susan, “Film Spurs Culture of Gay Cowboy Jokes, USA Today.com, January 25, 2006.