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“It was marvelous, huge. I’m not sure I can put into words the sensation of seeing something you’ve written years ago rear up in monstrous size before you,” says E. Annie Proulx, author of the short story that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain faithfully adapts.
The story of two young, penniless ranch hands who fall in unthinkable love in early-’60s Wyoming, “Brokeback Mountain” was originally published in the October 13, 1997, issue of The New Yorker; at the time of its writing, Proulx says, “I’d been trying to write situational stories that are constructed from landscape, long stories about offbeat kinds of love. I noticed at various ranches there would often be an old ranch hand around who was unmarried, single, and getting on. In one case, I was in a bar, and a guy was there whom I’d seen around at one particular ranch. It was a crowded bar, filled with a lot of really good-looking women, and his eyes were fastened on a bunch of young guys playing pool.” (A similar scene has been inscribed into the film, when Jake Gyllenhaal’s character eyes a rodeo clown at a bustling tavern.) “Maybe one of them was his son or nephew, maybe he thought he recognized someone, but there was something in the expression on his face that made me wonder for a moment whether or not he might be country gay.
“I started thinking what it might be like to grow up in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s if you were a gay kid,” Proulx continues. “Wyoming is a homophobic place. For a young guy to wonder about his sexuality, when he’s been indoctrinated with homophobia from day one, is an anguished struggle, and that’s what the story is about.” The struggle can be even worse than that, as Proulx intimates in “Brokeback Mountain” with a terrible event that appears almost as if between the story’s lines and carries horrible resonance with the death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, a year to the week after Proulx’s story was published. (Shepard was beaten to death about 30 miles from Proulx’s home; the author was called for jury duty in the murder case, though she didn’t serve.)
Producer Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with her, optioned “Brokeback Mountain” immediately after reading it in The New Yorker. “It’s a story that had been waiting to be told and no one had ever told it, as if it were understood but never spoken,” she says. “I was shocked that I hadn’t written it myself,” admits Lonesome Dove author McMurtry, who has spent much of his prodigious career demystifying stock notions of the West and the western. “We optioned it with our own money. First time I’d done that in 70 jobs. I’ve never sent money to Hollywood; they’ve always sent money to us.”
In transcribing a 10,000-word story onto a celluloid canvas, Brokeback Mountain takes the opportunity to enlarge and embellish upon Proulx’s glancing details and grace notes, or as McMurtry puts it, “We milked it for every single sentence, every single phrase we could.” Proulx adds, “Usually, screenwriters work with novels, and that means whittling and chopping and squeezing it down into 90 minutes or whatever approved movie length.”
Proulx is immensely pleased with the finished film, though she had her doubts. “I was very worried,” she says. “I thought the landscape would be lost, the dialogue would be changed, sentimentality would creep in. I met with Ang Lee twice and I was very suspicious. But I remember him saying that his father had recently died, and just something in the way he said it, I had an inkling that he might use some of that grief, transfer some of his personal grief into this film. I think that actually happened.”
Have the characters in the film transferred themselves—taking the place of the characters in her head, as she wrote them? “Momentarily, yes,” Proulx says, “but then the original ones come back. They were in my head quite ferociously at one time, so once I saw the film I felt I needed an exorcist.”