Recently posted to the magazine's website: Annie Proulx's October 13, 1997, short story, which inspired the film. (Update: The magazine's taken down the link. Copyright conflicts? Profits to be generated from sales of the story-to-screenplay mini-book? But a commenter saved the day—the link above is now to Outspoken Clothing, which is bravely hosting the story itself. Thanks, commenter and host!) Proulx talks about writing it in the L.A. Times:
Proulx, 70, in town recently for the premiere of Ang Lee's film adaptation of "Brokeback Mountain," says that while she was "blown away" by the movie, she doesn't welcome the return of Ennis and Jack to the forefront of her consciousness.
"Put yourself in my place," the author says. "An elderly, white, straight female, trying to write about two 19-year-old gay kids in 1963. What kind of imaginative leap do you think was necessary? Profound, extreme, large. To get into those guys' heads and actions took a lot of 16-hour days, and never thinking about anything else and living a zombie life. That's what I had to do. I really needed an exorcist to get rid of those characters. And they roared back when I saw the film."
The story bubbled forth from "years and years of observation and subliminal taking in of rural homophobia," says Proulx, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Shipping News," was also adapted for the screen. She remembers the moment when those years of observed hatred began taking form. It was 1995 and Proulx, who lives in Wyoming, visited a crowded bar near the Montana border. The place was rowdy and packed with attractive women, everyone was drinking, and the energy was high.
"There was the smell of sex in the air," Proulx remembers. "But here was this old shabby-looking guy.... watching the guys playing pool. He had a raw hunger in his eyes that made me wonder if he were country gay. I wondered, 'What would've he been like when he was younger?' Then he disappeared, and in his place appeared Ennis. And then Jack. You can't have Ennis without Jack."
Proulx didn't think her story would ever be published. The material felt too risky; Ennis and Jack express their love with as much physical gusto as any heterosexual couple, and it happens in full view of the reader, without any nervous obfuscation. The backdrop is that wide expansive West that bore forth John Wayne and the Marlboro Man -- but here the edges of the mythos fray, and the world becomes chilly and oppressive.
The story was published in the New Yorker magazine in 1997, and screenwriter Diana Ossana read it one night when she couldn't sleep."It just floored me," Ossana says, speaking after a screening of "Brokeback Mountain." She ran downstairs to show it to her writing partner, who happens to be Larry McMurtry ("The Last Picture Show," "Lonesome Dove") and suggested they turn it into a screenplay.
The movie, like the story, does not pull any punches. The sex is just as graphic, the critique of rural homophobia just as angst-ridden and raw. Proulx doesn't pretend to know how the movie will play with audiences, but she likes that her message will be broadcast through such a popular medium.
"There are a lot of people who see movies who do not read," Proulx says. "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."
"I recognized immediately that this was a story that was a work of genius," says McMurtry..."And I wondered, why didn't I write it? I've been there in the West my whole life."
Before the end of the year, the two had optioned Proulx's short story with their own money, but waited in vain as directors and stars came and went on the project. Gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant was attached for a while, as was fellow gay auteur Joel Schumacher.
Actors who saw the screenplay would tell Ossana it was the most beautiful script that they'd ever read but then, a few months later, would strangely distance themselves from the project.... Continued.
As the Catholic Church makes a distinction between homosexual orientation and activity, Ennis and Jack's continuing physical relationship is morally problematic.
The adulterous nature of their affair is another hot-button issue. But the pain Jack and Ennis cause their families is not whitewashed. (The women are played with tremendous sympathy, not as shrill harridans.) It's the emotional honesty of the story overall, and the portrayal of an unresolved relationship -- which, by the way, ends in tragedy -- that seems paramount.
Director Ang Lee tells the story with a sure sense of time and place, and presents the narrative in a way that is more palatable than would have been thought possible.
Looked at from the point of view of the need for love which everyone feels but few people can articulate, the plight of these guys is easy to understand while their way of dealing with it is likely to surprise and shock an audience.
Except for the initial sex scene, and brief bedroom encounters between the men and their (bare breasted) wives, there's no sexually related nudity. Some outdoor shots of the men washing themselves and skinny-dipping are side-view, long-shot or out-of-focus images.
While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, a content strategist, critic, and copywriter. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent its formative years as a New Yorker fan blog. (The project garnered some nice compliments and press.) It’s now a collection of conversations—generally civilized—about punctuation, magazines, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a small army of culture writers, editors, and artists. You can read all about the people who've helped build Emdashes here at “Who We?” (That’s a New Yorker joke. Old habits die hard.)
I welcome submissions, questions, corrections, and ardent, obsessive contributors. I also host occasional book-related contests and giveaways. Questioners and publishers, just email me.
Looking for The New Yorker magazine? Kudos on your classy taste. Here’s how to contact The New Yorker.
The original Emdashes pencil logo was designed by Jennifer Hadley, based on a 1943 Dorothy Gray ad.