Whatever else you may have heard about Brokeback Mountain, the just-[limited]-released film directed by Ang Lee, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, and based on a [novelette-length] story by Annie Proulx, with a script by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana — OK, the ‘gay cowboy movie’ — let me pass on to you (while endorsing all the superlative reviews) that it is the most faithful screen adaptation of a literary work that I’ve ever seen. Virtually every scene, almost every line of dialogue, from the original story is up there on the screen. This is all to the good. The story, in 30 pages, followed the relationship of two men over two decades, necessarily compressing time and eliding many years. The screenwriters have interpolated, very well, those missing passages, while preserving every ounce of original intent, and without in the slightest way giving in to Hollywood-ization; they don’t simplify situations to pander to popular prejudices, they don’t alter the story’s ending to a feel-good finale.
And unlike the more typical film adaptation of a novel, this film doesn’t have to leave out huge chunks of the original. It’s a demonstration of the principle that a novelette or novella length story, not a novel, is best suited for faithful adaption to a 2+ hour film.
My previous standard in this regard was the 1981 TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited, (a 350 page novel dramatized in 12 hours of film), which I saw first and read later, the result being that my reading of the original novel by Evelyn Waugh struck me as flat, like a summary, lacking the emotional expression and nuance of the dramatization. Of course I realize that had I been familiar with the novel first, my reaction would almost certainly have been different, favoring the original literary version. It was for this reason that on Saturday, having already purchased tickets online for Brokeback Mountain that evening, I sat down with Proulx’s book Close Range and read the story “Brokeback Mountain”. I wanted to give the literary original the advantage, and no, I didn’t worry that I would ‘spoil’ my experience of the film; my opinion is that only the most superficial, formulaic stories are ruined by knowing the endings, while any story of lasting value is only deepened by revisits in whatever medium. In this case I think I was well-rewarded; while the original story is brilliant in many ways — in its minimalist expressionism, in its depiction of a circumstance that is both startling and inevitable, and true — the film dramatization visualizes where the story describes; expresses where the story tells. It’s a rare case of a film expanding on, rather than diminishing, its literary source.
Meanwhile, my home DSL connection has been dicey all weekend, which is why certain book and magazine listings are still not posted…