Brokeback Mountain: Story To Screenplay

July 3, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’ve just signed up for a screenwriting workshop, and during the first lesson last week, we were all given the chance to borrow a screenplay home to read. During the workshop, I found out that I had a tendency to “kill off” my characters too quickly, which meant that my stories felt more like shorts than features. By the end of that session, I had decided that I needed to study a little more on how short stories get adapted into feature-length films, and to see if I could get some insight on how to “lengthen” my stories without dragging them out.

The first thing I found out, reading this book, was that the natural counterpart for the feature film, is actually the short story, not the novel. You see, novels are typically very descriptive, with long prose and complex plots, whereas shorts are typically leaner with a clearer structure. Feature films are like short stories, with a little more meat in the form of visuals.

The book came with three essays, one written by Annie Proulx on having her work being turned into a film; and one by each of the two screenwriters who adapted the short story into a feature-length film. The screenplay had won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Proulx wrote about some of her concerns, having the written word being transformed into something visual. It had taken a lot out of her to write those pages, to pen the lives of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist onto paper, and she was worried that those painfully strung sentences would get lost in the translation and transition into film. In her essay, she wrote that she even mentioned this worry to Ang Lee, the director who was to shoot the film.

We smiled and made small talk for a while and then, reassured by something in his quietness, I said that I was very afraid about this story, that making stories sometimes took me into off-limit places and that I feared the film would not follow that path. He said that he was afraid, too, that it would be extremely difficult to make into a film.

That sense of being afraid, I believe, is something that permeates throughout the creation of this story, from the written word, to its visual art form; from the writing to the adapting and filming. Proulx was afraid for her story; Ang Lee was afraid for the film. Ennis was afraid that people would find out; Jack was afraid of losing Ennis.

I had read this short story before, and wrote about my thoughts HERE (together with my thoughts on the film), but as it is with all things, time changes our perspectives, and the way we view the world around us. This time I had felt a stronger connection to the short story. The lean structure it had felt like it was just enough for me to hang on to, to get a glimpse long enough that I could sense their pain and loss.

I then read the screenplay. And I saw in more vivid light the Wyoming landscape, the rough boys and their tumble in the hay, their days and nights spent out with the sheep. It was like Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana had taken Proulx lean structural skeleton exactly as it was, and simply added the necessary fats to make it a whole meal. There was just enough juice, the scenes gave me something to chew on, and the outcome left me feeling just full enough, but deeply satisfied.

McMurtry and Ossana had added scenes into the story that Proulx hadn’t written about, but those scenes felt as if they belonged anyway. There was nothing about them that felt forced – in fact, they gave me more context about where the story was taking place, and provided me with more chances to see the boys in their element.

I have yet to rewatch the film, and I have to honestly say that I don’t remember too much of it. But if it’s anything like the screenplay, and because it’s Ang Lee’s work, I have little doubt that I’ll be quite engrossed.


§ 2 Responses to Brokeback Mountain: Story To Screenplay

  • mee says:

    It just so happened that I re-read this short story just yesterday! I only skimmed read it yesterday (I got it as a link on FB, thought to just read a couple of paragraphs, but was hooked, so I flew-read, sometimes slowing down at certain scenes, all the way until the end). I first read the story a long time ago, after I watched the movie. I still remember a lot of the scenes from the movie vividly and they do justice to the story in my opinion. Re-reading the story yesterday, I was just blown away by the structure and the use of words. It’s truly amazing, though I think the film plays a big part. I don’t think my memory would be that strong were it not for the movie. It’d be interesting to read the screen play – maybe I’ll do that one of these days 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      I think the screenplay painted a very vivid picture, which made it very interesting to read. I’m really going to have to re-watch the movie soon.

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