Sunday, March 8, 2009

More on Short Fiction and Film: "Hills Like White Elephants "and "Brokeback Mountain"

In a “Comment” on my earlier post on fiction and film, Lee suggests that film adaptations of short stories may be more effective than I have argued, offering Brokeback Mountain as an example of an effective adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story.

I agree with Lee that Brokeback Mountain is a fine adaptation of a complex story. And indeed there have been several very fine adaptations of short stories in the past few years, for example the Julie Christie movie, Away From Her, adapted from Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”

However, the short story is less mimetic than film; stories often do not present individualized characters, nor do they always depend on the similitude of a real physical or social context. Moreover, some of the best short stories in literature do not depend on a linear plot in which character development takes place over time in an obvious way. Thus, for these reasons, film versions of short stories, especially full-length film versions, often flatten out the meaning of the story, add new material to supply more obvious character motivation, and fail to capture the often visionary and mythical significance of the original. The demands of the popular audience who view theatrical films, the economic necessities of those who make such films, and the intrinsic demands of the real time involved in a 90-to 120-minute film have resulted in some significant distortions when short stories have been made into full-length films.

A typical example of how full-length films use the original story as climax for which additional invented motivation and background must be supplied is the 1946 version of Hemingway’s compact and cryptic little story “The Killers.” The story of Nick Adams' initiation into inevitability becomes a detective tale in which Edmond O’Brien digs up the reasons for Burt Lancaster’s murder. True to Hollywood fashion, the reasons involve a woman, in this case, Ava Gardner.

One of the most basic characteristics of the short story is its lyrical quality, a subjectivism and impressionism that place it closer to the poem than to the novel. An adaptation that illustrates the difficulty of translating such quality to film is Gene Gearney’s 1966 short film based on Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” The point of view of the story suggests that the story is not a simple case history of schizophrenia, but rather a metaphoric story about the beauty of the imagination and the philosophic implications of the human preference for the world of self-creation over the world of brute reality. The filmmaker, Gene Kearney, capitulates to the visual immediateness of film by making the presentation simply about a boy retreating from reality. The young Paul is played as a rather slack-jawed child distracted by visions.

It has been my experience that film adaptations of short stories, whether they be short films or full-length films, often “simplify” or “psychologize” or “socialize” central character motivation, which in the original short story is often left inchoate and mysterious. Filmmakers, for a variety of reasons, ignore Chekhov’s famous advice that in the short story it is better to say too little than too much.

I offer below two brief discussions to try to illustrate my point:

“Hills Like White Elephants”

One of my favorite film adaptations of a short story is the short film version of Hemingway’s “Hill’s Like White Elephants.” It originally appeared on the cable channel HBO in 1990. It was directed by the well-known director Tony Richardson; the screenplay was written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn, a husband and wife writing team of high renown; and it starred two of the most familiar and competent actors of the 1980s and 90s--Melanie Griffith and James Woods. The way the screenwriters and director dealt with some of the problems that we as readers may have had with the story is illustrative of the way that film often differs from written fiction.

First of all, the fact that the woman is pregnant (a fact that is left ambiguous in the story) is made clear in the film immediately in the following way: When she gets off the train, she says she is going to be sick and runs into the station to the restroom. The waitress smiles knowingly. When the woman comes out of the restroom, the waitress gives her something to drink to make her feel better and refuses to take payment for it, saying she has six children of her own.

The pregnancy as the source of the conflict (which is left vague in the story) is made emphatic when the man playfully talks about having several wives and children, and the woman responds bitterly, "You wouldn't have any children." Moreover, a bit later when he first mentions the operation as "letting the air in," she says: "Everything has another name. . . . It's not a baby, it's tissue."

However, the basic difference between the film and the story is that in the film the conflict between the couple is made explicit by dialogue in which she indicates she wants a home and he indicates that he is not domestic, that he is a writer and wants to remain on the move. For example, when she says that all we do is try new drinks and look at things, he insists that he does more than just look at things, that he writes it all down. In fact, his career as a writer becomes the most important cause of the conflict in the film.

He: As far as I know I only have one life to live, and by God, I'm going to live it where it interests me. I have no romantic feelings about home or family or any other baggage.

The fact that he is a writer, an invention for the film that does not exist in the original story, then becomes the basis for looking at the present event as the basis for a future story.

This brief description of the material created especially for the film should make clear that film often needs to make motivation more emphatic and conflict more explicit than it is in serious narrative fiction. The filmmakers make several changes to shift the conflict from the puzzling and ambiguous one suggested in the story to the more emphatic conflict of the writer's life versus the domestic life.

“Brokeback Mountain”

Conventional stories about sexual relations between men are either about men identified as homosexuals or men, such as prisoners, who have no other available partners. However, Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain” does not fit either one of these categories. Both Ennis and Jack insist that they are not homosexual, and neither of them have sex with other men. Moreover, although they first have sex while alone on the mountain, they continue to have sex over the years even though both get married. The two men seem to genuinely love each other, both craving that time on Brokeback Mountain when their embrace satisfied “some shared and sexless hunger.”

Annie Proulx takes a creative risk here because many readers may try to simplify the story by classifying Jack and Ennis as homosexuals, or else latent homosexuals (a term that experts are more and more classifying as meaningless), or even bisexual, another meaningless term. But such an easy classification will not serve here. When Jack and Ennis deny their homosexuality, they mean it. The fact of the matter is: Jack and Ennis love each other--with tenderness, passion, and concern--and people who love each other in this way--regardless of their gender--desire to be physically close.

One of the most poignant and revealing moments in the story occurs in May, 1983, when, out on the range, the two men hold each other, talk about their children, and have sex. The sexuality is no more important than their domestic conversation; it merely seems a natural part of their love for each other.

This is not to say that the story ignores the social taboos against the relationship the men have. Both of them are frightened, for they know--especially in the male-dominated cowboy area in which they live--that if their sexual relationship is discovered they could be killed. Ennis recalls when he was a boy an old man being beaten to death with a tire iron for his homosexuality. He wonders if the feeling they have for each other happens to other people, and Jack says “It don’t happen in Wyoming.”

However, this social barrier to their being open about their relationship serves less as a social issue of homosexual intolerance than as a typical literary impediment that gives famous love stories their tragic inevitability, such as the feud between families of Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, at the end of the story when Jack is killed, there is no real evidence that he was murdered by homophobes. Ennis only suspects this when he learns from Jack’s father that he had made plans with another man to come up and build a place and help run the ranch. The story ends not with a message about the social intolerance of homosexuality, but rather with a poignant image of Ennis creating a simple memorial to Jack with a postcard picture of Brokeback Mountain and two old shirts the men wore when they spent their first summer together.

I like Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story, and I was pleased when I first saw it that he stayed so faithful to Proulx’s focus on this as a love story in the classic tradition, rather than a social tragedy of homophobia and gay bashing. However, the film ends with more of a suggestion than the story does that Jack has always been gay and that he is killed by homophobes.

Whereas the story is about a universal human issue, the film leans more toward being about a social issue that, thankfully, may not be an issue much longer. Even though Proposition 8, restricting marriage to males and females, passed in California, if the courts do not throw it out this week, the people will probably reject it the next time they are allowed to vote on the issue.

Annie Proulx’s story is not about social issues, for falling in love is, by its very nature, the most antisocial and irrational thing one can do, and when people fall in love they do not fall in love with a social category or a type, but rather with an individual. The significance of Annie Proulx’s story is that when people love each other, gender is irrelevant.

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