I agree with Christopher that the short story is far more affecting than the movie. The movie did make me cry, and I think it’s a great achievement. But the short story made me hurt. And in its timing (1997), evocativeness, and honesty it’s clearly the greater achievement.
I think one reason for the story’s greater evocative power is its intense sense of smell. It’s not fair to criticize a movie for a lack of smell, I know. Smell is a sensory arena where cinema simply cannot compete with literature. But if one reads the story in the afternoon, and then sees the movie in the evening, as I did, the absence of smell during the movie is striking, almost disorienting.
In the story, the pup tent that Jack and Ennis trade off sleeping in, so that one of them can always be close to the sheep at night, “smells like cat piss and worse.” The smell is important: Being among the sheep, those symbols of conformity, smells like the worst part of cats, those symbols of femininity. In short order, Jack and Ennis give up trading nights in the pup tent and begin sleeping with each other in a larger, shared tent far away from the flock.
Then economic reality—the sheep provide the only jobs these poor ranch hands have, after all—pulls the lovers back into the world they are escaping. There is bad weather coming, and it is their job to rescue the sheep, to bring them down off the mountain to safety and civilization. As they descend, there is “the smell of coming snow pressing them on.” Nature, cruelly, both unites and divides them. At the bottom of the mountain they part ways, their jobs over, their minds unable to imagine their love existing at lower altitudes.
When Ennis and Jack are reuinted years later, they hug, and Proulx writes that Ennis “could smell Jack—the intensely familiar odor of cigarettes, musky sweat, and a faint sweetness like grass, and with it the rushing cold of the mountain.”
And then there is this:
In December Ennis married Alma Beers and had her pregnant by mid-January. He picked up a few short-lived ranch jobs, then settled in as a wrangler on the old Elwood Hi-Top place, north of Lost Cabin, in Washakie County. He was still working there in September when Alma, Jr., as he called his daughter, was born and their bedroom was full of the smell of old blood and milk and baby shit, and the sounds were of squalling and sucking and Alma’s sleepy groans, all reassuring of fecundity and life’s continuance to one who worked with livestock.
In Proulx’s story, everything smells: heterosexual procreation, homosexual coupling on a mountain, the weather, the tent. All of it. Equally. It smells, as she writes, like life’s continuance.
The movie, on the other hand, smells like an Oscar.