LGBT literature has been around for thousands of years, dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and some even before that. Stories were written down in story and poem form and also depicted on stage. Authors from Plato to Sappho to Shakespeare all had elements of “forbidden” love or taboo affairs in their writings, so same-sex relationships are not new to the literature world.
From Please by Sappho:
Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
I’ll admit that I have not read much in the genre, but when I picked up Carol by Patricia Highsmith from a tiny resell shop in Notting Hill, I was completely taken by the writing and pure emotion on each page. Then, when news of the film’s release came out starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, I raced to see it, and again, fell in love.
I have been a long-time admirer of Todd Haynes and his films. Far From Heaven and his HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce are among my favorite pieces. But seeing Carol made me want to examine the novel more closely and other stories that have been adapted for the silver screen in recent years.
Patricia Highsmith is most well-known for her novel Strangers on a Train (1950) which was adapted in 1951 by Alfred Hitchcock and later as a stage play. She was pegged as a thriller writer with her first novel and became internationally known for her written violence. But her second novel was a far cry from the violent, conspiring thriller. It was so different, in fact, she could not get it published without adopting a pseudonym.
The Price of Salt, the original title for Carol, was “written” by Claire Morgan in 1952, but it did not reach the same success as Highsmith’s first novel. Whether it was because of the subject matter or a simple question of marketing strategy was to be tested. The first edition of the novel sported the line: “A Modern Novel of Two Women.” Two years later, the jacket was revised to say: “The Novel of a Love Society Forbids.”
It’s interesting to see these two taglines and compare them. The first is rather plain and non-descriptive. It could be something read in a Reader’s Digest. Between the vague tagline and the equally nebulous title, as a reader, I have no idea what I’m getting. So it’s understandable why two years later, the publishers would change the tagline to something more seductive or tantalizing.
Why is it forbidden? Why does “society” forbid it? Couple that with a quote from the New York Times, and the book was sure to sell, right?
The short answer is, yes. Its release in paperback also helped selling nearly one million copies. “Claire Morgan” was flooded with fan mail and gracious thank yous for putting a happy ending to such a “taboo” or “forbidden” story. It was re-printed several more times over the coming decades, but it wasn’t until 1990 when the book was re-released as Carol did Highsmith officially reveal her true name, “coming out” in more ways than one.
The story is loosely based on an encounter Highsmith had working in a department store, much like her character, Therese. Highsmith waited on a blonde woman in a fur coat who was shopping for a doll and effectively created the story of Carol in one night. And the rest was history.
The film adaptation was really quite close to the novel, and Haynes remained loyal to the tantalizing yet tame love scenes the book sports. The film offered just enough to give the audience the idea of the intense romance these women shared, but didn’t make it overly graphic giving some young men reasons to watch it and call it “research.” You can read more about the comparison between book, script, and film here.
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Going back a few years to look at another successful homosexual adaptation, I re-read Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, the story of two cowboys, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, as they discover what love really is during the summer of 1963 while herding sheep.
Instantly, I connected the blue denim shirt that belonged to Jack and Carol’s left-behind brown leather gloves. Every true love story has a symbol, no matter how small or inconsequential, that another character puts so much love into. Therese mails the brown gloves back to Carol in a “remember me” move while Ennis holds the denim shirt at the end of the story with the same conviction.
In Brokeback Mountain, both Jack and Ennis are found out. Their love is strictly forbidden, and Jack meets his demise because of it. The story is so beautifully written where for a long time, I was convinced that this was not a “gay cowboy” story; it was a love story. People fought me on that statement, but I couldn’t seem to find the distinction. It is love, pure and simple. Simplifying it to a “gay cowboy” story cheapened it. That’s not all it had going for it, nor should it be the only selling point.
The film did go on to win several Academy Awards in 2005 except for Best Picture; a snub of which I am still bitter, and I wonder, seriously, if it is because so many people saw it merely as a “gay cowboy” film. For a film like Crash to win, with it’s shallow and hammed up story of race and its consequences to win, I was, and still am, quite unsatisfied.
And this year, Carol did not see any wins at the Oscars. I thought, surely, it would take home costume at least, but Mad Max: Fury Road took home that award. I guess putting rags on super models gets more attention than brown leather gloves.
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To compare Carol to Brokeback Mountain could be considered “easy” or even limiting. But when I first read Brokeback Mountain as a high school student, I was floored. I remember devouring the novella in one sitting and then rushing out the next day to see the film. I was so enamored with this story of forbidden and illegal love. And that same feeling and emotion resurfaced with Carol. I read it in a weekend and couldn’t wait to see the story unfold before my eyes.
To shake things up in my limited analysis, I decided to read Christopher Isherwood’s novella A Single Man. In 2009, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore starred in the Tom Ford vehicle, and it was recognized in the Academy, but again, walked away empty-handed.
A Single Man is a day in the life of George, a professor living in California having to secretly deal with the after effects of his partner’s death. Also taking place in the tumultuous 1960s, George finds himself between emotions. Does he care if the world knows he’s gay? Or should he crawl deeper inside himself to hide his true identity? The story is written almost as a light-hearted farce. Sprinkled in the narrative are serious moments where George hints at sadness and depression on being alone, but then he flips to oogling young men playing tennis and imagining intercourse between his students.
It’s difficult to know what Isherwood is trying to accomplish with the story. Am I to be sad with George’s state in life or proud that he is staying the course and not backing away? The style of the story is rather pretentious. Isherwood writes in a way that seems like he knows he’s a celebrated writer. In comparison to Proulx and Highsmith, his writing is more convoluted.
The Hemingway quote comes to mind: “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Yes, he was talking about Faulkner, but Isherwood can also take this to heart.
Tom Ford’s film is a stylized and sleek comparison to Isherwood’s brash and sometimes crude novella. Where George wears skinny ties, Isherwood’s character seems much more casual. Ford has George living in a home with floor to ceiling glass windows, and while Isherwood describes his hero in the same set-up, it’s not nearly as symbolic as Ford makes it out to be in his film. There is a lot more seriousness and straight lines concerning Ford’s film as if the lines of George’s suit must match his personality. Not a thread out of place in George’s carefully hidden-in-plain-sight life.
The film is also beautiful and wonderfully acted, but Jeff Bridges edged Colin Firth out for his Oscar. And while I was a fan of Crazy Heart, I believe Bridges won the award because he had been snubbed for so many other more deserving award-winning roles. Firth was robbed.
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If these three stories had not been adapted for the screen, I hate to admit that I may have never read them. LGBT literature has evolved over the centuries, and only recently has it begun to get the spotlight it deserves. With the Oscars now passed, I am saddened that Carol did not get a single award, but it just seems par for the course. I hope to see more LGBT books being adapted for the screen in the future and also recognized as equal cinema to the Academy.