Monday, May 10, 2010

The Whole Wide World

I'm going to take a break from my usual Monday installment of "Pulp Fantasy Library" and instead talk about the 1996 film, The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Renée Zellweger.

The film is an adaptation of One Who Walked Alone, a 1986 memoir by Novalyne Price Ellis, who met Robert E. Howard in 1933 and spent much time with him between 1934 and 1936. Ellis became one of Howard's friends, despite their differences in personality and temperament. Ellis is often described by some as Howard's "girlfriend" and I suppose the term is apt enough, provided one doesn't read too much into it. She and Howard would often go out together, but, at least on Howard's part, there seems to have been little expectation that this arrangement was a prelude to something more permanent. Nevertheless, the two shared a close friendship while she was living in Brownwood, Texas and teaching in Cross Plains, where REH was living with his parents.

Ellis wrote her memoir in part to set the record straight about her friendship with Howard and to present a clearer picture of the man she knew for three years. She believed that both had been misrepresented by L. Sprague de Camp -- you knew he'd make his appearance somewhere, didn't you? -- in his biography of Howard, Dark Valley Destiny. Unsurprisingly, One Who Walks Alone is well regarded by the new generation of Howard scholars, who've worked hard over the last several decades to paint a fuller picture of REH than the mad, mother-obsessed misfit that De Camp and his acolytes have offered up to the world for so long.

That's not to deny that Robert E. Howard was a "tortured" individual who had difficulty "fitting in," facts superbly portrayed in The Whole Wide World. Vincent D'Onofrio vividly evokes Howard, his speech patterns, his mannerisms, his walk, and, most importantly of all, his volatile genius. There's no question that D'Onofrio's REH is a misfit; he certainly doesn't fit in and there's a part of Howard that seems to revel in this fact. He enjoys standing apart from the crowd, whom he often holds in some contempt for their lack of imagination and small-mindedness. At the same time, one gets the sense that another part of Howard realizes that standing apart from the crowd is a recipe for loneliness and perhaps even despair, particularly for a young man already given to "black moods," as he called them (and with which he imbued his most famous of characters).

Renée Zellweger's Novalyne Price -- Ellis is her eventual married name -- is a college student and school teacher with aspirations of being a writer. Consequently, she wants to meet Bob Howard, who was known to be a successful pulp writer, and was a close friend of her former boyfriend, Tevis Clyde Smith. Not long after meeting, the two of them spend an increasingly large amount of time together, to the mutual disapproval of Novalyne's own friends, who think REH is crazy, and Howard's mother, who both relies on her son for assistance and wants him to devote himself more fully to his writing.

It's important at this point to say a few words about Hester Howard in relation to the film. While I would say that The Whole Wide World goes a long way toward portraying the complex nature of the bond between REH and his mother, certain elements of it could be easily misinterpreted as pure fact. One must remember that the movie is told from Novalyne's point of view, so there are details and nuances she doesn't see or understand. To her, Hester Howard seems to be an obstacle in her friendship and possible romance with REH, as Bob is intensely devoted to his mother and she to him, often resulting in his having to cancel dates or being out of touch for long stretches of time, while he tended to her (she was suffering from tuberculosis, among other ailments). His devotion is thus a combination of filial obligation and appreciation for his mother's encouragement of his literary career. Howard said that he felt Conan stood behind him as he wrote the stories of his adventures, but it's just as true to say that Hester Howard stood behind him, as the movie makes clear.

There are many, many aspects of the film I could praise (including its cinematography, which is something I rarely notice in movies), but, ultimately, it's seeing Robert E. Howard as a living, breathing human being that is its greatest triumph. Whether he's shadow boxing down the streets of Cross Plains, reading aloud -- and loudly -- from rough drafts of his latest yarn, or quietly discussing literature, Howard comes across as a real person rather than the caricature De Camp made him out to be, a caricature that, sadly, is still too often treated as the whole story. As De Camp would have it, all the genuine human complexity of his life is instead boiled down to "that crazy writer who killed himself."

On the subject of Howard's suicide, the film, I think, does an excellent job. Some might object to the fact that it occurs off-screen and is not obviously foreshadowed (the latter fact being the more objectionable, as Howard talked of suicide for years beforehand), but I think the decision was a wise one. The surest way not to make the manner of Howard's death the central fact of his life -- let alone "the key" to understanding him -- is to treat it as an abrupt, even unexpected event, which it probably was to many people who knew him. Anything more would be to acquiesce to the "REH is crazy" interpretation of his life that this film does so much to combat. Instead, Howard's suicide is merely one fact of his life, the final one certainly, but not the only one and definitely no more central to his life than were the suicides of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Clark Ashton Smith's mentor, George Sterling -- just as it should be.

While not without its inaccuracies and outright fabrications, The Whole Wide World is nevertheless a good film, perhaps the best film ever made having anything to do with Robert E. Howard or his literary creations. It's a pity that it's not better known, as it's accessible, well-acted, and beautifully made, making it the perfect way to introduce those unfamiliar with Howard to his life and works. I highly recommend it.

21 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this review. I was completely unaware of the film. I am a big fan of Renée Zellweger, as is my wife. I have been exposing my wife to REH by reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane aloud to her. I ordered a used copy of the film from Amazon and look forward to viewing it.

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  2. I managed to track down a copy of this film last summer, and enjoyed it. I enjoyed how REH would narrate, loudly and with gusto, as he typed his stories. Although Price obviously paints a rosier picture of her side of the relationship than seems plausible, its not impossible to read between the lines, and the portrayal of REH's relationship with his mother rings very true.

    REH's short life is tragic, at any rate. It boggles the mind to imagine what he could have produced if given another 50 years or so of life...

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  3. I'd never heard of this movie before; thanks for the review and bringing it to my attention, I'll check it out.

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  5. Wasn't there a much more recent film drama about Howard? Seems like there was something about 4 or 5 years ago.

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  6. I think that I originally caught this film halfway through and did not immediately make the connection to Howard, but was caught up in the story itself. I very much enjoyed it.

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  7. So glad to see that someone recognizes the great cinematography that helps to make the movie come alive. I believe that both Dan Ireland and Vincent D'Onofrio (also a producer of the film) referred to the landscapes of Texas as "the third star of the movie". They managed to make a movie that was visually stunning, with remarkable acting on a limited budget. It is unfortunate that is was so over-looked at the time of it's release.

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  8. I'll have to check it out. I avoided it when it came out because the preview prominently featured the mis-pronunciation of Conan's name popularized by the Schwarznegger movies (and which is completely wrong).

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  9. Justin,

    In the film, D'Onofrio always pronounces the name "Conan" correctly. I can't recall a single instance where it's pronounced any other way in the film.

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  10. It's a great film, and D'Onofrio is a criminally underrated actor.

    While you could say that Howard's suicide was the "final fact of his life", I prefer to think that the final fact is his stories endure and are loved by millions of people worldwide.

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  11. I watched this film a couple years ago and loved it. It isn't perfect, but it gave me some hope of how good movies can be.

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  12. I agree, it is an excellent film. It ought to be more widely recognized.

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  13. I was glad they got a guy like D'Onofrio to do the role. It TAKES a guy like D'Onofrio to do the role.

    After seeing this movie a few years back, I actually went out to Howard's place in Cross Plains. Rather than hijack the blog, I will invite Mr. Maliszewski and any other interested parties to read the story here:

    http://doctorbedlam.blogspot.com/2010/04/barbarians-at-gates.html

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  14. It was a fantastic film. My wife and I rented it through Netflix a year or two back.

    Regrettably, my wife didn't enjoy it at all. A stint in Missouri left us with a bad taste in our mouths for anything remotely redneck, phraseology or otherwise. My wife really couldn't get past the Texas.

    I, on the other hand, hold the film in high regard. Not only was it good insight into the mind of a man whose tales I loved so much, also it was a beautiful love story, with all the strife and joy that sort of tale can muster.

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  15. I agree with you review so much. I came to the film because I am a huge fan of actor Vincent D'Onofrio, but very little knowledge of or interest in REH - but came away wanting to know more about REH's writings. I've now become a fan of Mr. Howard.

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  16. Chello!

    I first watched this several years ago with my wife. She knew who Conan was and that REH wrote the Conan stories; she did not know how he died. She was slightly miffed at me, because she thought there was going to be a happy ending.

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  17. Great review of an excellent and under appreciated film. Saw it in the theater years ago, and have rented it once or twice since then...I'll have to do so again. Definitely my favorite D'Onofrio work.

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  18. Excellent review, James. This is a fantastic film and actually is often cited as featuring one of the greatest kisses in cinematic history. This movie led me to track down the book, and if you EVER get a chance to read One Who Walked Alone, by all means do it. It's possibly the best memoir I've ever read, period.

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  19. I have yet to see the movie (I have been tracking down the that movie so some time now), but I hear Vincent D'Onofrio dose a damn good "Two-guns" Bob. D'Onofrio is the only guy I can think of who could pull off that role (If you guys have yet to see it, check it out here).

    D'Onofrio was in the movie Ed Wood for about a minute, and he played one hell of an Orson Welles (I doubt Ed just stumbled on Welles like that, but it did help convey the point of Ed Wood's highly unusual efforts).

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  20. I was lucky enough to see this in the theater when it came out. It's a really great film, well worth watching.

    I love the portrayal of Texas in the 1930s as well, beautiful and evocative.

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