September 13, 2007
Movie Review: The Whole Wide World
Last night brought a pleasant surprise for me. My wife, in her Netflix meanderings, came across a small, low budget, but well directed film starring Renée Zellwegger (Chicago) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Law and Order: Criminal Intent) called The Whole Wide World (IMDB). The film is based on a memoir written by a woman named Novalyne Price. Rated PG, the film is filled with swearing, but has no sex scenes and one of the best cinematic kisses ever. The reason I mention it here, and want to talk about a movie, when I usually talk about books, is the subject matter.
Novalyne Price was from Texas, and in 1933 was a teacher at the school in Cross Plains. That’s not the interesting part. Novalyne was an aspiring writer, who discovered that in her town existed a man who had successfully sold many stories to many of the pulps. That man was none other than Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and grandfather of the many sword and sorcery novels that fill bookshelves today. I was shocked that Hollywood had made such a movie. Directed by Dan Ireland, the film is a love story, and is classified as a romance.
Novalyne and Bob circle each other. What begins as Novalyne’s attempt to improve her writing moves into a friendship and progresses into love. But the trouble and conflict come from Howard’s extreme attachment to his ailing mother, and his stereotypical writer’s moods. Socially awkward and inept, unattractive and opinionated, Howard has few friends and no graces. Yet he is brilliant, an adept writer, who is very successful. Novalyne finds herself attracted to this beguiling man, who always insists that he walks alone. Although not without struggles. At one point Novalyne really rips into Howard and his opinions, "Well, yeah, that's right, thanks indeed, thank God! If it wasn't for teachers like me, there would be more individuals like you, socially inept, hatin the world, prattlin off pompous ideas that no one wants to hear in the first place. Bob Howard, if you do not take some initiative you are going to end up a miserable old man, sittin at home with no friends and no life. And another thing! Don't you ever EVER imply that I do not know how to teach, because then you really are talking about something that you know nothing about. Now why don't you run on home, your momma's waitin for you."
The film, scored by Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams, is really a slice of life in 1930’s Texas. Not long out of the Great Depression, this story of love and life vividly portrays the rural life. Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Robert E. Howard is filled with vibrancy and zeal. His descriptions of the character and stories of Conan, with a fantasy sounding score in the background (even including swords clashing) draw the viewer in to the point that Conan becomes a very real person. The contrast between the personalities of Conan and Howard himself are striking, and one can see why Howard loved to write so much, or “spin his yarns” as he liked to call them.
It was neat to see the story of a genre writer so elegantly and lovingly portrayed. All the great writers get their biographical movies, but, except to us pulp or fantasy genre fans, Robert E. Howard is really an unknown. If you are married, your wife will likely enjoy the love story between Novalyne and Robert, although it is a sad story and does not end well. (Howard committed suicide at the height of his career, probably because he believed that "To make life worth living a man or woman has to have a great love or a great cause... I have neither.")
For the fantasy lover, the descriptions of Howard’s writing process, the character of Conan, and his unashamed writing style make watching this movie very worthwhile. You will see a glimpse of the last year's of Howard's life, and understand the life and world that drove him to write the stories he did. The Whole Wide World is a surprising film, unexpected and enjoyable.
If you don't mind spoilers, watch these clips of the movie set to the music of The Decemberists' "Engine Driver".