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Tuesday, 22 January 2019

D&DVD Of The Week: The Whole Wide World (1996)


To commemorate today's 113th anniversary of the birth of Robert E Howard, the creator of Conan, Sailor Steve Costigan, Solomon Kane, and a whole genre of modern literature, I decided to watch the 1996 dramatisation of his relationship with aspiring writer Novalyne Price.

This is a film I'd been saving for years for Rachel and I to watch together, but our viewing schedules are so busy these days (with the hundreds of channels on the TV, as well as Netflix et al) that, because of today's significance, it felt like a good time to bust the film out of its wrapping and take it for a spin.

The Whole Wide World is based upon Price's memoir and stars Daredevil's Kingpin, Vincent D'Onofrio, as Howard and Bridget Jones herself, Renée Zellweger, as Price.

In 1930's Cross Plains, Texas, teacher Novalyne Price is introduced to local writer Robert E Howard, already a renowned writer of pulp fiction who makes a living selling his yarns, while still residing an home with his father and tuberculosis-stricken mother.

Price pursues Howard, eager to learn more about his writing, but quickly finding herself drawn to him romantically, despite his "eccentricities".


While obviously a period film, The Whole Wide World feels very dated. It's an awkward, almost amateurish, production full of stilted performances, odd music cues, and a patchy narrative unable to contain Howard's wild genius within its 105-minute duration or truly explain why the audience should care about this couple.

Zellweger's Price, despite being the nominal protagonist, in that the film is based on her autobiography, is almost two-dimensional in the shadow of D'Onofrio's charismatic portrayal of the socially-challenged, borderline misanthropic, larger-than-life Bob Howard.

Her decisions often appear motivated by plot necessity, rather than being taken for convincing character reasons.

While the ultimate tragedy of Howard's suicide is heartbreaking, that's more from the sorrow anyone would feel for any person driven to take their own life, rather than the characters presented here.

The film doesn't truly sell us on Howard's deep attachment to his mother, clearly beyond that of a normal mother-son relationship. We needed more "why", more explanation.

To anyone not already conversant with Howard and the world of 1930's pulps, much of the importance of this story would have been lost; for instance, HP Lovecraft gets a couple of namechecks, but how many outside of geeky circles truly know who he is, even today?

Ultimately, The Whole Wide World is a strange film, trying to be both a romantic drama and an insight into the mind of the father of Conan The Barbarian, for whom, it would seem, romance was an anathema.

It's almost as though it's struggle to decide to whose story it's actually telling: Price's or Howard's. And so it doesn't do it an entirely satisfactory job with either.

The Whole Wide World doesn't give a broader audience enough to work with to fully understand the relationship and behaviours of the two leads, but also only hints at the constrained power of Howard's imagination when it comes to appealing to fans of his pulp literature.

While the film stands as an interesting insight into the final years of Robert E Howard's life, The Whole Wide World is just opening the door for those who are really want to learn more and continue to be inspired by his work.

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