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Film / The Whole Wide World

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A 1996 biopic about 1930s pulp novelist Robert E. Howard, concentrating on his complicated relationship with schoolteacher Novalyne Price and based on her memoirs.

Price (Renée Zellweger), who dreams about becoming a writer herself, works as a Sunday school teacher, but when she meets Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio), her ambitions awake. She admires him and asks him for advice, even though she is appalled by the way in which he handles sexual themes in his stories. He does not share her opinion that good fiction should be true to life in the first place but she interests him as a woman and a friend. When Price fails in her desperate attempts to put an end to an abnormal relationship between Howard and his sickly mother, they break off, and she leaves to Louisiana to continue her teaching career - three weeks before Howard's suicide. Price's book was intended as a response to the prevailing opinions on Howard's life and personality, and the film explores her point of view to analyze Howard's creation and the reasons of his tragic death.


Besides being a psychological drama about love which somehow manages to be both mutual and unrequited, the film deals with such issues as: the process of achieving maturity, the nature of the connection between the mentor and his disciple, realist vs. visionary attitude towards fiction, the role of pulp (as opposed to mainstream) fiction in American culture in the 1930s, and artistic activity as a form of escapism triggered by the demands of society. The character of Conan the Barbarian is mentioned a couple of times - and it is suggested that Conan was Howard's simplified and coloured alter ego, which initially served as a channel for venting off his frustration but later became his gateway to insanity.


Provides examples of:

  • Alliterative Title: The Whole Wide World
  • Audible Sharpness: When Howard imagines himself to be Conan when he describes his character to Novalyne.
  • Barbarian Hero: Conan, obviously. In a way, Howard himself. By the time the narrative meets him, he's long since given up trying to fit in among the people of his small Texas town, because he could just never quite figure out how.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Novalyne at first seems timid compared to the bombastic Howard, but he soon learns that she's a spitfire to match him.
  • Downer Ending: Robert E. Howard, "the greatest pulp fiction writer in the whole wide world," commits suicide.
  • Driven to Suicide: Howard, when he learns that his mother's illness is incurable and she's unlikely to ever awaken from her coma. Indeed, she dies days later.
  • Everything Is Big in Texas: Howard's personality largely meets the stereotype. (Interestingly, the same features - loudness, cheerfulness and boastfulness - were attributed to Conan in Howard's fiction, which was explained as the result of his commitment to the culture of Asgard as opposed to cheerless Cimmeria.)
  • First-Name Basis: To most everyone, he's "Robert Howard." To Novalyne, he's "Bob."
  • Foregone Conclusion: Howard fans and historians will know that his relationship with Price won't end well and he will commit suicide.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: Taking place between 1932 and 1936 in a small town in Texas.
  • The Ghost: H. P. Lovecraft is in the narrative, having asked Howard's editor for his address so the two writers might correspond. Howard geeks out about this. Lovecraft never physically appears, and only one line of one of his letters is read for the audience. Justified, as Howard lived in Texas and Lovecraft in Rhode Island - neither were the type to travel extensively and in fact they never met in person.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: After Howard's suicide, a short poem about death is found in his typewriter.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Price quickly learns that the most innocuous things might set Howard off on an enraged rant. Novalyne, by contrast, has a tighter reign on her temper, but blows up bigger and stays mad longer than Bob.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The real Robert E. Howard's racism was extremely downplayed in favor of emphasizing his eccentricities as more of a tortured artist and his feelings of being Born in the Wrong Century and Longing for Fictionland. Apologists put forth that racism was normal at the time and would not have been any sort of social difficulty for him. In Novalyne Price's memoirs on which the film is based, she does mention her negative reaction to Howard's racist attitude towards Blacks.note  However, this particular conversation did not make it into the film
  • The Knights Who Say "Squee!": Bob flips out in the best way possible when he learns H.P. Lovecraft is a fan and wants to write to him. Later, he's quite proud of Lovecraft calling him "the modern master of fantasy."
  • Mr. Imagination: Howard, best exemplified when he first describes Conan to Novalyne, and almost seems to become possessed by the character. He later talks to Novalyne about ancestral memory, implying it's where he believes his Conan yarns come from (something Howard himself claimed, perhaps seriously, perhaps not).
  • My Beloved Smother: Howard and his mum. Aside from his slavish devotion to her, there's some implication that she deliberately tried to keep Novalyne away from him.
  • Loners Are Freaks: This is the point which Novalyne makes, when she tries to convince Robert that he should work on his social life and stop being so misanthropic.
  • Magnificent Moustaches of Mexico: Howard seems to have a thing for Mexican sombreros, and at one point grows a large moustache to complete the look.
  • Manchild: Howard, albeit a more charming example than standard for this trope. In one scene, all the same, a deeply frustrated Novalyne calls him out for making almost no effort to live in the real world.
  • Most Writers Are Male: Howard's fiction is presented as not targeted at female audiences.
  • Pulp Magazine: The pulpest of all, Weird Tales, appear a couple of times in the film.
  • Relative Button: Results from Howard's Freudian Excuse (without the murder part).
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Howard describes to Price gigantic rattlers imagined by him.
  • Sanity Slippage: His mother's worsening health and his own mistakes with Novalyne clearly have this effect on Howard's already questionable mental state.
  • Sexy Mentor: Howard, in Price's eyes.
  • Slice of Life: this is what Novalyne wants to write. Howard considers this nonsense, as real life is what everyone has, but something fantastical is unique and different.
  • Small Reference Pools: Howard's Conan stories are the only ones directly mentioned in the film, and those are mentioned extensively, since they're likely the only Howard stories a casual audience would have heard of. Howard does mention a "boxing yarn" going through his head at one point, and Howard wrote many such stories for other publications. He later talks about selling stories to three different magazines in the same month, but only the Conan story sold to Weird Tales is described (Conan fans will immediately recognize it as Red Nails).