Blog Directory CineVerse: Weird tales of troubled love from Texas

Weird tales of troubled love from Texas

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Whole Wide World, directed by Dan Ireland in 1996, is a thought-provoking biographical drama adapted from Novalyne Price Ellis's memoir, One Who Walked Alone. That tome recounts her relationship with the renowned American author Robert E. Howard, who was known for creating the iconic character Conan the Barbarian and making significant contributions to the sword and sorcery genre of literature. The movie delves into the intricate and turbulent connection between Ellis, portrayed by Renée Zellweger, and Howard, played by Vincent D'Onofrio. They deliver compelling performances and demonstrate an on-screen chemistry, despite their characters proving romantically inharmonious.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film, conducted last week.

What makes this film memorable, thought-provoking, different, or distinctive? Its period detail authenticity and fidelity to its source material stand out. The picture offers viewers a genuine glimpse into the lives of Ellis and Howard, presenting a nuanced portrayal of their personalities and the challenges they faced in 1930s America. Ireland's vision and the film's cinematography received acclaim for successfully capturing the atmosphere and setting of 1930s Texas, immersing viewers in that historical context.

The Whole Wide World also delves deeply into the inner lives of and challenges faced by its characters, elevating it above a typical biopic. It explores concepts like creativity, incompatibility, loneliness, gender roles and expectations, and the human condition.

Additionally, it introduces new generations to Howard, an overlooked genre giant who had a major influence on the fantasy genre with his Conan, Red Sonja, and Kull the Conqueror creations. However, you don’t need to be a fan of the writer's work or be familiar with him to appreciate this film.
The leisurely-paced narrative requires some patience, especially among viewers who expect more frequent or earlier romantic fireworks, plot twists, character conflicts, or fidelity to genre tropes like an inevitable romantic reconciliation and affirmation of true love. The Whole Wide World takes its time fleshing out these characters and depicting the on-again, off-again relationship between Howard and Ellis. There is no requisite lovemaking scene, nudity, violence, or action sequences that one might expect to help juice the story.

The filmmakers utilize clever sound effects, like the imagined din of blades clashing and battle cries, to suggest how enmeshed Howard is in his fantasy world. The camera occasionally tracks ahead of D’Onofrio, framing him progressing forward with punches or sword swipes, to demonstrate how his imaginary worlds blur uncomfortably with reality.

One of this film's major themes espoused is staying true to your nature. The couple’s relationship can’t progress romantically because Howard stubbornly refuses to compromise on his commitment to the fierce imagination he believes is required to be a successful writer and due to his loyalty to his sick mother, a figure who motivates Howard to indulge in his fantasies and remain devoted to her care. 

Ellis, meanwhile, remains true to her calling as a teacher; although Howard influences her to explore writing, she prefers a more emotionally dependable partner and a more conservative and accepted profession. Howard’s beliefs, chauvinism, lusty visions, and cynicism about human beings conflict with Ellis’ more grounded disposition and optimistic outlook. Howard sees a world filled with corruption, evil, and sin while Ellis acknowledges the good that mankind is capable of. Still, his unbridled creativity and imaginative talent awe Ellis.

Professor Steve Vineberg wrote: “The Whole Wide World does something very unusual: it recycles the old tension between the westerner and the eastern woman (who is often a schoolteacher) but in a modern western setting (and with a western heroine), where the land has been thoroughly civilized and only a man like Bob Howard, who is neurotically solitary and somehow profoundly displaced, can continue to believe in the frontier. The film’s idea is that his vision of the world as a still primitive and dangerous place, where adventure lurks around every corner, is what enables him to write the vigorous pulp stories he writes.”

Doomed romance is also thematically center stage. Yes, there’s a meet-cute of sorts and several boy loses girl/gets girl back moments in this tale, but the viewer picks up on the significant incongruity and disparities between Ellis and Howard fairly early—gaps that can’t possibly be glossed over or fully bridged by the conclusion of the narrative. We don’t even see them kiss until at least halfway through the runtime. As soon as we realize and accept that this isn’t going to work as a love story, we can put increasing stock into the value of platonic love. The film then becomes more of an exploration of Ellis trying to navigate this friendship differently without completely severing her bond with Howard.

Another takeaway? It's a big, beautiful world out there with opportunities just across the horizon. This film is aptly titled because it suggests several ideas: that there’s a place in this big world for misanthropic dreamers and oddballs like Howard; that Ellis’ future is wide open, with many different paths available to her; that, like the painted sunsets and glorious sunrises Ellis and Howard witness together, beauty can be found in even the most humdrum locales or during worrisome times; and, even if you are separated from friends and loved ones by vast distances, the written word—in the form of a letter, pulp story, or book—can shorten that divide and bring us closer.

Similar works

  • Biopics of famous writers like Finding Neverland, Becoming Jane, Shadowlands, Tom & Viv, Capote, Shirley, Trumbo, The Life of Emile Zola, Wilde, Kafka, Emily, Miss Potter, and Vita and Virginia 
  • Charing Cross Road
  • Doomed romance films like Atonement, The Bridges of Madison County, A Royal Affair, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Casablanca, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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