Novalyne: You can see the whole world from up here.
Bob: And others as well.
This exchange takes place almost precisely halfway through the film The Whole Wide World (1996, dir. Dan Ireland, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, DVD). It’s a moment that, if you’re not paying attention, can slip right by. Yet it’s the pivot point on which this film – as well as one of the great secrets inside every fiction writer’s life – turns.
Novalyne in this dialogue is Novalyne Price, a young Texas school teacher. Bob, if you aren’t familiar with the film, is Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan and several other adventure heroes, known to some as “the greatest pulp writer of all time.”
Howard is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a masterful actor who brings a smoldering, physical intensity to all of his roles. That’s appropriate here, and as Howard he’s able to erupt explosively more than in most of his roles. Price is portrayed by Renée Zellweger; through large stretches of the film, she’s unimpressive, but she delivers just the right degrees of judgmental convention and indignant petulance at just the right moments. (One wonders what this film would have been like if the actress originally slated to play Price, Olivia D’Abo, hadn’t been pregnant at the time: her chemistry with D’Onofrio was outstanding in later appearances as his nemesis in several Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes.) The film is based on the real-life Price’s 1986 memoir, One Who Walked Alone, describing her rocky relationship with Howard from 1933 until his suicide in 1936.
In the back of my mind there’s a short list of films that I keep of great movies for writers. They’re movies that I think writers need to watch, for various reasons – use of dialogue, dramatic technique, character development, pacing, and so on. The Whole Wide World is in a tiny category of films about writers that I think other writers can draw inspirational or motivational lessons from. It’s a very, very short list – there might be no more than three films on it.
It’s on this list because of what happens on screen as well as what exists between the lines. Price wants to be a writer. But she doesn’t have that fire in the belly, that unfulfillable drive that great writers have. She writes conventional stories, about conventional people, doing conventional things, and much of the time she isn’t writing at all. She’s introduced by a friend to Howard, who is in many ways her writing opposite: already a successful pulp author, his adventure stories are set in fictional places and imaginary times and revolve around individuals who defy convention entirely. Howard has little patience for people who ‘want’ to write, or who ‘try’ to write. Writing, to Bob Howard, is an all-or-nothing proposition. You throw yourself into it entirely, and the rest of the world be damned, or you don’t bother.
Watching Novalyne and Bob quietly (and a few times not so quietly) crash into each other is what makes this a film for writers. It’s about creation, dedication, and surrender to the muse, and the rewards that that level of commitment can bring.
But it’s also about the dangers that come along with that approach. Bob has few friends. He’s considered an outcast by many in town, even something of a freak. He has few social graces and is an impatient man, subject to explosive outbursts of emotion. As depicted in the film, when not at his typewriter creating, he’s just as likely to be behind closed doors, loudly reading fresh text to himself; or roaming the streets in-character to uncover how his creations think; or simply lost in one of his fantasy worlds. Novalyne is virtually the only person, and certainly the only woman near his age, who sees the human being beneath.
Dedication, depression, sacrifice, passion. That’s The Whole Wide World. But maybe, as Bob points out to Novalyne, there are other worlds as well. Learning to look into them, and to bring back their stories to share with others, is what fiction writers do, whether they’re entirely conventional or breathtakingly original. All good writers need to have some of Howard’s intensity, some of his idiosyncrasy, even a touch of his madness, to create great art.
Chances are you haven’t encountered The Whole Wide World. Despite achieving fair critical success, it earned virtually no box office. I’d never heard of it before stumbling across it on cable television around 2000. It’s not an exciting film, but if you’re a fiction writer it’s certainly worth making the time to watch. Maybe you’ll start to see the world in a slightly different way. You can never tell what might appear:
Novalyne: I haven’t seen any giant snakes or big buxom naked women frolicking through the Texas hills lately.
Bob: Oh, but I have. You look more closely next time.