This afternoon I cleared 50,000 words on Princess of Fire. Now I can go party (in a strictly non-alcoholic manner, of course) with a clear conscience.
I love films, but poverty and the demands of life sometimes mean that I completely miss films I really want to see when they are first released. Sometime they’re so obscure or art-house that I then have trouble locating them. I just recently tracked down one of these, The Whole Wide World, from 1996, about the on-again/off-again friendship and near-romance between Robert E. Howard, pulp author and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and Novalyne Price, a local school-teacher and budding writer, in the middle 1930’s in Texas. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger Novalyne Price.
The film itself is very small scale, and it has some awkward directorial moments, as well some jumps in continuity that made me wonder about deleted scenes. The movie was Dan Ireland’s (more noted as a producer) first directorial credit, which probably explains these issues.
On the other hand, Zellweger and D’Onofrio are both great as their respective characters. But it is D’Onofrio who especially captures Howard. There is a blustering vulnerability about his Howard, who seems to be burning up with imagination and the worlds he creates. He is also contemptuous of the ordinary central Texas world in which he grew up, which causes all kinds of sparks when that contempt strikes up against Price’s more conventional sensibilities. There is a studied quality to the Howard’s disdain for the mundanes around him, exactly as if it is, at least in part, a shield thrown up by someone whose social skills are questionable in the first place.
In other words, D’Onofrio’s Howard is a nerd, blustering and posing his way through life, decades before PCs or the internet, with only his imagination and his writing to lift him out of the dull universe in which he finds himself.
The film works very well when it shows us the rocky path the friendship between Howard and Price takes. These two have an attraction to one another, but Howard’s ‘I have to walk my own path’ swagger and disdain for what he perceives as the hypocrisy of mundane society constantly sabotages their friendship.
Howard as an insecure, vulnerable man who has a talent that transcends his surroundings is a powerful, and satisfying, theme, one that resonated with me. I know exactly what it was like to be the freak who reads that “weird stuff” (mostly Heinlein in my earliest days), in a conservative Southern milieu. This is not to compare my talent with Howard’s, but to suggest that anyone who has had to hang on to what they find good and beautiful in the face of disapproval will see at least a bit of themselves in Howard.
The film also does a great job demonstrating exactly why writers are often just a little odd, as it shows us what is going on in Howard’s head as he creates. In one scene Howard is physically blocking out one of his boxing stories (he wrote across several genres for the pulp magazines of the period)– unfortunately, while he is walking down a street, drawing disapproving stares as he does. His created universe is, at that moment, more powerful than the one in which he breathes and walks. Any writer can relate to that.
Price and Howard’s potential relationship eventually founders, in no small part because Howard is distracted by the care of his mother, who is dying of tuberculosis. D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Howard in relationship to his mother adds even more depth to his character, as he cares for her with great tenderness.
Of course, it was when his mother went into her final coma that Howard killed himself. There are plenty of theories of why he did so, but all that matters now is that his suicide took a great talent out of the world, one that might have done much more had he been able to find a way through and past the pain of that moment (Howard was only thirty when he died).
At the end of the film Price, in graduate school in Louisiana, receives a telegram that Howard is dead– and the ‘what might have been’ remains just that, although there is a grace note of gratitude, as Price contemplates a Texas sunrise, for what we did receive.
We need more movies about writers and their lives. I think more people would be inspired to write, and write well, if they understood how you can create whole worlds from the most ordinary of experiences.
Even central Texas.