Know, oh Prince, that in the years between the decline of silent cinema and the rise of television, there was a vogue for cheap, popular fiction magazines—the so-called 'pulps'. In those days, writers were real writers, and could earn wealth and fame armed with nothing but a typewriter and the strength of their two forefingers. Creativity preferred, but not obligatory.
Bob Howard is one such writer. He lives in Texas, and sounds it. He sits in his parents' back room, thumps the typewriter keys, and shouts his sentences out as he writes them. He largely follows Evelyn Waugh's dictate about the ideal biography for a writer: he stays at home and writes. He writes by the yard and is paid a half-cent a word. He sells novellas with blood and thunder titles like 'Sailor Dorgan and the Destiny Gorilla' and 'The Champ of Forecastle' now remembered (if at all) only by collectors.
So why does this—in the nicest possible sense—hack find himself posthumously celebrated in this 1996 biopic?
1: Years after he died, his ex-girlfriend Novalyne Price wrote a memoir of their time together. Published under the title One Who Walked Alone, the book formed the basis for this movie. Never having read it, I can't comment on how accurately the book has been translated to the screen. It must be said, however, that The Whole Wide World is a really stupid title for it.
2: He shot himself. There is nothing like a dramatic and pointless death to provide a sense of closure for a movie.
3: While almost no civilian has heard of Bob Howard, Sailor Dorgan, or—come to that, Alumirc or Solomon Kane—at least one of his psychotic protagonists has become a household name: Conan 'the barbarian'.
One of the good things about this film is that it puts Conan back into his proper milieu; a trashy magazine in 1933, sharing newsstands space with cowboys, gangsters and soft-porn. Between the nicely filmed but unwatchable Schwarzenegger movie, and the nicely drawn but un-readable Roy Thomas / Barry Smith comics Conan-ther-Barbarian has fixed himself in the public mind as a sort of art-house Nazi, Frodo-Baggins on steroids. In 2001, Millennium books re-printed the entire corpus of Conan stories in two volumes, de-nuded of the various 'improvements' that well-meaning literary executors and fan-boys had made over the years. Reading Howard's actual stories for the first time, I was taken aback by their energy, by how in-yer-face the original Conan is. And how much more fun than either the movie or the comic they are. Barry Smith's art had led me to expect a standard high-fantasy cod-medieval world; but Howard's actual character jumps from setting to setting without much concern about whys and wherefores. One fine story has armoured medieval knights up against desert Bedouin led by a resurrected wizard who really ought to have been played by Boris Karloff. Another is a western with the names changed. The Bob Howard of The Whole Wide World has nothing to say about the Hyperborean age or any probable outline of Conan's career. He talks about 'ma Cohnun yarns.'
Movies, just as much as pulp yarns, have to obey the rues of their genre. There are five rules for movies based on the lives of famous writers to adhere to.
Rule One: Only the writer's most famous works may be referred to, and not more than two or three of those. If it's Dickens, then refer to Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol, under no circumstances admit the existence of Barnaby Rudge. Apart from one vague reference to a story about a boxer, Robert E Howard wrote only Conan stories and sold them only to Weird Tales.
Rule Two: No prior knowledge may be assumed on the part of the viewer. If you wish to draw comparisons between the life of Oscar Wilde and his fiction, then make damn sure you incorporate the text of the Selfish Giant into your movie. Engineer a scene in which Howard explains who Conan is; get him to act out a scene and summarize a plot. God forbid that Novalyne should have mugged up on the works of the writer she is dating.
Rule Three: Historical contemporaries may be referred to only if they are famous, provided this does not contradict rule two. Howard gets a brief fan letter from someone called Aitchpee Lovecraft.
Rule Four: All fiction is autobiographical. Draw parallels between the writer's most famous works and the events in the movie. Emphasize that wild, un-civilized Conan, who slaughters his way across continents and mocks crucified foes is very like wild, ill-mannered Bob Howard who turns up to a dates without a suit. Conan despises civilization, murders people who he disagrees with, and is not above giving spoiled princesses a slap; Howard expresses some doubts about American high school education, won't go to the mayor's tea party, and didn't think much of The Vicar of Wakefield
From my extremely limited knowledge, the movie seems to be a fair depiction of Howard's last years. It's beautifully acted. Vincent D'Onofrio goes out of his way to make Bob look much as Novalyne describes him. ('His cap was pulled down low on his forehead. He had on a dingy white shirt and some brown pants that only came up to is ankles…') and the bizarre episode in which he acquires a sombrero and a droopy moustache is apparently factual. A lot of the script certainly rang true. The Conan stories are hardly porn, but one would not have wanted to be Novalyne while Bob, in a very respectable diner, loudly expounds the plot of his latest yarn. ('….in an orgy like ceremony stripped naked and tied to a bloody altar…') The 1930s milieu felt authentic; though there were a couple of oddly modern turns of phrase. ('Shoot em up'; 'action movie')
There isn't much attempt to sex-up the story. Howard writes, doesn't get paid much, and is popular but not respected. He dates Novalyne, but makes it clear that he isn't the marrying kind. 'My kind of man can't be tied down', he says, 'The road I walk, I walk alone.' So Novalyne dates someone else. He comes back to her, but she can't love him any more. She goes away to college. His mother has TB. He nurses her. When she dies, he shoots himself. The end. So much of the movie is taken up with two-handed scenes delicately conveying Bob and Novalyne's obviously-not-going-anywhere romance, that I wondered if the screenplay might have been originally intended for the theatre. There are a lot of nice observations. Is Bob rather sadly t trying to play the role of Conan, or is Conan a semi-biographical picture of himself. Novalyne hides her copy of Weird Tales under the pillow, because it is rather more racy than a young lady should be reading. After hiding the magazine, she primly looks down her nightie to check the size of her own breasts, presumably in comparison to Conan's conquest in the story. I must, say, though, that the third or fourth time Bob and Novalyne go off in the car to look at the sunset and totally fail to get off together I found my enthusiasm for the movie wearing a little thin.
One amusing example of how cinema improves on life occurs at the end of the film. According to Stephen Jones, a piece of paper was found in Howard's wallet after he died on which he had written:
All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre
The feast is over and the lamps expire
The film has the couplet discovered in Bob's typewriter, making it much more unambiguously a suicide note, but, if anything, reducing the poignancy of it.
Which brings us to Rule Five.
Rule Five: All movies are about salvation, and all films about writers are about the redeeming power of art.
This must have created great problems for the writers of The Whole Wide World. Girl meets writer; Girl leaves writer; Writer shoots himself. Not the most promising material around which to weave a tale about salvation through prose.
The film overcomes this problem, first, by making Novalyne, rather than Bob, the central character. This allows us to shift the emphasis, slightly, from 'How Bob was saved through writing' to 'How Novalyne was saved through knowing a writer.'
Novalyne is, conveniently, a schoolteacher, which in movies is always a signifier for public-spirited altruism; a noble calling, but one commensurate with a reasonable amount of middle-class affluence. It's also a good way for gurls to both assert their independence as career women and remain reassuringly feminine at the same time.
Teachers are, by definition, respectable authority figures—Bob is initially rather impressed that Novalyne doesn't take any misbehavior from her students, but later engineers a quarrel because he's decided for some reason that she wouldn't permit a child to disagree with her.
Writers are, equally by definition, rule-breaking anti-establishment figures. Bob is wild and untamed —'one who walks alone' —a free spirit who cannot be constrained by the confines of this world and is in love with the pure ground of Texas. (Hell, had he lived he would have written the best damn novel ever about frontier life, apparently). People apply words like 'crazy' to him.
Novalyne is conventional, prim and proper—like one of Conan's civilized princesses— and therefore finds Bob attractive, even though she knows they can never possibly be happy together. He writes stories about naked women dancing on ships; she would look the other way if she saw a naked man. She thinks she is being a little daring to say 'damn' on Sunday, he begins almost every sentence with 'Hell.' Sometimes, she gets mad and stands up to him, but like Conan's princesses, she melts when he kisses her.
Novalyne also wants to be a writer, but her stories—romances and confessionals—aren’t very good: her respectability makes her stories boring. Bob proposes a story in which a heroine meets a wild Indian in the woods; Novalyne admits that she would wash of the war paint and invite the Indian to accompany her to Sunday school. She follows writers school advise, like recording snatches of conversation in her journal, which, according to Bob, isn't writing but copying. She thinks she can both write and teach, but Bob says it doesn't work like that. Writing is wild, dangerous, and risky. 'You want to be a writer, I'll show you what it takes!' he suggests.
Obviously, what we have here is a classic conflict between freedom and restraint, romance versus convention. On one side of the equation we have Bob and Conan; unconventional, creative and free — and therefore restless and unhappy. On the other, Novalyne, conventional, respectable, settled—and therefore unable to be creative. Because teaching is a Good Thing too, we have a classic, tragic conflict of Right versus Right. If Novalyne were going to be a nun or a factory worker, we would be routing for Bob to sweep her off her feet; but as it is, though we want her to be happy, but we don't want Bob to take her away from noble calling.
The two obvious resolutions for this scenario are
a: Novalyne throws off the shackles of convention and lives happily ever after as a wild writer, Sonja to his Conan.
b: Bob gives up his art for love, becomes conventional and lives happily ever after.
Of course, a good script could come up with any number of ironic variations. Bob might become conventional, but secretly be unhappy because he misses his old life. Conan was never very happy as King of Aquilonia after all. Bob might become conventional and Novalyne become unconventional, and they would go off into the sunset singing 'You're the one that I want, ooo, ooo, ooo.' But since we have to stick to the basic biographical facts none of these endings are available to use: so how can we get a 'redeeming power of writing' ending out of the mess that actually happened?
First, because of Novalyne's position as a viewpoint character, the specific reasons for Bob's suicide are skated over. We learn his death only second hand, through a telegram to Novalyne at college, and through the report of his doubly bereaved father. This allows Howard's suicide to be represented, at some level, as a self-affirmation; a mark of his unwillingness to compromise with the world—rather than the spectacularly cowardly and selfish act it actually was.
So: 'Writer is wild individualist; writer fortunately dies before he has a chance to become conventional and loose his muse' — that's much more the sort of thing we are looking for.
But we only really see the point at the end of the movie, as Novalyne is on her way home. A kind lady on the coach assures her that it is okay that her friend shot himself because, er, he's still her friend 'even if you won’t be seeing him for a while' and anyway, she's glad she had known him. So the final image is of Novalyne watching the sunrise and remembering the sunrises she watched with Bob.
And then comes the biographical caption.
We are not told, say, that Bob's stories are still popular all these years later, albeit mainly in inferior, knock off versions. Instead, we learn that 'For the next 44 years, Novalyne encouraged and inspired the thousands of students she taught. Shortly after she retired, she wrote her first book, on which this movie is based.'.
So….get this…she did become a writer after all.
The message, surely, is that she became an inspirational teacher because she remembered Bob: that his advice, in the long run, enabled her (and through her who knows how many kids?) to become a writer, and maybe even that he had to die so that she could become what she was capable of being. ('Wild hero redeems fiesty heroine through suicidal love.' Surely they could have found some way to work in an iceberg?)
Suicide as artistic self-affirmation. The sanctity of writing and teaching. The one who walked alone, down a dark path that no-one can share, who outraged opinion in a staid community, and taught that you had to listen to the voice of your own inner creativity, reaches out through Novalyne from beyond the grave to influence the lives of thousands of children and make their lives remarkable.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Conan the librarian on the Island of the Dead Poets.