Shot Out of a Conan

Graham Greene once wrote, "The literature of escape is literature just because it is a real escape; it contains a recognition of life as much as the action of a deserter contains the recognition of an enemy." Ireland's extraordinarily balanced sympathies for escapism and life give The Whole Wide World a lift beyond mere quirkiness or pathos. The spacious look of the picture, with its key figures framed on riverbanks or cliff tops, frees it from claustrophobia. Ireland uses a terrifically effective counterpoint of sound and image to bring Howard's real and escapist landscapes together. Howard loves to holler out his stories as he types them, and from the moment Price overhears him doing it, the soundtrack becomes the repository of his fantasies. When she opens an issue of Weird Tales with one of his cover stories, hysteria-inducing string music and the clank of swords flood her room until she slams it shut; when Howard is shadow-boxing through the streets of Cross Plains while thinking out a boxing tale, we're aurally encased in the tumult of the ring, fight bell and all, until Price interrupts him and nearly gets slugged.

Ireland and his screenwriter Michael Scott Myers have done a remarkable job of isolating the essence of Howard and Price's relationship, retaining whole scenes and chunks of dialogue from her memoir. They've ignored her account of Howard's more outre beliefs in reincarnation and racial separatism (even in the introduction to the book, written in 1981, his friend Clyde Tevis Smith writes approvingly of Howard's realization that "his People could not survive without unity"). They've cut out his mother's hatred for Indians (an excuse she uses in the book to disapprove of Price, whose father looked like a Native American), and they've deleted an episode in which Price's zealous teaching combined with her intense feelings for Howard sent her to the hospital in a starved, exhausted state. But they've keyed in on the material's most resonating elements -- the battles between magic and realism that every impressionable moviegoer can relate to, and the bartering between idealism and pragmatism that every man or woman negotiates when growing up. As Howard might have written, The Whole Wide World is small of cast but huge of spirit.

The Whole Wide World.
Written by Michael Scott Myers, from the book One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis; directed by Dan Ireland; with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger.

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