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Howard is played in the film by Vincent D'Onofrio, as a tall, broad, open-faced Texas boy who likes to wear white shirts and suspenders.
Novalyne is Renee Zellweger, who was magical as Tom Cruise's romantic partner in "Jerry Maguire" and is charming here, too, as a small-town school teacher who dreams of being a writer and talks her date into taking her to meet his friend Bob Howard, who really was one.
''Robert is real close to his mother,'' the family doctor observes, and Bob changes her soiled linen, combs her hair and coos to her, in between banging out blood-curdling adventures on his typewriter.
Novalyne sees him striding down the street trying out new dialogue, and Ireland uses subtle devices on the soundtrack to suggest that Howard's fantasy world was as real to him as any other.
The great pulps came in four flavors: Science fiction, Westerns, romance, and crime.
Of these, the brand-new genre was sf, baptized by Hugo Gernsback in his pioneering magazine Amazing Stories.
They also gave rise to the image of the writer as romantic loner, slaving at his typewriter in a rented room, a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle on the floor, working for peanuts. Howard bought that image lock, stock and truncheon.
He was by his own admission ''the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world,'' a mainstay of the famous fantasy/horror magazine Weird Tales.
The best of his creations was Conan the Barbarian, who had a rebirth in the 1970s in two Schwarzenegger movies and in some 50 Conan paperbacks written under license by modern-day hacks.
By then Howard was long dead, by his own hand."The Whole Wide World" is based on a 1988 memoir of Howard, written by a woman named Novalyne Price Ellis, who was a retired Texas school teacher when the Conan boom came along.
He knew, and she guessed, he stretched them because he didn't want to leave them. The Ebert Club is our hand-picked selection of content for Ebert fans.