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Review: Quentin Tarantino's Novelization of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Is a Dream Book That Deepens the Original Film

A Love Letter to Hollywood

Review: Quentin Tarantino's Novelization of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Is a Dream Book That Deepens the Original Film

"If I really considered myself a writer, I wouldn't be writing screenplays. I'd be writing novels." --Quentin Tarantino

If you were fortunate enough to watch master filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, promoting his recent novel on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, then you know that there's probably no one better at movie trivia. Blindfolded and only told the description of B-movies that Kimmel read from the original video boxes, he not only recognized something like Dogs of Hell, he also knew the original title: Rottweiler. Only one other director, Martin Scorsese, can give him a run for his money in the movie trivia department. Wouldn't a game show with Tarantino and Scorsese fighting in a death match over arcane movie facts and pop culture trivia be just perfect?

Tarantino, perhaps the most famous living director not born in the 1940's, has gifted us with nine masterpieces or near-masterpieces, including the groundbreaking Pulp Fiction, the underrated Jackie Brown, the ballsy Inglorious Basterds, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, my favorite of his works. When the movie came out in 2019, some people complained that it was meandering, too long, unfocused, and despite the hilariously over-the-top ending, not classic Tarantino. I heartily disagreed. I love the meandering aspect of it, the way it recreated a moment in time when change was in the air. I could watch Brad Pitt speed through the Los Angeles streets to the tune of Bob Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" all night long. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD rivals Jackie Brown as the Tarantino film with the biggest heart and, for my money, easily stands as the Ultimate Tarantino Experience.

But Tarantino wasn't finished with it yet. He has now, two years later, released a "movie novelization" of the classic. I am happy to report that this, his first novel, doesn't take the place of the original film nor does it taint our memories of it; if anything, it actually deepens the experience.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (the novel) is packed with so many characters, it's like hanging out at a Robert Altman party.

I know it's impossible to get all thoughts of the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt out of your head while reading it, but this is a different beast, complete with a very different ending. (The movie's memorable revisionist revenge ending is only mentioned briefly in the middle of the novel, with some interesting ramifications.)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a love letter to a lost era--a time when boring old Hollywood would open the doors to a new era, i.e. the Golden Age of Cinema (starting with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and ending with Heaven's Gate in 1980). It's 1969, and the times they are a-changin'. Doris Day movies are passe; the current world belongs to her son's generation and a new generation of "Easy Rider, Raging Bull" film brats. The old-time western genre, a Hollywood staple, is now eclipsed by a new style of filmmaking. Spahn Ranch, where many of those westerns were filmed, is now haunted by members of the deranged Manson family, a symbol of the changing world. A lead western actor becomes costumed like a hippie, complete with mustache and Custer jacket with fringes, and is displeased to be compared to a hippie; he finds it more acceptable when he's described as a "Hell's Angel" instead.

Rick Dalton, a soon-to-be has-been who had his own popular western TV series ("Bounty Law") but now only plays guest villains, is at a crossroads in his life. Aided by Cliff Booth, his one-time stuntman (his personal "crash and smash"), Rick is forced into making Italian Spaghetti Westerns, a fate he finds worse than death. Living next door to him on Cielo Drive in L.A. is the world's hottest director, Roman Polanski, and Polanski's beautiful wife, the rising starlet, Sharon Tate. They all mingle with the various people of '69--film directors, stuntmen, Manson girls, mobsters, precocious child actors, and even Aldo Ray--and listen to the soundtrack of the times, provided by the #1 disc jockey, the Real Don Steele.

The book reads like a roller coaster ride through Tarantino's labyrinthian mind. And don't worry if you don't get all of the references; no one can compete with QT in that department. He's the James Joyce of pop culture tidbits and movie lore.

In the book, you'll discover that Sharon prefers the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Beatles, something she doesn't dare tell her husband or her cool Hollywood friends (like Mama Cass). You'll find out how Cliff acquired his beloved dog, Brandy, in a horrifying, unexpected plot twist. In fact, in the book (unlike the movie), Cliff comes across as a sociopath, a war hero and perhaps a murderer of more than one person. He's a much darker, deeper and dangerous persona than Brad Pitt showcased in his Oscar-winning performance. The book even answers a key question that the film avoids: Did Cliff actually kill his wife?

The humor here is coffee black in the best Tarantino sense. I especially like Rick's inability to grasp Shakespeare, so whenever his "Lancer" director, Sam Wanamaker, mentions an allusion to the Bard ("evil sexy Hamlet"), Rick is completely, hilariously clueless, even going so far as not knowing who or what this "Bard" thing is whenever it's mentioned.

For those who felt that Charles Manson as a character barely registered in the movie (relegated to a single scene that, if you didn't know who Manson was, probably made no sense), there's plenty of him in the novelization. And the scene of him meeting Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, which actually did happen in real life, is given a deeper meaning here than the movie can accomplish--Manson desperately needs to find Terry Melcher, previous owner of Sharon's house, to get an audition that he was promised. Tarantino nails the fraud that was Manson, a two-bit crook with his eyes on stardom and a group of followers who mistakenly took his quest for fame as some kind of world-wide spreading of the Gospel According to Charlie.

"Charlie doesn't let the kids watch television," Tarantino writes. "When they were children and their parents forbade or restricted their television viewing, they claimed it would rot their brains. Charlie says it will steal their souls." But with soul-stealing Charlie away in Santa Barbara one day, the remaining Manson clan disobey him in absentia and sneak TV viewing with Squeaky Fromme in George Spahn's small house. That's before the memorable exchange where Cliff meets with George (witnessed by an eavesdropping and extremely saucy Squeaky in the novel).

Pussycat, a young Manson apostle, gets her own chapter, "Pussycat's Kreepy Krawl," that may be the best of the entire book; it's certainly the creepiest and comes across like something you'd find in Red Dragon (the brilliant Thomas Harris novel that kept me up all night reading it, not the less-than-brilliant film versions).

There was much controversy with the movie centered on Tarantino's characterization of the great Bruce Lee as a cocky sh*t-talker who ultimately duels with Cliff. Some think that Tarantino should have held his punches when dealing with the renowned Asian-American martial artist, long dead and admired. But this is a work of fiction, and the Bruce Lee character is just that--a character. If you thought Lee's portrayal in the movie was undeservedly negative, then brace yourself, because he comes across even worse in the book. Tarantino even doubles down on the fictional Lee-as-an-ass persona by spending more than a paragraph comparing the great martial artist to Charles Manson.

Still, there are some unwanted anachronisms. Tarantino, a savant pop culturist, gets some of his timetables wrong here. Like Cliff's Room 222 reference many months before Room 222 ever debuted on TV, or the moment where Sharon admits that she likes bubblegum music in early 1969: "She liked Bobby Sherman and that Julie song," Tarantino writes. The only problem with this is that the Julie song in question--"Julie, Do Ya Love Me"--did not hit record shelves until July of 1970, over a year later. (QT makes the same mistake with CCR's "Lookin' Out My Backdoor.") You might say that since Tarantino delves into historic revisionism, then the dates and times of any work mentioned must be given some sort of leeway and that we must suspend our disbelief. With Tarantino, we can forgive. Still, any inaccuracies have a way of taking us out of a novel or a movie or a play, even something as inconsequential and nit-picky as the year of a long-forgotten Bobby Sherman tune (a tune that I can't get out of my head right now, thank you very much, Mr. Tarantino).

Tarantino as a novelist needs to get a grip when it comes to point of view, because it's all over the place here. In the film, it was concentrated on three main characters: Rick, Cliff and Sharon. Here, it's like watching a Sixties edition of the Battle of the Network Stars, if the Battle included the Manson family. It's everywhere, like putting everything on your plate at a buffet, where the dessert comes before the main course but after the appetizers. It's a glorious, rambling mess (which is a compliment), going from one place to the next, skipping from the future to the past, all blurred like a Jackson Pollack painting, hyperactive and topsy-turvy. Leave it to QT to be one of the few authors to capture what it feels like to have ADHD.

Perhaps most worrisome in this novelization is that it's sometimes difficult to differentiate the author's voice from the characters' voices. Take Cliff. He's a secret Sunday afternoon foreign movie lover (a detail I adore), but his rambling views of directors sounds like Tarantino, not Cliff. Kurosawa gets the highest marks, and he enjoys early Fellini, but he skewers Bergman, Antonioni, and even Truffaut: "The 400 Blows...left him cold," Tarantino writes. "He really didn't understand why that little boy did half the sh*t he did. Now, Cliff never spoke to anybody about it, but if he did, his first case in point would be when the kid prays to Balzac. Is that something French kids do? Is the point that that's normal or is the point he's a little weirdo? Yes, he knows it could be meant to be the same as an American kid putting a picture of Willie Mays on his wall. But he doesn't think it's supposed to be that simple. Also, it seems absurd. A ten-year-old little boy loves Balzac that much? No, he doesn't. Since the little boy is supposed to be Truffaut, it's Truffaut telling us how impressive he is."

Tarantino has a love for critic Pauline Kael, a love that I share and a love that, for him, rivals his obsession with bare feet, and it seems that he's trying to emulate her here. It seems out of place--QT's opinions instead of Cliff's. But it also does something else: It momentarily takes us out of the novel and makes us want Tarantino to release a collection of his movie reviews ASAP.

As with any Tarantino work, do not expect a politically correct stroll down memory lane. The sequence where Squeaky narrates an episode of "Mannix" to the blind George Spahn is a key example of this, complete with racial epithets.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a hoot to read, often exciting as hell, but it also spotlights a certain don't-give-a-f*ck attitude, along with an endearing amateurism, to Tarantino-as-Novelist. Anything goes.

The paperback even includes ads for other novelizations from that period, including Oliver's Story, Serpico, and Elmore Leonard's The Switch, the latter ad mentioning Odell Robbie and Louis Gara, two infamous characters from Jackie Brown.

Like Thomas Harris novels, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a hard mother to put down. If Tarantino decides that his next film, his tenth, is his last hurrah as he has oft mentioned, then I welcome reading any and all of his future novels and plays. (The current q.t. on QT is that he wants to adapt his two most claustrophobic films, Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight, to the stage.) He's a true artist, and he'll find a home no matter what medium he tackles. Like the Manson family girls with Charlie, I'll follow him anywhere.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (a novel by Quentin Tarantino), published by Harper Perennial paperbacks, can be found at a bookstore near you. Cover price is $9.99.

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in Washington,... (read more about this author)

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