Quentin Tarantino has, for some time, dreamt about writing a book. Although he is a filmmaker with an impeccable eye for imagery, he is perhaps most famous for his writing style. He has a particular grasp of language which is musical and poetic whilst existing in a very specific milieu. Listening to the dialogue in his films we’re reminded of the thin line between street talk and beat poetry. This is evident in some of his most important and celebrated works such as Pulp Fiction (1994), as well as the Sicilian speech he wrote in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993).
Couple this with his love of the media landscape of the American West Coast in the late sixties and early seventies and it’s perhaps inevitable that the film that ultimately received the novelised treatment is his 2019 epic Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.
In November 2020, Tarantino signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins, of which Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the first. It tells essentially the same story as the film, yet has a very different, much darker, tone.
Although the film does not have a clearly defined plot by conventional storytelling standards, it does, especially in the second half, have impetus. We have two stories that are told side by side, inevitably meeting at the end with explosive results. The first story follows that of Rick Dalton, an actor who realises his career is on a downward spiral, and his stunt double/dogs’ body, Cliff Booth. The second story follows the very much non-fictional Sharon Tate, an actress just starting on the upward curve of her career. Whilst Rick and Cliff’s story is fictional, Sharon Tate’s story is very real and ended tragically at the hands of the Charles Manson family.
The film’s climax is of a similar vein to Tarantino’s previous films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Both films indulge Tarantino’s desire for revenge for injustices that have occurred – In Inglourious Basterds he gets to kill Hitler, In Django he frees and emancipates a slave and in Once Upon A Time… he gets to save Tate and dispatch some of Manson’s family members in a gloriously violent yet immensely satisfying manner. The book is a markedly different beast.
Like the film, it once more conjures up the atmosphere of the time in which it’s story is set. There are constant references to songs heard on the radio and the DJs delivering them. The TV of the late sixties takes prominence, not just because Dalton is guesting in the pilot episode of Lancer, but because every character seems to fill their time either watching television or listening to music.
Yet even though it uses the same characters in the same situations, the emphasis is different; the most obvious change being that the ending of the film is told, almost in passing, about a quarter of the way through the book.
The book of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is a series of anecdotes designed to immerse you in the time and the place. It’s also a character study. There is no clear story, just a series of set pieces in which we discover more about the characters, digging deeper into their psyches and motivations so we get to know them more clearly. Neither Rick nor Cliff are the most likeable of people, yet their complexities make them interesting enough so that the reader is more than willing to invest the time getting to know them. Rick is full of self-doubt and on the verge of alcoholism and is struggling to decide on his next move. The self-pity that is apparent in the film is magnified greatly here.
Cliff, on the other hand, comes across as more complex than he did in the film. There are moments when he teeters on the verge of psychopathy. The violence he experienced during the war has changed him completely and he’s committed multiple murders and got away with it. Of course, the main focus in the media since the book’s release has been whether he killed his wife, something that’s never fully explained in the film. Although the scene itself is told with some sympathy for Cliff (he loved his wife but the general opinion was that the whole event was understandable), other uncomfortable moments undermine this – his liking for Tom Jones’ Delilah and other songs which featured uxoricide, for example. Personally I felt that this ambiguity makes Cliff a more interesting, if more problematic character.
Sharon Tate doesn’t get as many pages dedicated to her as the men, but that could be simply because, being based on a real person, there was less license for dramatization. What we do get, however, is a very real glimpse behind the curtain of fame and see who she was.
We also have several scenes featuring the Family, the most prominent being the scene when Pussycat (the young woman who Cliff gives a lift to Spahn’s Ranch) is coaxed by Manson to break into the house of an elderly couple and dance naked on their bed.
The strength of the novel is that it knows exactly who its audience is. It indulges us with film history, including a list of Cliff’s favourite Akira Kurosawa films (he loved Yojimbo yet hated Red Beard). Almost anytime an actor or film is mentioned, a little tidbit of history is revealed. Tarantino can’t seem to stop himself in this regard which is fine with me. The man is an unashamed geek and loves to share with others the things that get his juices flowing.
Although it’s being marketed as a novelisation, and Tarantino has been waxing lyrical about his favourite examples of this unique genre, Once Upon A Time… is not a novelisation. It’s instead a companion piece to the movie, giving us access to the characters’ inner psyche that we might have missed in the film.
By splicing reality and fiction together so efficiently, the book is much darker than the film. It does however work in tandem with the film, adding a depth that’s merely hinted at by the visual medium. It’s a book written by a film geek for other film geeks to enjoy, and enjoy it I did. His style might never be mistaken as high literature, but it was never intended to be. It was written for people like me, and I loved it. I often find it difficult to find the time to read but I breezed through this in a couple of days, simply because I too, like Tarantino, get excited when indulging my inner film geek.
I haven’t seen the film again since reading the book, but I think, when I do, it will be a much richer experience because of it.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood is published by Harper Collins and is available now where all good books are sold.