Disclaimer I guess??? This review contains language relevant to Tarantino’s body of work. Sorry if cursing offends you.
I don’t typically pick up novelizations or tie-ins for movies I’m not diehard in love with. And I never pick up novelizations of movies from directors I don’t particularly enjoy. However, when I heard that the novelization of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was not only going to include the “director’s cut” of moments that weren’t in or just couldn’t be included in the film but that Quentin Tarantino himself was going to write it, I was intrigued. Throw in the face that it was only being published as a vintage-style mass market paperback, and I was buying it immediately on release day. What can I say, pulp novels are an aesthetic joy of mine.
But then I started reading it and well… I was not expecting any of the thoughts it would bring to me. I was not prepared for the emotions I brought back that I haven’t experienced since film school graduation left me bitter, broke, and jaded as all hell. I wasn’t ready to literally feel LOVE radiate out of a fucking Quentin Tarantino movie-turned-book.
T H E F I L M
Seemingly pitched to viewers as a movie of the Manson Family (especially considering it was released the summer of ’19 – the 50thanniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders), Quentin Tarantino’s movie was anything but. Following actor-on-the-downfall, Rick Dalton, and his stuntman-turned-personal-assistant, Cliff Booth, the movie Once Upon A Time In Hollywood gives us an entirely realistic view of how the Golden Age of Hollywood was. Of course this is still Tarantino, though, so this reality is still slightly-to-the-left as the ending gives us a happier conclusion of what happened on the night of August 9th, 1969.
The movie is fun, goofy, and heartfelt while still keeping to the ridiculous Tarantino bloodbath ending. The scale of the cast alone is magnificent to see as huge actors play the smallest roles – a feat I truly think only Tarantino is capable of doing. Over the last two years I kept my opinion on the fact that it was a good enough movie, but my dedication to true crime and the many research projects I’ve done on Charles Manson and his girls kept my head out of the point. I could tell it was a homage to old Hollywood, a salute to what came out of it, but I didn’t think too much more.
Rewatching the movie after reading the “novelization” was a treat and a half. I noticed far more of the details, appreciated what Tarantino was doing far more. Leo DiCaprio’s subtlety as vulnerability as Rick is sublime and every scene with Mirabella (Trudi) made me tear up. Naturally it’s still a bit of a let down we only see Damon Herriman as Charlie for like two seconds (he’s an amazing actor), I know I can still get more of him in the role by watching Mindhunter. It’s difficult to keep on track with talking about the movie because there’s just so much going on in it, but I can happily say I adore it to it’s core at this moment.
T H E N O V E L I Z A T I O N
Many millennial and gen-x readers will be familiar with the concept of novelizations, books that came out after a successful film that was a direct adaptation of screen to page. Sometimes they were fun and sometimes they were terrible, but they were always the story we expected. These days, move-to-book adaptations are less of an adaptation, and more of a tie-in, adding more dialogue or context and nuance to better convey the story and add more depth to scenes that were potentially shortened in the editing room or by producer demands.
When it comes to Quentin Tarantino’s own novelization of his film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, this is not a novelization in the conventional sense, and that point needs to come with something of a disclaimer.
If you do not give a flying fuck about the history of film and television production during the 40s through the early 70s then this book is not for you. Doesn’t matter if you love the movie, you have to love the boring parts of cinema as well, the important details in production, to give a shit about this book.
I’ve always loved the little details in film and my obsession with true crime and pulp novels means I have a soft spot for this “golden age” of Hollywood. Having fallen even more in love with production details while in film school, the fact that the first 100-or-so pages of this book reads like a text on critical film theory regarding genre films and international arthaus as political commentary made me so happy I was basically giggling like an idiot while reading. Sans for the part where Cliff says he liked Breathless (I hate this stupid French film so much), I agreed with just about everything that was being said.
As the novel goes on, in Tarantino’s typical non-linear fashion, it becomes less and less a story of Rick Dalton fighting against the Manson Family, and more a story of how Hollywood has always torn down it’s icons at every chance. It’s a character study of men hitting middle age and learning where they went wrong and trying to do better for themselves. As Rick’s role on Lancer starts eating at him, the way Tarantino weaves together the story of the pilot with the story of Rick’s self-hatred, it’s a beautiful thing to follow along.
If you’ve ever wanted to be a fly on the wall of a Hollywood set, this is a book that does that. While I have had my own reservations about Tarantino’s work in general, this “novelization” has shifted so much of how I think of him. No matter what your opinion is, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: A Novel is the biggest love note to cinema that I have ever come across and it is slap-you-in-the-face clear just how much Tarantino cares about his movies, others’ movies, others’ shows, and every one of the actors that takes place in them.
Did this book make it any more of a Manson story than the bit pieces in the movie? Absolutely not. Was it any more accurate? Hard no. But it was a bigger realization that this wasn’t a Manson story. This isn’t about Charlie or the girls. This is about a period in time and you can’t ignore what was going on just to tell a story about a failing Western super star. You can’t mention the collapse of Spahn Ranch without mentioning Charlie.
Absolutely not for everyone, this is a book I know I will be reading again and again. This is a book that reminded me why I loved film, why I pushed myself through film school despite how hard it was to bear, why I still care about film without working in it anymore.
A few days ago I said I would fight Tarantino in a Denny’s parking lot with joy, that I was giving him a chance to truly impress me with this book. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t do just that. He impressed me and reminded what it is to love art. Cheers, Quentin. You bastard.