What Quentin Tarantino has been doing for years as a filmmaker – reimagining different genres through bold and distinctive artistry – he has now done with movie novelizations, in his book version of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (If you haven’t seen the movie or want to read the novelization, well, spoilers ahead.)
Has there ever been a novelization that all but eliminated the movie’s climax, a much-discussed and unforgettable one, no less? Or unmasked a beloved lead character as a psycho? Or inserted so much new material, including different genre exercises, that it’s almost like three books in one?
Open the old-school paperback cover of “Hollywood” and you’ll find a pulp Western and reams of geeky film criticism, commentary, and history interlaced with the tale of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and the Manson Family.
This is Tarantino’s creative playground, and he really lets loose, unconstrained by budget, running length, or any other factor that might have inhibited his impulses were he making a movie rather than a book. Written in a straightforward style that reads fast, the end result is a funny, outrageous, immersive, self-referential, and vulgar (sometimes way too vulgar) companion piece to the nostalgic buddy film.
The movie’s “plot,” while mostly intact in one form or another, comes augmented with a wealth of context, backstory, and explanatory details. Scenes are expanded, condensed, and reworked.
Rick is still a woe-is-me boozehound unsure of his place in a rapidly changing industry. His fortunes, though, do improve after word spreads about the hippie barbeque on Cielo Drive. Sharon still leads a charmed existence, but with a richer inner life than depicted in the movie.
And the Manson Family is still up to no good. “Pussycat” terrorizes suburbia in peculiar ways while Charles Manson fumbles about in pursuit of his rock-star ambitions. His association with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and that jam session with Neil Young could only take him so far.
Then there’s Cliff, who’s been the subject of considerable chatter and speculation since the movie was released. The burning question: Did he kill his wife? The answer: yes, even if it was “more instinct than a decision,” as Tarantino writes in the ridiculous chapter recounting the fateful episode.
In fact, between his Audie Murphy-like heroics in World War II and various deadly encounters after returning to civilian life, Cliff racks up a hefty body count. Say what you will, but he’s no Hollywood phony. He’s also a complete lecher and, on a totally unconvincing note, a refined cinephile. Minus his taste in films, everything implicit about Cliff in the movie becomes explicit in the book.
Does it ruin the character? Speaking in “Pulp Fiction” terms, I would’ve been content not knowing what’s inside the briefcase (even while acknowledging Cliff likely committed the dirty deed). I much prefer the movie version: cool and reserved, enigmatic and undaunted. He’s the man of action who lives by a code, the cowboy who upholds order against the chaos embodied by the Manson Family.
But that’s too clean and sentimental for Tarantino’s artistic sensibilities. As reflected in the sections on “Lancer,” the TV cowboy show sometimes presented as a pulp novel, Tarantino’s favorite Westerns are violent, revisionist ones like “The Wild Bunch” that ditch traditional good guys for morally ambiguous anti-heroes.
In typical fashion, Tarantino goes even further. Cliff is something like his version of Pike Bishop but with everything laid bare. No more hiding behind the “shadowy past” trope, he seems to be saying.
Plus, I suspect Tarantino was drawn to the idea of pushing Cliff to the limits of likability after enticing viewers to fall in love with him. It’s almost as if he’s flaunting his ownership of the character and rebuffing any attempts to enlist him in culture-war debates over virtue and masculinity.
To no surprise, the book’s best parts are Tarantino’s specialty: extended, free-flowing conversations. With room to operate, Tarantino elaborates on moments from the film that he was forced to leave unexplained or underexplored. Nobody benefits more than Sam Wanamaker, the flamboyant, scene-stealing director of “Lancer,” whose suggestion that Rick channel an “evil, sexy Hamlet” is only a taste of the hilariously looney coaching he unloads on the befuddled actor. For my money, Tarantino’s dialogue has never been funnier.
He also probes deeper into whether Rick almost landed Steve McQueen’s iconic role in “The Great Escape.” The question resurfaces again and again, culminating in a wonderfully entertaining bar scene where an agitated Rick elucidates for costar James Stacy all the reasons he didn’t stand a chance. Any mention of McQueen only reminds Rick of what he hasn’t achieved.
Who else comes up in this scene? None other than Tarantino himself, by way of his real-life stepfather, Curtis Zastoupil, the bar’s house musician. What could’ve been self-indulgent instead plays out rather touchingly as Zastoupil chums with the actors and gets Rick to sign an autograph for his young son who loved “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey.”
It’s Tarantino’s way of saying, “I belong to Hollywood legend now, too.” It’s also an expression of thanks for the inheritance passed down to him by his cinematic heroes and inspirations (see the book’s dedication, too). When dreams become reality, the only proper response is gratitude.
If the book has an emotional core, it’s right here. Forget Cliff and his nefarious past. It’s no accident that the narrative opens with Rick tearfully breaking down over his perceived failures and closes with him finding a measure of peace at the urging of his precocious castmate, Trudi Frazer.
“Wow, Rick, isn’t our job great? We’re so lucky, ain’t we?,” Trudi says (echoing Tarantino’s on-set mantra, “Because we love making movies!”). Reflecting on all he’s had the privilege to do, Rick repents of his self-pity and agrees. “Yes, we are, Trudi. We’re real lucky.”
Of all the curveballs Tarantino throws at the novelization genre, nothing is more rewarding in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than the fact he used a book as a vehicle for the most personal and unguarded statements of his film career.