Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–A novel even more ambitious and audacious than the movie


Review by C.J. Bunce

Quentin Tarantino’s first novel is clearly not the stuff of a first time writer, and it has plenty to say.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the twice Academy Award-winning writer taking another look at his grandiose mix of Hollywood fairy tale, historical pop culture nostalgia trip, and the wish-fulfillment fantasy dream.  Tarantino is well-read and it shows.  He’s sat with many a filmmaker from the 1960s era and it also shows. The novel, not a true novelization but something far superior, is his attempt at writing in the Elmore Leonard style.  The result is a novel ten times as good as his giant-sized movie.  His two Oscars for screenwriting should have clued us in.  The book is available in two editions: one a pulp-style paperback, and the other a color photograph-filled hardcover that feels a lot like a Blu-ray with extra special features, including many deleted scenes.  If you like pulp crime, and loved or merely liked the movie, you’ll want to give this a read.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available now here at Amazon.

If you want to find out if a director is any good at directing, see how he does making a film from someone else’s material.  Like all the popular directors, from Coppola to Kubrick to Lucas and Spielberg and even Kurosawa, all go off the rails when they are self-indulgent–or allowed by their studio to be self-indulgent.  But dig around and you’ll find their best works emerge when they directed someone else’s material.  It’s why Jackie Brown (reviewed here), based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch (reviewed here) is Tarantino’s best work.  It’s Tarantino with finesse and nuance, with subtlety winning over brash.  Tarantino proved he was a good director with Jackie Brown.  And he’s proved he’s a good writer for the third time with this first novel.


If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll wish you’d read the novel first.  It’s that different.  The movie is ninety percent angst for the audience as we prepare for a historical crime that most fans of the movies have heard of: the Manson family murder of young starlet Sharon Tate.  Even if you know, say, from the re-jiggered eye on history seen in Inglourious Basterds, that a twist on reality is coming, it’s still a looming dread.  That is gone in the novel.  In fact the audacious auteur neatly tucks his torch-filled movie finale into a passing comment in the first third of the book.  It’s a brilliant move, and will have you wishing this story was adapted to film instead.  Many details, some good, some bad, some with Tarantino’s trademark over-the-top shock and awe, are better left to reading than watching.

If you haven’t seen the film and don’t know this story, here’s the short version:  Rick Dalton is one of many actors in the downward slide of his career.  As he settles into a new series role, no longer as the hero, but the baddie, he contemplates his history, the highs and the lows, and even counts his blessings.  His former stand-in, loyal stuntman Cliff Booth, is a former war hero, a true killer who has gotten away with murder several times since arriving home, too.  In the movie Cliff is likable, and he’s likable in the novel, too, if you can get past the misogyny and other traits you wouldn’t write for a good guy character in 2022.  Cliff has a strange code, but he still has a code.  It’s a code that makes him look in on an elderly ranch owner he thinks is getting taken advantage of–by the Manson family.  Of course it’s all (or at least very much) the stuff of make-believe in this story.  Mythology from another thread of the multiverse.

Tarantino, through Rick and Cliff and others, provides analyses of dozens if not hundreds of other filmmakers and actors, career-wise and private lives.  How much of this is Tarantino’s own views seems to weigh more toward the “absolutely” category.  It’s here where fans of filmmaking get a sequel to his episode of Robert Rodriguez’s series The Director’s ChairLike one might expect from a first-time novelist, Tarantino sometimes goes overboard from a literary standpoint, perhaps including five too many examples in strings of examples, from guys who co-starred in this or that Western series to the top voices singing on the best soul radio station in L.A. in the late 1960s.  The novel is clearly a love letter, and Tarantino thanks those Hollywood elders who gave him some good material for the book and movie in his dedication.  It is like sitting down with some old film types and listening to their fish tales.

“Deleted scenes” in the novel include a full-fledged Western show synopsis in the text, more backstory for Cliff and Rick, backstory for Cliff’s dog, a filmology for the star of the actual Lancer television series, a deletion of Cliff’s dog’s big finale scene, a better use of banter and humor between the two leads and Hollywood old-timers, a brief history of Charles Manson and his minions and his intersection with celebrities, even Tarantino’s real-life step-dad getting young Tarantino an autograph, Tarantino and the actors’ favorite original ending scene, and a finale act that is perfectly calm, perfectly reserved, and not at all wildly operatic as in all nine of Tarantino’s movies.  Many scenes make more sense with the background, especially Cliff’s fight with Bruce Lee.  This will sound like a strange pairing until you’ve read them both, but Once Upon a Time In Hollywood has a lot in common with Ron Howard and Clint Howard’s autobiography The Boys (reviewed here).  Just note the language, sex, and situations at times is very Elmore Leonard–and very Tarantino, the director–especially in the second half.

If you care at all about Tarantino or the movie, skip the paperback novel for the hardcover.  The bonus features–in the hardcover version only–are like nothing you’ve seen before.  They include full color photographs from the movie, marketing photographs, a complete Tarantino script for an episode of Rick Dalton’s fantasy series Bounty Law, and images of several movie props: mocked up theater card art and poster art for Dalton’s movies and series, fake black and white stills, TV Guide covers featuring Dalton, Bounty Law comic book cover art, pulp paperback cover art, a lunchbox mock-up, boardgame box art, and a vintage style Mad Magazine comic spoof of the show, and Tarantino with the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile (twice!).

Take away the movie, the spectacle, the celebrity, and you have a good first novel here.  We’ve covered many a mash-up here at borg with real people and fictional characters, the best and most layered in Kim Newman′s Anno Dracula series and Something More Than Night, the Minky Woodcock books, and I even discussed the concept of mash-ups here with director Nicholas Meyer, discussing mash-ups in Star Trek, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, and Time After Time.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good mesh of reality and fantasy–a modern fairy tale with a nostalgic twist.  Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available now in paperback here and hardcover here.  Jennifer Jason Leigh narrates the audio version, available here.

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