Once Upon A Time In Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino review: Pulp fan fiction with the usual flair and flaws

·4-min read
 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

The leap from auteur to author is not such a big one for Quentin Tarantino. The director often writes his stories out like sprawling fictions before sharpening them into screenplay form, and fills those scripts with details never intended to make it onto the screen.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, his first book, is a novelisation of his 2019 movie, written in tribute to the film tie-in paperbacks he grew up reading (a genre that died out with the advent of the VHS). And yet, in a trademark twist of chronology, the book preceded the film, kinda: Tarantino spent five years working on Once Upon A Time as a standalone novel before deciding to turn it into a movie.

As in the film, we open with the down-on-his-luck figure of Rick Dalton (played on screen by Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed-up former TV cowboy who is woefully out of step with the mores of late Sixties Hollywood: as his straight-talking agent, who’s trying to lure him over to Europe to make lucrative spaghetti Westerns instead, puts it: “When you weren’t looking, the culture changed. You gotta be somebody’s hippie son to star in movies nowadays.”

At his side is his stunt double turned general dogsbody Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), an enigmatic figure whose dubious backstory (and unexpected reverence for the cinema of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa) is fleshed out over the course of several chapters. One of them, titled Misadventure, further illuminates a lingering mystery of the film: how he became “the only man on the set that everybody in the know knew got away with murder.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Sony)
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Sony)

Elsewhere, we follow the Manson Family on their nocturnal ‘creepy crawls’ through upmarket LA neighbourhoods, and briefly see Hollywood through the eyes of actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie in the film). Robbie’s character famously received minimal dialogue in the movie, and the novel doesn’t exactly overexert itself to redress this. There are flashes of a woman bored with how the world sees her - especially when we watch her watching one of her films on screen, considering her “sexy little me” act - but for the most part she remains a cute, smiling cipher.

Though the writing still has the rat-a-tat pace of a screenplay, this is not a straightforward, beat for beat adaptation. It’s intriguing to see where the director lingers and where he rushes. Tarantino’s film went out in a provocative blaze of cartoonish brutality; its twisted fairy tale do-over of the Cielo Drive murders both nodded towards and inevitably reopened the longstanding debate about the director’s handling of violence and female characters. Whether you loved it, hated it or oscillated between the two depending on which think piece you’d read most recently (guilty!), the finale was the movie’s defining moment.

And yet here, that carefully choreographed, completely batshit sequence is dispensed with in just a few lines. It’s confined to an aside early on, when the narrator briefly flashes forward to the night in question then skips beyond it, segueing into a long digression about the war movies that newly minted “folkloric hero” Rick would go on to make (complete with details of co-stars, screenwriters and directors). There is a certain self-awareness to the way Tarantino sidelines his big finale. “Pretty soon the whole ghastly night of violence became heavy with symbolic weight,” he writes of the incident. You wonder whether he got bored of being asked to wrestle with that “symbolic weight” in the aftermath of the film’s release and simply decided to upend our expectations once more.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth (Sony)
Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth (Sony)

Without that final set-piece looming over it, the narrative flits around untethered. Tarantino’s concern here is world-building, luxuriating in an era and a genre that he is clearly fascinated by - to the extent that factual digressions about 60s filmmakers are constantly cropping up. Swathes of the novel are a strange, rag-tag mix of pulpy action, Western melodrama (in chapters where the plot of a pilot episode in which Rick is guest-starring is expanded upon at length) and interpolated cinema history. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Tarantino is writing his own fanfiction - albeit with undeniable flair. At several points, he sneakily inserts versions of himself into the narrative, like the novelistic equivalent of his film cameos.

All of his other hallmarks (spot the unnecessary references to feet) are present and correct - including shades of misogyny and the countless racial slurs which, as ever, he almost seems to be goading us with. Tarantino would doubtless argue, as he has done before, that he’s simply realistically portraying the attitudes of the time - his fellow director Spike Lee has laid out a strong counter-argument on many occasions, too. This novel won’t change your stance on Tarantino; it will simply entrench it further. This contrarian probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino is out now (W&N, £8.99)

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