Some minor spoilers will be present in this review.
Novelizations are perhaps one of the lowest forms of literature. Quite often, the task of transcribing a script, usually an early draft, is given to a lesser-known author whose tasked with bringing the plot of the movie to book form simply to get those diehard fans to spend a few extra bucks. So it should come as a surprise then that Quentin Tarantino’s fictional debut is a novelization of his ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But Tarantino doesn’t simply retell the story we saw in the movie. We get a deep dive to the characters in the book, which is more of a companion than an adaption. Some scenes are altered, some are completely missing. But the main reason why you should read this is just how deep Tarantino goes for his love of cinema.
And when I say deep, I mean it. Tarantino pulls deep from his well of cinematic knowledge in this book and dumps it into the novel. It can sometimes be a little disorientating, as he throws in three or four callouts per sentence, which tends to break up the flow. This is particularly noticeable and troublesome in the opening chapter of the movie, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton meets Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz. In the film, this scene takes place in a restaurant and features plenty of spliced shots to give you a visual reference for the verbal whiplash. However, in the book (which now takes place in Marvin’s office), we don’t get that and Tarantino begins dropping actor and film names left, right and center, which both breaks the flow of his writing and leaves a poor first impression of his debut piece of fiction. The physical book itself, for the record, is currently available only as a mass market paperback, intentional laid out and designed to look period accurate (down to the commercials in the back) but a deluxe hardcover edition will also be available at a later date.
But things do improve once we leave that chapter and Tarantino even begins to calm it down with all the name dropping a few chapters into his narrative and begins finding his groove. A pattern, or presentence, quickly becomes apparent though: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t just the movie translated to the pages of a mass market novel, but a companion piece to the motion picture. Most of the pages are dedicated to backstory, scenes we never saw in the movie, extended shots or scenes from different points of view. We get everything from in- universe chapters of the Lancer storyline to Cliff Booth hanging out with Also Ray in Spain.
Of all the characters present in Tarantino’s Hollywood epic, Brad Pitt’s Oscar winning Cliff Booth is certainly the one who has the most changes. In the movie, Tarantino juggles making Cliff both likeable and cool while also being dangerous, violent and potentially even a wife killer. Additions to his character are his affinity for the films of Kurosawa and Euro arthouse erotica. Tarantino seemingly has downplayed Cliff’s cool factor to make him, seemingly, bit more unpleasant. Cliff is confirmed to have gotten away with murder multiple times and has the most confirmed kills during his time in the Pacific in World War II. While they never say the words or allude to this in the movie, Cliff also appears to be a sex addict and definitely sees women as objects.
Rick Dalton also gets some changes. We spend a lot of time with him exploring his thoughts and his level of awareness. Rick is much dumber than he appeared on screen and gets through life seemingly by luck and chance more often than not. He’s completely at a loss when he’s lectured on the set of Lancer about the comparisons to Shakespeare (whose the bard, he ponders) and his angry, violent mood swings and alcoholism are actually attributed to a yet to be identified, and thus undiagnosed, illness.
But the book isn’t just the Rick and Cliff story. A lot of side characters get their own point of view chapters, including Timothy Olyphant’s Jim Stacy, the lead in Lancer (both in-show and out), Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who is more fleshed out in her segments, backstory for Pussycat, Charles Manson himself and Squeaky Fromme, the latter of which allows us to see the Spahn Ranch scene from her point of view. In her ignorance, she refers to Cliff as the “Hawaiian dude” simple due to his yellow Hawaiian shirt. Manson’s chapter dives heavily into his time with Dennis Wilson and it’s both fascination and creepy to see how the cult leader looked at pop culture.
In almost every chapter, Tarantino breaks away from the narrative to wax poetic about cinema. For instance, when Cliff drops Rick at home and Roman Polanski drives by with Sharon, Tarantino gives us pages of who Roman is and why he was so popular and influential circa 1969. Likewise, in Cliff’s Kurosawa chapter, we get a ton of information on the iconic Japanese director’s filmography (and indirectly, Tarantino’s own thoughts on his movies).
Tarantino’s writing itself is great. The prose reminded me heavily of movie narration (I had the Kurt Russell voice in my head for a lot of the reading) and the tone bounces from dark humor, crude and encyclopedic. His writing is easy to digest and never runs on too long, although his tendency to ramble about which actor was in which movie when and made by any given director can sometimes drag out a scene. In terms of the narrative, most of the tale takes place over the weekend, with some flashforwards and flashbacks scattered throughout the book. That means that the explosive confrontation with the Family isn’t included in the book and is instead relegated to a passing comment early on in the novel. We get a completely different ending, which is far more nuanced and relaxed than the bloody finale of the movie.
I won’t linger on this thought too long, but Tarantino does dive further into the whole Bruce Lee controversy as well. Before, I saw the scene in the movie as a case of Cliff being an unreliable narrator and his memory of that event couldn’t be counted on as gospel. But in the novel, not only is there no wiggle room for this possibility to play out but he further targets Lee’s legacy. He cites other stuntmen of the time, who hated working with Lee as he would often “tag” American stuntmen (intentionally hit them in a scene) and belittle American stuntmen compared to their Asian counterparts. Regardless if true or not, it seems weird to antagonize Lee further. I dug the concept of Cliff having his own version of events but this chapter could have been altered, fact or fiction.
Overall, the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novelization is a fascinating companion piece. It doesn’t just retell the story of the movie but gives us a lot of extra scenes, alternate takes and a lot of film history. With Tarantino stating his next film will be curtains call for him as a director, I do hope he considers a new career as a fiction author. I just hope he doesn’t turn all of his films into novels.