Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ Novelization Is Masterfully Crafted (REVIEW)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a novel written by Quentin Tarantino stands out within the milieu of the film novelizations genre. Unlike novelizations of the ‘60s, ‘70s. and ‘80s, the novel is written by Tarantino himself. Its value is superior in terms of authorship and production. Its linguistic approach and character structure function in a way that re-creates, imitates and informs readers about the cinematic experience and its history. Tarantino is familiar with literary tropes, as most of his cinematic works are written in the logic of chapters.  

The originality of the novel is launched by the subtitle “The new novel based on the film”, signifying that this is going to be a radically different experience than the film. It’s not going to be a routine screen-to-page adaptation – but an expansion of the events depicted in the original film, granting readers essential character backstory and insight into the cinematic cosmos of the Hollywood of the late ‘60s (which the advent of the New Hollywood totally refreshed).  

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a transitional era for Hollywood as an industry. Trying as always to “absorb its competition,” it offered its lion’s share to groundbreaking auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Robert Altman, and Roman Polanski. Tarantino captures the atmosphere of the period through the characters of Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, Sharon Tate, and Roman Polanski. Roman Polanski represents the sophisticated European auteur who takes over Hollywood, while Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth come from different times; they seem to carry the values of the Eisenhower era – insensible and lacking humility. That was the case with many TV or b-movie actors during the transition from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. Tarantino dedicates the book to some of the film legends that narrated Hollywood stories of the period and enhanced his writing and filmmaking process (Bruce Dern, David Carradine, Burt Reynolds, Robert Blake, Michael Parks, Robert Forster, and especially Kurt Russell.) His experience in absorbing material said conversations are demonstrated throughout the 25 chapters of the novel, but most prominently in chapter 23 (“Drinker’s Hall of Fame”), which recreates experiences from Hollywood bars of the era. Most importantly, Tarantino blends the fictitious with actual characters, making the backstories of the former more realistic and grabbing the readership’s attention.  

One of the most masterfully crafted chapters of the book is the first one – “Call me Marvin.” This chapter sets the tone and introduces the reader to some of the classic Tarantino tropes. Using extensively the present tense and delivering the dialogue in a straightforward mode, Tarantino creates the illusion that this piece of writing could be a screenplay. Having consumed numerous cult classic films, Tarantino provides a lot of backstories of the films in which Rick Dalton was supposedly involved in. They were all either low-budget westerns or anti-Nazi b-movies, like Rick Dalton’s greatest success, The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey. The descriptions of the made-up films are so vivid that it makes readers want to google them – just to ensure they aren’t real films. 

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. (COURTESY: Sony)

While Rick Dalton seems to be self-absorbed and unaware of the new cinematic genres emerging around the world (like spaghetti western), his stunt double Cliff Booth emerges as a cinephile. The character, played in the film Academy Award winner Brad Pitt, is written in an attractive way.  Imagine a hard-boiled stunt double who has gotten away with murder thrice and is a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa. It also challenges readers to watch or revisit peculiar cinematic works like I Am Curious (Yellow), which gives its name to the novel’s second chapter and even expands its knowledge of international cinemas, such as Japanese cinema. Instead of sticking exclusively to the filmography of Akira Kurosawa, the audience is introduced to films like The Sword of Doom and Sonny Chiba’s action flicks through Cliff.  Tarantino challenges the cinematic canon by revealing neglected parts of the cinematic medium. 

Tarantino presents acute analytical and combinational thought when discussing significant cinematic moments, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  Proving once again that cinema runs through his veins, Tarantino has the character of Sharon Tate narrating the famous story about the framing of Ms. Castavet (Ruth Gordon) in the telephone conversation scene in Rosemary’s apartment. Polanski’s decisive choice enhanced the audience’s experience at the time. Sharon shares the reactions of the audience during the test screenings with the readers: 

Then suddenly, Sharon witnessed all six hundred heads in front of her lean slightly to the right in order to see around the doorframe. Sharon let out a small gasp at the sight. Of course, they couldn’t see any better by moving their heads- the shot was the shot. Nor did they intellectually know they leaned to the right; they did it instinctively.  So Roman had manipulated six hundred people, and soon that number would grow to  millions all over the world, to do something they would never do if they were thinking.  But they weren’t thinking. Roman was doing their thinking for them.  

Why did he do it?  

Because he could

The most important feature of the novel is that Tarantino isn’t trying to make it a show-offy tour de force. Even historical locales like The Spahn Ranch and the now-called New Beverly Cinema (whose owner these days is Tarantino) play a vigorous role. At the same time, the author narrates either the criminal actions of the Manson family or delineates the internal journey of Sharon Tate. Los Angeles is a living city for Tarantino. He seems not even to exclude himself from the fictional and from time-to-time sarcastic cosmos of Once Upon a time in Hollywood with self-inserted lines like: 

“Frazer’s only nomination for the best lead actress was in Quentin Tarantino’s 1999 remake of the John Sayles script for the gangster epic The Lady in Red.”

Tarantino delivers another entertaining work t in a different form and a love letter to the cinema itself. Being such an entertaining experience, the novel undoubtedly captures the reader’s attention. It also answers major questions that the 2019 film aroused, especially regarding Rick Dalton’s character arc; the protagonist has gone through even more of an Aristotelian metamorphosis and is more solemn than previously to continue with the rest of his life. His relationship with the prodigy Trudi Fraser has shown him the path toward empathy, professionalism, and humility.

As a book, once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens many more discussions than just one in cinematic history. 

Tarantino’s novelization is a unique example within this literary genre. Instead of merely transcribing the cinematic images into words, Tarantino expands his film’s universe. Most importantly, the readers can dig into the heroes’ backstories while the character arcs are more perceptible.

Rating: 9/10

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