The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino becomes the first novel by Quentin Tarantino, in this adaptation of his Once Upon a Time…. In Hollywood. With it, a return to the world of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth – the fading movie star and his stuntman-turned driver and handyman. And, of course, the vibrant, ever-unfading Sharon Tate, and the sinister barefoot (very barefoot) hippy cult hiding out at old Spahn Ranch.
This novelization sticks closely to the story of Tarantino’s most recent picture, taking whole chunks, word-for-word, from his own screenplay. What Tarantino does take the opportunity to do is dive deeper into the personalities of Rick and Cliff; Rick’s self-loathing and pettiness, Cliff’s… Cliff-ness. If Brad Pitt’s easygoing stuntman stole the show in 2019, the character continues to do so here, sans Pitt. Tarantino is clearly enamoured with Booth, and devotes whole chapters of the novel to his backstory, his likes and dislikes, and even listing off his top five Akira Kurosawa films.
Perhaps of more interest than that, however, is the story of Cliff and his ex, dead wife. Tarantino expands on the murder, leaving audiences in little doubt as to the what and the why. Similarly, he doubles down on the movie’s other big Cliff controversy – the stuntman’s encounter with one Bruce Lee. If audiences and the Lee estate were unhappy with Tarantino’s depiction of the star in his movie, they’re not going to be won over here. Tarantino leans into the depiction of Lee as a hot-headed narcissist, expounding on his supposed industry sins, arrogance, and Cliff’s straight-up dislike of the guy.
If Cliff represents Hollywood’s dark underbelly, that leaves Rick as the nuts-and-bolts of the industry. While Cliff gets to mix it up with Bruce Lee and the disciples of Charlie Manson, Rick struggles to come to terms with his lagging status and relegation to TV show guest star. This gives Tarantino excuse to wax lyrical, page after page, on old Hollywood. Part novel, part film history, Tarantino enthusiastically shoots off whole chapters of Hollywood anecdotes, histories and snippets of criticism. It’s an education in an alternate reality Hollywood; the facts almost indecipherable from fiction, and presented with the same authority.
Tarantino the novelist is Tarantino at his most Tarantino; self-indulgent, jubilant and bursting with an infectious passion for his characters and the world they live in. From the constant references to the women and their dirty bare feet (including Margot Robbie, her delicate tootsies front and centre on the book’s cover), to the lurid violence and gleefully imaginative swearing, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is indelibly Tarantino. Which means that there are plenty of surprises too. This may be a novelization, but it’s more than just a rehash of the movie. This is especially true of the ending, which Tarantino cannily subverts, playing with the book’s narrative and ensuring that emerges as its own distinct entity.
The First Novel by Quentin Tarantino is a messy, surprisingly sloppy affair. But it’s every bit as exciting and enjoyable as the movie upon which it’s based. With that, Tarantino turns his celebrated epic into a delightful, playful work of Hollywood pulp fiction.