CriminOlly thinks: An unexpectedly brilliant novelisation that builds on the movie and twists it in interesting ways. 5/5
Title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Author: Quentin Tarantino | Publisher: Harper Perrenial | Pages: 400 | Publication date: 29th June 2021 | Source: Self-purchased | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: No
As a kid and teenager I read A LOT of movie novelisations. A lot of this was down to me inability to see the movies they were based on. In a world before VHS (in my house at least), missing something at the cinema meant missing it until it turned up on network TV. Plus there as the pesky fact that many of the films I really wanted to see were ones forbidden by my parents. Books, on the other hand, were always fair game. So whilst even the mildest horror films were out of reach, my local library had the books based on David Cronenberg’s fucked up body horror S&M nightmare ‘Videodrome’.
It would be fair to say then, that movie novelisations have given me a lot of reading pleasure over the years, but honestly, they’re generally companions to the movie they are based on, rather than independent works of art. Fans might rave about Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Alien’ adaptation, but the gulf between movie and book is far greater than book to movie conversions. No-one ever does ‘novels that were better than the films they were based on lists’.
So Quentin Tarantino’s novelisation of his film ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is a strange thing. Partly because movie novelisations aren’t really a thing any more, conversely because he’s a big name and it’s his first novel, also because it’s really kind of brilliant.
What makes it so good? Well most importantly it turns out Tarantino can write. I expected the dialogue to be good (because duh) but in reality it’s all good. Easy to read, inventive and fun. The words flow beautifully off the page and the story and characters grip.
Secondly, it’s very different from the film. Don’t get me wrong, a lot is the same, but the focus is different. The Manson family are less of a big deal. Cliff is the main character (rather than then dual billing that Pitt and DiCaprio had in the film), and also more of a dick than he seemed with Pitt’s grinning face slapped on his character.
Thirdly, the prose form allows Tarantino to indulge his film nerd side even more than the movie did. There are long sections in the book that read like articles from film journals. Some might find that off putting, but I kind of loved it. Even more so than the film, it feels like his love letter to Hollywood. The shift in focus away from Manson allows him to indulge that side even more and the result is a more tender piece. It still has a satisfying story to it, but it’s one more rooted in characters than action. Weirdly (and perhaps brilliantly) it ends up feeling like the book came first.
RICK DALTON: Once he had his own TV series, but now Rick’s a washed-up villain-of-the week drowning his sorrows in whiskey sours. Will a phone call from Rome save his fate or seal it?
CLIFF BOOTH: Rick’s stunt double, and the most infamous man on any movie set because he’s the only one there who might have gotten away with murder….
SHARON TATE: She left Texas to chase a movie-star dream, and found it. Sharon’s salad days are now spent on Cielo Drive, high in the Hollywood Hills.
CHARLES MANSON: The ex-con’s got a bunch of zonked-out hippies thinking he’s their spiritual leader, but he’d trade it all to be a rock ‘n’ roll star.
Content Warning: Racism, alcoholism
Tolerance Warning: All good