Film novelizations have a bad rap. They’re rarely insightful, let alone interesting, but with his adaptation of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has managed to impress and provide a deeper understanding of his own film and a look back at an era of change in Hollywood.
(Note: this review includes spoilers for anyone who has not seen the movie).
Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood book – published as an era-appropriate dime-store paperback – assumes the reader has seen his 2019 film of the same name because quite frankly, there’s little intrigue here for someone who isn’t familiar with its lead characters. The main beats remain the same: Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) star is fading and along with his friend and chauffeur, stuntman Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt), the men navigate the changing landscape of cinema and television in the 1960s while a new generation of filmmakers and movie stars personified by Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is on the rise.
The novel assumes the reader has seen the film and benefits from what has already been presented on screen, allowing Tarantino to explore the cultural New Hollywood zeitgeist at hand. This is not just a cash-grab repackaging of the script: the book is its own distinct experience.
Not only are the characters given more detailed backgrounds, but some of the more ambiguous plot points in the movie are also spelled out in black-and-white on the page in sometimes graphic and gruesome detail. Though the Manson Family drama plays a large part in the film, in the written adaptation, it’s less present in the book and more part of the swinging 1960s backdrop in which we find Rick and Cliff. The same, too, goes for the film’s flamethrower climax, which is presented almost 100 pages into the novel as a flash-forward sequence.
Those looking for Tarantino in written form will be delighted. His signature dialogue is present in the novelization, as is era-appropriate slang. While some of his descriptive writing relies on basic writing 101 tropes, Tarantino shines when doing what he does best — talking about movies.
Woven into the story, paragraphs and pages at a time are film and TV history lessons weaving in true Hollywood facts through his fictionalized characters. Name dropping everything from the foreign art house lure of I Am Curious (Yellow) to detailed directing tactics on Rosemary’s Baby, it is as though Tarantino is finally getting to share the anecdotes he gained as a film fan first and foremost. While most of the time these anecdotes are interesting, one could easily skim his accounts of the history of the fictional Lancer TV show Rick Dalton finds himself which feels more like a lecture than necessary background colour.
As someone who last read a novelization of a film circa 1996 (it was a copy of Face/Off in case you ever suspected my love of Nicolas Cage was a recent acquisition), the Once Upon A Time In Hollywood book rises above. Though it may not be winning over any new fans, it’s a great companion piece for viewers who loved both the film and everything Tarantino does. If Tarantino’s anecdotes are just the tip of his knowledge and understanding of Hollywood, I’ll be one of the first to buy his inevitable non-fiction take on film history.