The ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood…’ extended universe
Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood… doesn’t tell the story of that movie straight. If you love OUTIH, you’ll get some of the greatest hits: Cliff feeds his dog Brandy from a can, “Easy Breezy,” the Bruce Lee fight. But as meandering and discursive as the movie is, it still builds to one of the most exciting, funniest, and gruesome finales in cinematic history. The novel, on the other hand, has Rick Dalton disposing of the Manson Family with his flamethrower about 100 pages in, told as an aside flashback. Killer Brandy and Cliff Booth, acid-tripping and murderous, so key to the movie’s climax exist off-stage in that scene in the book.
This isn’t a novel with a plot and characters. It’s more like Cliff’s Notes to a Tarantino movie. Or Cliff Notes. We do learn a lot about Cliff Booth in this book. It quickly dispatches the movie’s great mystery: Did Cliff kill his wife? We learn the truth in gruesome detail. We also hear a lot about Cliff’s experiences during the war, and various meditations of his on “poontang,” including a disturbing and admittedly entertaining exchange with a French pimp. Cliff also likes to take pretty secretaries to see foreign films, which gives Tarantino license to write a mini-essay on Bergman films in Cliff’s voice. It’s not believable in terms of the character, but it’s an interesting bit of movie criticism.
Meanwhile, Rick Dalton does what he mostly does in the movie, which is whine about the set of a Western TV pilot episode, feeling sorry for himself. Tarantino spends endless pages telling us the plot and backstory of “Lancer,” so you feel like you’ve landed in a Louis L’Amour novel. You could gloss over those dozens of pages easily, like I did, and not miss anything. In the movie, Rick’s main relationship is with Cliff. In the novel, it’s with “Trudy,” the little girl with whom he shares a key scene in the Lancer pilot. This magic pixie teaches Rick something about acting, which isn’t very believable, and I found the relationship vaguely creepy. But it nonetheless clearly forms the emotional core of the book.
Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is also an alternate history of the 1960s, giving a kind of happy ending to the Manson murders. The book gives us much more Charlie Manson than the film did, including a very interesting chapter about his failed music career. You almost get the sense that Tarantino actually admires Manson in a weird way. There are also some decent Sharon Tate chapters, and even some Roman Polanski backstory, which isn’t any more than you’d get from the excellent recent book about the making of Chinatown, but it’s still engaging.
Somehow, though, that’s all still a small part of the book. Tarantino fills his Once Upon A Time In Hollywood paperback with a whole filing cabinet of ephemeral Hollywood backstory. If you want to read about George C. Scott’s alcoholism or learn, in excruciating detail, about the casting process behind late-60s TV pilots, then this is your dream. If Tarantino loves talking about George Peppard so much, why doesn’t he just marry him?
Story aside, OUTIH is about a vibe, a Hollywood in transition from a square-jawed company town to an industry ruled by semi-androgynous Boomer artistes. Tarantino revels in that tension between the old and the new, because it comprised the backdrop to his childhood. I saw the movie in the theater three times, but the best showing, by far, was at the New Beverly, the theater Tarantino owns. Not only did the showing include a merch booth (where I bought a Brandy button and one reading “Cliff Booth: Hollywood stuntman”), but the show also included fake commercials for the beer and cigarettes that the movie contains, a full trailer for “Bounty Law” and an entire scene of Leonardo DiCaprio singing “Behind The Green Door” on Hullaballoo. It was fully immersive.
The Once Upon A Time In Hollywood paperback just expands on that vibe. You have to assume that anyone who picks up this book is already familiar with the narrative. So why not give fans an expanded universe? Most people seem to like the book pretty well, but what criticism I’ve seen say that it reads like a screenplay instead of a book. I don’t see that at all. This is definitely a book, but it’s more like a notebook than a novel. Tarantino has cleverly shaped it to look like a pulp paperback from the late 60s. He fills the back pages with ads for Elmore Leonard westerns and “Serpico.”
Tarantino already fills his movies with that pulpiness, channelled through his own revisionist, perverted sensibility. He probably could do the same thing in a novel if he wanted, better than most. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t that novel. For this debut book, Tarantino prefers to tell, not show.