Published on July 26th, 2021 | by Douglas Rasmussen0
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The Novelization
Quentin Tarantino has written a novelization of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which explores more of the story and further Hollywood lore.
Okay, so this is a bit of a weird one.
For those who don’t know, novelizations of popular movies were a popular thing back in the 1970s and 1980s (my era). This was back when movies on VHS could be prohibitively expensive, going for as much as $100 per tape. It would also be years until the usually-terribly edited versions would come out on TV. If it was an R-rated film then the TV edit would be even worse (Die Hard 2 had a rather infamous one: “Yippee ki yay Mr. Falconer,” that’s become meme history). The idea was, then, that you could buy a novelization and just mentally picture the scenes as you remember them while reading. Yes, we’ve come a long way since then. Now with streaming and digital services, movies are never that far away anymore.
Which, of course, means that director Quentin Tarantino has to get nostalgic about it and produce his own novelization of his most recent film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (Harper Perennial). Tarantino even released an affordable mass market paperback replete with ads in the back for other books (some real, some fake). Which is to say, that at the very least this will be an interesting and affordable experiment and provides a glimpse into Tarantino the book writer, if he should choose that route after his proposed ‘retirement.’
Structurally the book takes a slightly different approach than just ‘novelizing’ an early screenplay, as most did back in the day. Tarantino’s approach is to use the novel to fill in the gaps between the film’s scenes. Often the scene in the book cuts away to the big scenes that are seen in the movie, with the hyper-violent ending being edited out of the novel completely. In fact the back cover shows photos from what appears to be filmed but deleted scenes. Admittedly it doesn’t always work, as there are backgrounds to scenes that function perfectly fine in the film that don’t need extra background. But it’s a different way to tackle the novelization that I do prefer over a more direct novelization of a screenplay, and if you’re a fan of this movie, there’s going to be something in it for you.
As for me, I generally liked the movie, but I wouldn’t say that I loved it. I did find myself checking the clock a couple of times. In terms of Tarantino I tend to be ambivalent. I really enjoyed the pure action fun of Kill Bill Volumes One and Two, but I’ve found his later films to be overlong and sometimes without merit (Django Unchained being my least favorite in his filmography). Still, he is a filmmaker that I do usually try to see in theaters. If nothing else they do feature great acting. Heck, he even got a decent performance out of Leonardo DiCaprio, who I usually don’t care much for.
Yes, there are some of Tarantino’s less-than-savory aspects repeated in this book. The n-word makes an appearance, of course. Because what would Tarantino be without a racial epithet? I don’t think he’s racist, it’s more like a 13-year old enjoying the thrill of shocking people. He does try to explain his controversial Bruce Lee section of the film, but not with great success. It’s a section of the film that doesn’t reflect Bruce Lee in the slightest (Lee never did high kicks in real life, only in the movies, and for exactly the same reason as Cliff points out), and the novel seems to just prefer to double down on Tarantino’s view rather than explain or justify. Tarantino has been obnoxious in his defence of the Bruce Lee section, and this section of the book just exposes his ignorance of the subject matter. It is by far the most unsuccessful section of the book.
And no, Sharon Tate doesn’t have any more time devoted to her in the book than in the film. Also, considering the section of the book where Cliff gets advice on how to be a pimp, an unnecessary section that could only belong in a novel set in the 1960s, women seem to get the short shrift again.
Overall, a quick and (mostly) enjoyable read for fans of the movie, film buffs, or even just those who are curious about a novelization in this day and age. As a writer Tarantino is still a bit choppy and perhaps struggles a bit. There is also a massive amount of Hollywood and TV lore that Tarantino spills out in this book. In some ways this is great, and fascinating, although it feels less like a narrative voice than it does Tarantino’s own voice being placed in the novel. Tarantino hasn’t quite got the subtle art of separating those two elements just yet. And for the mass market price, you really can’t lose. It takes about a weekend to read and it does add to the movie experience, even if, just like the movie, it does have its problem areas. Given the price, I would recommend it, with a B- rating. Pretty much just like the movie.