Skip to main content
book review
Open this photo in gallery:
  • Title: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The Novel
  • Author: Quentin Tarantino
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 400

There aren’t many book lovers in the Quentin Tarantino Cinematic Universe. Mostly, the director’s characters read superhero comics, though Vincent Vega does flip through Peter O’Donnell’s thematically appropriate novel Modesty Blaise just before he’s killed whilst sitting on the toilet in Pulp Fiction. Ultimately, the Tarantino-verse emerged from the raucous aisles of the grindhouse, not the quiet stacks of the library.

Which is what made last year’s announcement that Tarantino had signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins – for both a novelization of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and a separate collection of essays and reviews – so interesting. And not a little bit confusing. How would the filmmaker’s famously electric screenwriting, and typo-ridden, style stand when confined solely to the page? What’s more: OUATIH, in its deliberately meandering narrative, isn’t the first Tarantino movie that comes to mind for essential novelization.

Even with the caveat that I’m far from one of OUATIH’s biggest fans – I still think the self-indulgent time-trip to an imagined past is Tarantino’s second-worst film, after the sloppy and cocky Django Unchained – the whole exercise struck me as stunt-y. A publishing-industry lark afforded to a man who is by now used to never having to hear the word “no” – and who maybe (maybe?) harbours some unvocalized resentment that one of his best-regarded films, the 1997 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (retitled Jackie Brown), sprang from source material other than his own brain.

My mistake. While subsequent viewings of OUATIH haven’t shaken my feelings toward the film, a brisk read of Tarantino’s backwards-adaptation has melted my icy view of the man’s original intentions. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel (the ellipsis is now curiously gone from the title) is far from a literary masterpiece, or even an airport-newsstand all-timer. But it is a meaty and imaginative piece of meta-pulp.

A kind of extended director’s cut of his film – although of course Tarantino has long retained final say on his cinematic work – the book playfully shuffles, remixes and recontextualizes the 1969 misadventures of washed-up actor Rick Dalton, aging stuntman Cliff Booth and potentially doomed starlet Sharon Tate.

Open this photo in gallery:

Quentin Tarantino films Leonardo DiCaprio, centre, and Brad Pitt on the set of 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'.ANDREW COOPER/Sony Pictures

Tarantino’s gently revisionary intentions are declared right up front, when Rick’s meeting with excitable agent Marvin Schwarz is given the extended-scene treatment, taking place this time not in a restaurant but in Schwarz’s office. The dialogue is longer, bouncier. The narrative purpose is the same, but Tarantino takes particular delight in getting to presumed end-points, clearly relishing the opportunity to expand and contract his characters and situations with no concern as to on-set technicalities.

We get closer, sharper portraits of Rick, Cliff and Sharon, as well as the Hollywood landscape that’s shifting under their feet. Tarantino does an especially thorough job at colouring in Cliff’s many blank spots. In the film, Cliff’s presence was undeniably captivating but also gradually aggravating – it was as if Tarantino felt the casting of the forever-cool Brad Pitt would distract from the fact that we, and maybe he, have no genuine idea who Rick’s buddy might be. Well, Tarantino did have a thorough understanding of all things Cliff – he just needed a few hundred extra pages to get it all down.

Here, we get all the layers we need, and the result is a crystal-cut killer who will go down in the great canon of Tarantino sociopaths. In Q.T. speak, Cliff is less Mr. White and more Mr. Blonde.

Still, there are more than a few bumps on Sunset. Tarantino’s prose is best when he gets to stuff his characters’ mouths with wraparound, history-heavy dialogue – but the rest of the third-person present action reads like, well, script direction. The book continues, and regrettably expands upon, Tarantino’s curious beef with Bruce Lee. And as interesting as the novel-as-experiment is, it is entirely worthless for readers who have never before stepped a foot inside Tarantino-land. If you haven’t been tempted by the man’s B-movie-addled mind yet, this is not going to suddenly convince you otherwise.

The big trouble: Now, I’m anticipating similar novelizations of Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds. But given Tarantino’s tendency to bounce from one promised project to another – I’ll be shocked if that book of essays is ever published – I’m not holding out much hope for the return of Quentin Tarantino, novelist.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe