Did you know that Quentin Tarantino not only wrote & directed Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (the film), but also wrote Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (the book)?

Ironically, I owe some of my literary tastes to Quentin Tarantino.

After mentioning The Getaway on a commentary track, Quentin Tarantino led me to Jim Thompson, one of America’s most underappreciated writers. If this discovery wasn’t enough, Jackie Brown (from the novel “Rum Punch”) was where I became aware of Elmore Leonard. Both of whom I’ve been reading for years now.

Usually filmmakers don’t provide great book recommendations, let alone any at all.

For Tarantino, a filmmaker very much associated with the credit “Written and Directed by”, it seems inevitable he’d eventually publish a novel adaptation of one of his own films, and here we are.
Obviously, we’re in familiar territory for most of it’s four hundred pages, though there is enough new stuff to convince fans to read it.

Subtract the actors and virtuosity of filmmaking; here it’s just the writer we’re left with.  So, if slower, indulgent scenes of characters discussing themselves or pop culture isn’t your thing, I’ll assume you’ve already made up your mind.  For those pre-committed, Tarantino pushes along a mostly enjoyable read. And still, I can’t help but wonder how it’d work without the popular movie as it’s counterpart.

Everything feels looser in the novel adaptation, partly because in the first half Tarantino casually gives up the bloodbath climax that ties it all together. (Don’t ‘Spoiler Alert’ me! You’ve seen this movie!). It’s a gamble that does not pay off. While action scenes rarely work in books, a stronger tie to pull the many pages spent on character together would’ve been nice. Structurally misdirected, I say.

Plus, sometimes Tarantino-the-Writer should have let the more direct Tarantino-the-Filmmaker back into the room. Here’s one historically and culturally charged scene:

Who the hell is that? Keeping her ears peeled. Then she hears Jay’s response to the stranger: “Well, Terry and Candy don’t live here anymore. This is the Polanski Residence now.”

So far, good right? Three paragraphs later we get an equally strong –

“She reaches the door and calls out to her former fiancé, “Who is it, Jay?”

How about those three paragraphs between?  A few necessary observations, then a tangent on the movie poster in the hallway. Thus, slack is thrown into what was before a taught line. Frustrating, since we’re dealing with ‘death of an era’ zeitgeist. Alternate history or not, sometimes it’s just best to get out of your material’s way.

Reverse Synergy

If the sum is less than it’s episodic parts, the parts are pretty good on their own; Manson’s girls get more attention, as well as Sharon Tate and others. Cliff’s violent episodes are a particularly amusing highlight, and of course we have the ‘Lancer’ pilot. But, the most interesting things happen when we step outside material already known. Sharon Tate hitchhiking from Texas. A semi-autobiographical cameo in a piano bar. Later, a tragically endearing chapter with the failed actor Aldo Ray.  These detours off the main road  contain some of the novel’s best moments, which wouldn’t have worked in the more focused narrative of a movie.

After it’s all said and done, it’s Cliff, rather than the Manson killers or TV actors, that have the most energy on the page. Fitting for a book, when our contradictory character is the most readable. Through this sort of character we see the edge books can have over movies: subjective interaction, a point of view, and maybe some psychology.

If you must know whether or not Cliff killed his wife, here you’ll get your answer… In a movie there isn’t enough time to dive deep. That scar around Brad Pitt’s neck in Inglourious Basterds is never explained either, but we know it’s an essential detail. Although our writer could tell you where and when it happened, in the end, it’s below the surface and only a tip of the iceberg is on the screen.

Final Verdict

Personal mileage may vary, but in the novel adaptation of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, we dive below the surface a bit and, despite familiar waters, it’s a pleasant enough curiosity for those already on-board.

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Author: Patrick M. Hoy

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