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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is an exceptional literary debut for Quentin Tarantino

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is an exceptional literary debut for Quentin Tarantino

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is an exceptional literary debut for Quentin Tarantino
July 26
14:30 2021

Two years after its initial release, Quentin Tarantino makes his literary debut with an adaptation of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Having a body of work that could only work through the cinematic medium, sticking to the written word presents a unique challenge to both author and reader. The end result is a charmingly irreverent love letter to the industry he calls home.

On the topic of the 2019 film, it is one of Tarantino’s very best and most mature pictures. For a filmmaker known for his countless tributes to other film genres, making a film take place in Hollywood itself is poetically full-circle. “Hollywood” is a slower and more reflective film by Tarantino, its characters grappled with internal plights rather than grand revenge fantasies or mystery suitcases. Here we have Rick Dalton gripping with his career’s obsolescence and Sharon Tate’s dreamy eyes set on her promising career.

This novelization not only acts as an adaptation for his own film but as a preview of the next leg of Tarantino’s career. He has repeatedly stated his plan to retire from filmmaking after his tenth flick and, counting “Kill Bill” as a single film, he has one left in the chamber. In essence, this book sees the parallels of Tarantino the filmmaker and Tarantino the novelist briefly intersect.

As for how it compares to the original film, it follows the film in all major respects: Rick Dalton keeps forgetting his lines, Cliff Booth is picking a fight with Bruce Lee, Sharon Tate attends a matinee of “The Wrecking Crew” and Charles Manson is somehow in the mix. However, in typical Tarantino fashion, the route taken to get to these story points is filled with countless detours that have nothing yet everything to do with the world he is creating. We are offered a deep dive into Dalton’s career as a TV star who just couldn’t quite make the jump to the silver screen, along with the films he made and the directors he either loves or holds a nonsensical grudge with.

We are given a full dissertation of Booth’s military record, his fondness for foreign and erotic cinema and how he came to owning his trusty dog Brandy. We even get a clear answer to one of the more speculated parts of the film: Did Cliff kill his wife? We get a clear answer, albeit in comically gruesome detail.

There are even chapters dedicated to the lore of “Lancer,” the show Dalton is filming throughout the story. These passages act as though we’re reading a novelization of the show, focusing on the lives and times of Johnny Madrid and antagonist Caleb DeCoteau. It’s a seeing the filmmaker-turned author truly try his hand in novel storytelling here. His descriptions are vivid with his handle on storytelling being stronger than ever. For those two chapters, we get to witness just how much he cares about his stories and the characters who live in them.

More than anything, the novel acts as a supplemental piece to the film, adding a biography’s worth of background information that flourishes on the page but would’ve been tedious to capture on-screen. It is admittedly indulgent at times, but he’s not here to win over new fans. You’re giving this book a try because you’re already a fan of his.

A rather large omission is the film’s chaotic climax, where Rick and Cliff lay waste to the Manson murderers in hilariously brutal fashion, giving Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring the Hollywood ending they deserve. The book briefly mentions that event as if it were a Hollywood myth that adds to Rick Dalton’s notoriety.

Although that allows the book to give more credence to other parts of the story, it does leave the reader scratching their head, trying to figure out why Charles Manson and his followers are included in the first place. Chapters are dedicated to Manson’s attempts of starting a music career and some “creepy-crawly” antics by his disciples, but it’s hardly anything other Manson-centric books haven’t already touched on. Since the film is a hangout movie with a violent payoff, having the book minimize that payoff makes the arc unfulfilling.

Like the 2019 film, this is easily Tarantino’s most endearing work. The chapter that introduces Tate is a gleefully beautiful passage of a young, starry-eyed Texas gal set on following her dreams. Her presence is understated, but it’s incredibly refreshing to see her depicted as an actual person and not a murder victim, doomed to face a horrific fate.

Rick Dalton’s career crisis is a clear allusion to Tarantino’s aging and arguably dated views on the business. Who started as a filmmaker who revolutionized cinema with “Pulp Fiction” is now a vanguard trying to preserve the art form. Here he is, through characters in 1969 Los Angeles, coming to peace with that hard truth. That is the essence of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” We see characters accepting their prime is ending, and Sharon Tate, without a care in the world, enjoying the beginning of hers.

Final rating: 4.25/5

Courtesy The Hollywood Reporter

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Kevin Diaz

Kevin Diaz

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