Quentin Tarantino’s first novel is a curious creature. Marketed as a novelization of his ninth and most recent movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the book) is really more of a companion piece. Perhaps I’m biased as a huge fan of the film, but it’s almost impossible to imagine a reader enjoying the novel without having seen the movie. Even funnier is to imagine such a reader pressing play for the first time after having read the book and trying to recognize the story from the novel on screen.
For one thing, the climax of the movie is not at all the climax of the book. Instead, Rick and Cliff’s confrontation with the Manson Family is dispatched with in a aside roughly a third of the way into the book. While other memorable scenes from the picture make their way onto the page, like Cliff’s journey to the Spahn ranch or Rick’s time shooting Lancer, they are almost always augmented with extra material, much of it of questionable narrative value. Tarantino loves to shoehorn in as many names of actors and directors as he can, and every character loves to share their opinions on various Hollywood types. While it’s often entertaining to see the director indulge himself, it does get somewhat repetitive. Even the hardiest cinephile will be challenged to care about the B-picture and episodic television directors and stars that Tarantino cherishes.
At times this book feels more like a storehouse for things Tarantino couldn’t reasonably have added to the film without making an unwatchable 8-hour monstrosity. It makes some sense for him to go into extensive detail about the Lancer episode Rick is filming (though even there the length becomes excessive), but is there any possible purpose for the lengthy recitation of the plot of an old Gunsmoke episode guest-starring Lancer lead Jim Stacy? I hasten to add that these discursions aren’t terrible. But even as a Tarantino fan I found myself chuckling at their inclusion.
Broadly speaking, the novel is divided into chapters which switch perspective among the main characters. Most follow either Rick or Cliff with a few devoted to Sharon Tate and other secondary characters. Overall the Rick Dalton material is quite strong and the additions from the film are amusing and beneficial. Trudi Frazier, the precocious child-actor who co-stars with Rick in Lancer, gets an expanded role and its kind of charming how much Tarantino obviously enjoys the character. On the other hand, much of the Cliff Booth stuff is added backstory meant to emphasize how much of a badass he is, but which just comes across as phony and incredibly unrealistic.
Though I can’t defend all of Tarantino the novelist’s choices, on the whole I found Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the book) a pleasantly eccentric creation. While it probably couldn’t stand on its own on its literary merit, as a companion to a great movie it has much to offer Tarantino fans.