If you’ve read my review of the movie of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood you’ll know that, with a few reservations, I enjoyed it, so I was more than intrigued when I saw Tarantino himself had written a novelisation of the film.
Which came first I’m unsure but I think the film came first with this after, though, being from an original Tarantino source, I’m not sure that matters but it’s clear he is intentionally doing something different here than in the movie.
The basics are the same though, we follow actor on the potential down turn Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-gofer Cliff Booth on something of a shaggy dog story through life in Hollywood in 1969 where Rick is filming a pilot for a new TV show (crucially as a guest spot ‘heavy’ rather than the star) while Cliff is off doing his thing while Rick is on set (a thing that seems to involve a close call with the Manson Family).
Along with which we get a subplot around Rick’s neighbours Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski all leading towards the seemingly inevitable events of August 8th and 9th 1969.
The scope of the novel feels much more restricted (which seems counterintuitive) as it’s predominantly set in Rick’s car, on the set of the pilot for Lancer or in Rick’s house on Ciello Drive – though we do get, in maybe the books most interesting scene, a sequence in a hotel in Spain with Cliff and washed up movie star Aldo Ray, along with a couple involving the Polanskis that develop their characters more than in the movie.
When the book is firing on all cylinders it is, as you might expect, hugely engaging and the dialogue sizzles, and really it’s the dialogue that shines, but, in other places it takes on a very strange tone.
This tone inescapably comes in Tarantino’s own voice and it almost feels like he’s giving an, admittedly enthusiastic, lecture on obscure films, TV shows and Hollywood history.
While that’s not necessarily a bad thing it does become a bit tiresome and gets in the way of wanting the plot to move on, but I guess key to that is, like the movie, is there really a coherent plot to move on?
While the use of real people as characters, who even more so in the book don’t really ring true, is problematic there are some elements that work really well, particularly when we get into the mindset of Rick as he navigates a changing era for the entertainment industry and his own short comings and, strangely, that does have a ring of truth to it – maybe it’s something Tarantino has felt himself as cinema has developed around him (though I think at this point he’s far from washed up like Rick seems to be).
Along with this the 400 pages of the book flew by and he does manage to capture something of the energy of his films in his writing, though it’s very unbalanced as it goes along and the jumps in time that take place aren’t as well handled as in his movies.
Ultimately Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the novel, feels more like an enthusiastic experiment than an entirely successful piece of writing in its own right and I’m really not sure it would work at all without the foreknowledge allowed by the film making it enjoyable enough but somewhat unsatisfactory and, disappointingly for a man who wrote a movie called Pulp Fiction, missing something of that style too which it feels like it could be ideal for.