Book Review – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

First published, 2021

⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The first time I read a novelisation of a movie, I was about nine years old. Home Alone had been a smash hit in the cinema and, in order to capitalise on the financial success of the film and its young star, a book appeared. Now, that might sound very cynical – that they only produced a book to make money. I’ll point out, I only bought the book because I’d watched the film multiple times and I thought Macaulay Culkin was cute so we’re none of us perfect here.

The book itself was well-written, as I recall, and a pretty faithful reproduction of the film, without much extra in terms of fluff or local character. A bit like those programmes with audio description for the blind, the Home Alone book explained everything that was going on without adding subplots or any kind of blather. I’d seen the film a good dozen times when I read the novelisation (which is a word that confuses me because I’m completely sure that I hate it) so I pretty well knew the story inside out at that point.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is the novelisation, by Quentin Tarantino, of his film of the same name. Having not seen the film, but having loved Tarantino since Jackie Brown, I thought I’d be in a good position to judge the book on its merits alone.

The story follows washed-up actor Rick as he searches for meaning as well as meaningful roles where he isn’t considered a discount Steve McQueen. Along with Rick, we meet his stuntman Cliff, a war hero, film buff and multiple murderer in civilian life, the notorious cult leader Charles Manson – a figure of major influence among his ‘family’ as well as a user and a sponge as he tries to forge a musical career with the help of Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Terry Melcher (music producer and son of Doris Day), who are both infatuated with Manson’s girls. And, of course, the story wouldn’t be complete without Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski as they go about their lives, making movies and expecting a baby.

I’ve read a bit about Charles Manson and the events on Cielo Drive in 1969, during the last year or so. If it were fiction, it would be an explosive story. As a real-life tragedy, arguably it would be deeply exploitative, probably offensive, to use it as part of a narrative about a washed-up actor. The fact that the reader gets to know all the characters, and some of them even meet, is what makes the fact that the story ends before that fateful night rather surprising. It leaves the story feeling unfinished and a bit too slick.

References to Charles Manson and the ‘Family’ pervade western culture, there are multiple nods to Manson on TV shows as well as portrayals of him stretching back over the years and, to me, it seems like a missed opportunity to craft a story around Manson, showing him as a failed musician, living off other people’s desire, without showing the monster within.

In any case, Manson’s ‘Family’ comes across as a bunch of young, confused but hopeful rebels, who have lots of sex and no responsibilities except to devote themselves to their leader.

The book is written as I’d expect a novel-formatted Tarantino script to read. There’s lots of swearing and violence, many mad, bad and dangerous to know characters who are, nevertheless, intriguing, and a focus on the minutiae of life that most writers would just leave out. Like the hamburger/KahunaBurger scene in Pulp Fiction, there are pages and pages on cigarette brands which add little to the storyline, almost stop the pacing dead, but are inexplicably charming in the Tarantino style.

I enjoyed the references to films and film stars which pepper the book. Making him a film connoisseur gave Cliff an extra dimension which he might otherwise have been in need of. Also, making Rick an ‘amateur drunk’ who can’t get hammered the night before and expect to get to the set on time, knowing all his lines and ready to start in the same way as your ‘professional drunks’ might do, was rather fun.

Although I found the author’s references to himself rather clunky and out of place, I think fans of Quentin Tarantino will enjoy this book. Those who prefer a complete ending with no dot-dot-dot might struggle with it. I liked that Tarantino spells ‘anywho’ the same way I do.