PAPERBACK MATINEE: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD by Quentin Tarantino

Without a doubt, Schlockmania’s top film of 2019 was Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It was a deluxe package that delivered everything a film fanatic could want: larger than life characters, reams of quotable dialogue, unexpected shocks, dark humor, intimate character drama and a fascinating insider’s view portrait of the last time when Hollywood was still Hollywood. When it was revealed that Tarantino wrote his own novelization of the film after its release, it was inevitable that coverage of said book would make its way here.

That said, lots of people – fans of the film included – were thrown for a loop by the result. The book version of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood inhabits the same world portrayed by the film but takes an alternative approach to the narrative. For example, the film’s controversial finale is abandoned, mentioned only in a throw-away storytelling aside early on, and its unforgettable Spahn Ranch sequence is thrown out entirely.  As a result, the book has the sprawl of the movie yet it lacks those dramatic flashpoints that bring all its elements together.

Some have also complained about Tarantino’s approach to prose. He has a tendency towards cumbersome sentence structure when he gets excited, meaning there’s a few paragraph-length sentences in there that you’ll have to read a few times to fully grasp. More than once he breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing by jumping from one character’s perspective to another, a habit that can also prompt a need to reread particular sections.

Most notably, Tarantino is prone to going into long digressions about film history, often framed via discussion of a character’s career or filmgoing interests: some will find these bog down the narrative while others will appreciate the added context and detail about the era.  On a similar note, he indulges himself at every opportunity: there’s a lengthy scene near the end where he write his beloved real-life stepfather into that narrative so he can banter with heroes Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (said stepdad even mentions his young stepson Quentin in the conversation). Finally, the author lets his personal proclivities hang out when describing the desirable female characters: you could build a drinking game around the many times he uses the phrase “dirty bare feet” in such scenes.

As for the Schlockmania take… the book is flawed but worth reading for those enamored of the film. It could have used more editorial guidance but if you enjoyed luxuriating in the film’s depiction of its era, you’ll love all the detail about the way stuntman crews worked, the complexities of the professional relationships on the set of the Lancer pilot and Sharon Tate’s thoughts on the development of her career.  You can also count Schlockmania in the camp that enjoyed all the digressions about film history: you get lots of detail on the careers of everyone from Paul Wendkos to Aldo Ray that will enhance your appreciation of the era.

A unique addition on this tip that Schlockmania enjoyed was the detailed exploration and analysis of the backstory that sets up the Lancer series storyline: this would make a worthy spin-off film on its own terms. It’s worth noting that the film’s famous dust-up between Cliff and Bruce Lee appears here, presented in a way that offers additional context not seen in the film. It adds more nuance, even if people who have already chosen their side about this scene might not care.

More importantly, the book version Once Upon A Time In Hollywood offers an authentic recreation of the vibe of a reading a ’70s-era paperback original film novelization. There’s a newfound emphasis on the sex lives of the characters, something that was a staple of mass market paperback fiction from the ’60s on down. You also get a ton of biographical detail for Cliff, including lurid but compelling scenes involving the mafia, a French pimp, how his wife died and how he got his killer dog. These additions make him a much darker character, something some fans of the film won’t enjoy, but the slippery morality and lurid atmosphere of the scenes just have that “men’s paperback original” vibe for miles.

At the back of the book, it is revealed that a hardcover edition of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is forthcoming that will include more material. It will be interest to see if the new version offers a more consistently satisfying and balanced narrative experience. However that turns out, the paperback original version of this tale remains an interesting if uneven companion piece to a masterful film.

To read Schlockmania’s short take (in three parts) on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, click here.

 

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