23 August 2021

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

On the film prints, it was Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. On the posters, it was Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood. (Note the wandering ellipsis.) On the cover of Quentin Tarantino’s novelisation of his own film, it’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Nary an ellipsis to be seen.)

The book doesn’t just tweak the title, it changes the entire structure. The film’s audacious climax is glossed over in a few paragraphs, a quarter of the way through the book: “Rick and Cliff made short order of the housebreakers, killing all three in a brutal fight.” There are also plenty of minor changes, from soundtrack switches (“A Day in the Life emanates from the car radio,” replacing a perfume commercial) to scene transpositions (the meeting with Marvin Schwarz takes place in his office rather than a restaurant).

Not surprisingly, the novel adds a great deal more backstory to the main characters, and gives some of the supporting characters (including spunky Trudi Frazer) additional scenes. The death of Cliff Booth’s wife is explained unambiguously, and we learn far more about Cliff’s past, including (somewhat implausibly) his favourite Akira Kurosawa films. Some of the extra material, including amusingly pretentious dialogue from Sam Wanamaker (“sexy evil Hamlet”), appears as blu-ray bonus footage.

There are some self-referential Tarantino quotes and cameos, such as a conversation about gourmet coffee (“none of that Maxwell House rotgut”) and lines like “Oh, you didn't hear me? Let me repeat it” that recall Pulp Fiction. That film’s “tasty beverage” line recurs, as it does in Death Proof. We learn that Trudi starred in “Tarantino’s 1999 remake of the John Sayles script for the gangster epic The Lady in Red” (the irony being that, in reality, he wouldn’t adapt a pre-existing script). His stepfather Curt Zastoupil also appears, and Rick Dalton signs an autograph “to Curt’s son, Quentin”.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel is not literary fiction, but nor is it pretending to be. Tarantino is reviving and deconstructing the film novelisation, giving him plausible deniability: any run-of-the-mill prose is merely paying homage to the form. Regardless, as you would expect from Tarantino, the dialogue is often superb.