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28 June 2021

Quentin Tarantino’s debut novel: a bold and often joyous work

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – derived from the writer-director’s 2019 film – is a nimble and piquant piece of storytelling.

By Leo Robson

I have a recurring daydream in which certain film directors, instead of being allowed to forge their own stubbornly eccentric courses, are required to do exactly as I tell them. Wes Anderson is forbidden from working with children and animatronics, while François Ozon, after agreeing to tail back his productivity, spends his resulting free time giving tutorials in film finance to Charlie Kaufman and Peter Greenaway. But the strictest diktats are reserved for Quentin Tarantino who, since his 1990s hat-trick of Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, has tended to indulge his appetite for genre taxidermy at the cost of virtually everything else.

Occasionally, left to his own devices, Tarantino gets things exactly right, as in the Nazi fantasia Inglourious Basterds, the strongest film he has made this century. But under my regime Death Proof, a kitsch car-chase movie, and the stagy, wordy Western The Hateful Eight would almost certainly have been snuffed out at the treatment stage. And though Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his 2019 feature about TV cowboys and gun-toting hippies, was a more suitable use of his time, I would have insisted on hiring a stringent script editor and then, after the film’s surprisingly rapturous reception, condemned in the strongest terms his plan to recast the narrative as a work of prose fiction.

And yet the result powerfully exposes the shortcomings of my solipsistic game. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bold, nimble, piquant, informative, often joyous piece of storytelling in the metahistorical tradition of Doctorow and DeLillo and James Ellroy, who also mixed real-life figures and invented characters, and the counterfactual tradition of Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth in The Plot Against America, though powered by wish-fulfilment rather than envisaging the worst-case scenario. The story, as in the film, mostly takes place over the course of 12 hours in February 1969 (a Saturday here, changed from a Sunday).

It’s a tale of two actors – the fading, pompadoured Rick Dalton, a one-time leading man who is due to make his latest appearance as a villain on someone else’s show, and his next-door neighbour, the blonde, pregnant Sharon Tate, whose latest film, the light comedy The Wrecking Crew, has just opened in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Rick’s best friend and “gofer,” the war hero Cliff Booth, has an encounter with members of Charles Manson’s “Family” at a cattle ranch formerly used as the backdrop for Bounty Law, the set on which, eight years earlier, Cliff and Rick first crossed paths as stuntman and star.

Whatever its autonomous pleasures, the book inevitably functions to some degree as a contextual artefact, revealing more of Tarantino’s original intentions, and vindicating the suspicion held by a minority of viewers that the film’s coherence was badly damaged by cuts. Tarantino the novelist provides a more intricate sense of the conflicting or paradoxical messages sent by the late Sixties, when comparatively old-school Steve McQueen and sensitive new boy Dustin Hoffman were the reigning stars, movies and TV possessed equally strong claims to dominance, and Europe connoted both high culture and eroticism, earnestness and freedom. There’s a vision, nowhere evident in the film, of Hollywood as a magnet for misfits, from the Texan Tate to her Polish husband the director Roman Polanski and her ambitious “karate coach” Bruce Lee to the failed songwriter Manson and the drifters, most of them young women, that made up his “Family”.

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Only one of Tarantino’s 13 scripts has been an adaptation – Jackie Brown, based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch – but by his own account he has derived a great deal of inspiration from literary forms, and not just in superficial ways (Kill Bill coming out as two “volumes”; the title Pulp Fiction). He has compared True Romance to an autobiographical first novel, with Christian Slater’s Clarence the author stand-in, and unprophetically described Reservoir Dogs as “the pulp novel I’ll never write”. He also claims that most of his writing heroes are novelists. He was once caught shoplifting a copy of Leonard’s The Switch – a novel now advertised in the back of Tarantino’s own paperback original – and his conception of his work as belonging largely to the same fictional universe derives from Leonard and, perhaps surprisingly, the Glass family stories of JD Salinger. (He was himself named in part after a denizen of William Faulkner’s much-charted Yoknapatawpha County, Quentin Compson.) 

Tarantino has said that “movies should benefit from the novel’s freedoms”, and his frequent use of shuffled chronology and sudden flashbacks seems to reflect an effort in this direction. By that logic Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might be considered an exercise in reverse engineering, a novel derived from a film made by a writer-director striving to create novels on film. There was a grandeur and deliberateness to the screen version, and also, at least for some, a sense of thwarted ambition, with various elements seeming under-explored or imperfectly integrated.

Some problems survive the change of medium. The scenes of Rick struggling with his latest appearance as a TV villain, in the pilot of the – genuine – CBS show, Lancer, are now presented as a blow-by-blow synopsis of the episode. It remains unclear why so much of the story (90 minutes’ screen-time, and now 320 pages) takes place on the day of filming – why so much seems to be riding on the question of whether Rick turns in a decent performance. The idea that Rick has been displaced by a new generation of stars like the Lancer lead James Stacy, who is 10 years Rick’s junior, was confused by the casting of the aged 50-ish Timothy Olyphant as Stacy. But even when lucidly presented, it’s an odd conceit given that Stacy’s future, at that moment of industrial change, was in no way brighter. (Lancer was cancelled after two seasons.)

Certain things work less naturally on the page. The shots of Cliff zipping around Burbank and Beverly Hills in Rick’s Cadillac or his own VW convertible have become lumbering verb constructions (“Cliff speeds down Forrest Lawn Drive, makes a right on Hollywood Way” etc). And without the sound of the stereo (typically tuned to the jingle-laden commercial music station 93 KHJ), the ubiquitous posters and TV footage, the landscape and the light, and Brad Pitt’s lovable performance as the weather-beaten, denim-clad Cliff, the period flavour is reduced.

But the novel’s third-person narrative voice enables freestyle, frame-breaking, hand-holding rumination – an organic alternative to the film’s sporadic explanatory voiceover, delivered by Kurt Russell, who also played the stunt coordinator Randy, and to horrendous devices such as the scene in which Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) gives a fellow partygoer the lowdown on Tate’s romantic history or the flashback from Cliff’s perspective that shows a conversation – between Rick and Randy – to which he wasn’t privy. A reference at the end of the film’s Lancer sequence to Rick channelling “Hamlet”, mysterious to the point of being meaningless, is here given plenty of background. Supporting characters – Manson, Stacy, McQueen, Rick’s eight-year-old Lancer colleague Trudi Fraser – receive sustained attention, and come to life.

Tarantino’s dedication page credits the old-school actors, mostly former collaborators, for telling him “tremendous stories about Hollywood in this period”. Anecdotes of the textured, first-hand kind struggled to make themselves felt in the broad-brush history lesson offered by the film. Just as Tarantino once said that even if John Ford’s parents had never met, and The Searchers had never been made, he would still have worked out that shooting a figure through a doorway looks “cool”, so he could surely have imagined a has-been actor crying in his trailer, or his charismatic sidekick pissing people off, without spending hours at the fireside with Burt Reynolds or Bruce Dern. Now he has the freedom to unfold all that folklore.

Most importantly, the novel provides a deeper, or at least more patterned, study of the theme of variation: the factors, contingent as well as congenital, that distinguish a Rick Dalton from a Steve McQueen, the pampered actor on his swimming-pool lounger from his trailer-dwelling “double”, one house on Cielo Drive from another, a TV backlot from a hippy commune, a Western from “an Italian Western”, the Sixties from the Seventies. Tarantino draws the elements of fairytale into a reflection on “wrong turns” taken; things that were “supposed to be” but didn’t come to pass; or that did come to pass but easily might not have done; blind fate or dumb luck evident in the casting of film roles (Rick was briefly in the mix for The Great Escape); the Los Angeles rental market; and the vagaries of hitch-hiking.

Of course, this novel is itself a kind of variation, one destined not just to tickle but to confound those familiar with the source. For if Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood could rejig, even erase, the historical record, then of course Tarantino can take liberties with his own film – turn, say, an extended climactic set-piece into a brief flash-forward digest near the page-100 mark, and get us thinking, in terms more romantic and humanist than ironic and irreverent, about myth and genre and the seductive or consoling power of daydreams. Tarantino has expressed the desire, after completing his next film, to mutate from Gen-X auteur-god into “man of letters”. That now seems an exhilarating prospect.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel
Quentin Tarantino
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 400pp, £8.99