Book Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Image: Quentin Tarantino – WikiCommons

David Prendeville

Quentin Tarantino’s novelisation of his most recent film continues to follow the exploits of washed up TV actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, in the film). Like in the film, this duo end up crossing paths with Charles Manson and his followers. The book also has a couple of chapters that follow the film’s other main focus, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie), who was tragically murdered by members of Manson’s cult in her Hollywood home in 1969.
While the film took place over three days, the novel expands upon the world and gives more backstory to Rick and Cliff. It’s sporadically interesting seeing these characters fleshed out further, but rarely does the novel really justify its existence. Like the film, the novel is at it’s best when indulging in Tarantino’s deep knowledge and feel for ‘60s pop culture and film/TV in general. There is great fun in learning that Cliff is a big fan of arthouse cinema and in seeing him reel out his top five Kurosawa films. though there are times where you feel Tarantino has lost sight of his character and that he himself is talking directly to the reader. The level of detail Tarantino ascribes to the plot of the TV pilot Rick’s starring in, Lancer (a whole chapter is devoted), is also impressive, if like much else in this novel, rather indulgent.
The most transgressive element of the novel is in the expansion of the Cliff character. One of the unresolved plot points surrounding him in the film was rumours that he may have murdered his wife. Here Tarantino answers that question. Not only did Cliff kill his wife, but he has in fact murdered numerous people, without ever facing the wrath of the law. Knowledge of this further complicates the image of Cliff-as-hero presented in the film. The chapters detailing Cliff’s murderous past definitely hit upon a grotesque humour that is sadly lacking in other parts of the book, which despite some diversions, is actually quite faithful to the actions of the film.
For this writer, the biggest disappointment about the film was its juvenile and frankly unimaginative ending, in which Rick and Cliff brutally dispense with members of Manson’s gang. It was disappointing to see a film that was, for the most part, so lushly evocative of its time and place, end in such a predictable way. The ending bordered on Tarantino self-parody. It’s interesting that here he omits any real focus on that episode, only briefly referring to it early on. This made me wish he hadn’t jumped to his trump card du jour – history rewriting- when concluding his frequently excellent film either.
My skepticism surrounding the whole history rewriting element of the book and the film is further compounded by the fact that Tarantino is far more at home exploring the fictional lives of Rick and Cliff here, as he was in the film, than he is with any of the real-life characters who frequent his universe. The chapters on Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski don’t ring particularly true, with Tarantino striving for a certain type of reverence that doesn’t suit him. I also found chapters exploring Manson and his followers to lack the passion and interest conjured by the purely fictional aspects of this world.
Overall, this is a relatively diverting, competently written piece of throwaway fiction. It will likely appeal to Tarantino completists, but offer little to anyone else.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is published by Harper Perennial at RRP: 10.95