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

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood Blu-ray and book

Quentin Tarantino is easily one of my favourite filmmakers and has been since my friend Greg lent me a dubbed VHS copy of Reservoir Dogs back in 1993. Even though he had tried to squeeze two films on the tape and cut off the end of Dogs (I’ll never forgive you for that, Greg!) I was instantly hooked on this new cinematic voice - filled with highly quotable dialogue, indelible characters, time shifts and bursts of shocking violence. Every film since has resonated with me, and even the ones that aren’t quite strong as the others (Death Proof & Django Unchained for me) are still better than most other filmmakers can manage in a whole career.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, his ninth and supposedly second to last film was unsurprisingly my favourite film of 2019—a meandering, elegiac, funny and shocking epic that transported the viewer to Los Angeles 1969, in the last gasp of the peace and love era. As he did with Inglourious Basterds, QT reimagines history, altering the outcome of the Manson murders and, in doing so, served as a beautiful tribute to Sharon Tate and reclaiming her legacy from that of murder victim. Tarantino minimises the Manson Family and their ‘mission’, ending the film with Hollywood actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman/buddy Cliff Dalton violently killing Manson’s minions when they invade the wrong house. He ensures that we will remember Sharon Tate for who she was, not what happened to her. OUATIH is a film to live in for nearly three hours, and come out the other side energised and high on cinema in the way only the best films can.

Now, with one film left on his belt, Tarantino has fashioned a novel from his latest work, acting as part remix, part alternate version of the events from the film. And as a reader, it was an utter delight to be taken once more to that vivid freewheeling world of movie sets, Hollywood Hill mansions, the eerie Spahn Ranch and more. For 400 glorious pages, I was enrapt with Tarantino’s universe as he (wisely) re-wove his tale into a somewhat different beast. We get scenes directly from the film mixed in with whole new scenes, such as Cliff sneaking booze to alcoholic actor Aldo Ray on a Spanish movie set to Rick’s relationship with Trudy, the precocious young actress he works with on the Lancer pilot, becoming the central defining relationship of the book (maybe more-so than Rick and Cliff, which was fully fleshed out in the film).

That wily stuntman Cliff gets a lot more backstory, from QT answering the question of whether or not Cliff killed his wife to how he first came to own Brandy the pitfall (an equally dark tale), taking the sheen off the sunny good looks and easygoing nature that Brad Pitt gave him and giving us more of the darker character that was hinted at in the film. Rick Dalton is even more tragically humorous in the book, as the novel allows Tarantino to show us his inner voice—his reactions to people and situations are often laugh out loud funny.

In terms of style, it almost reads like an expanded screenplay and often feels like the writer/director is gleefully telling you the story over Mexican food and margaritas at the El Coyote. His dialogue's classic push and pull is as strong as ever here, with conversations ebbing and flowing, often building in tension when needed, such as the Spahn Ranch scene, where even the tough as nails Cliff Booth feels somewhat jeopardised.

Those worried they would get the film in book form will be nicely surprised by this remix. For example, the climactic home invasion scene from the film is dropped in early in the book and somewhat glossed over, making way for an all-new ending which gives Rick his own conclusion and satisfyingly tying up his journey as an actor on the brink of obsolescence. Given that a lot of these ‘extra’ scenes are shown on the cover of the book, it is clear Tarantino shot these scenes, and I hope we get an extended cut at some point as there are some excellent scenes from more of Charles Manson himself to a great meetup between Rick and Steve McQueen outside the Polanski / Tate mansion.

If QT keeps his threatened promise of ten films and out, then I, for one, will be very content with more novels (& podcast appearances - the man is a joy to listen to) to fill the void he will leave on the silver screen.

5 acid dipped cigarettes out of 5.

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