There are two big takeaways from Quentin Tarantino’s novelisation of his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The first would be how talented an author he is. We have known for nearly three decades that he can turn up with brilliant screenplays and engaging dialogue, but his skill as a novelist is what is going to take you by surprise.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was Tarantino’s 2019 love letter to Hollywood of a bygone era, and the hippie culture, through the eyes of two fictional characters — Rock Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and one inspired by a real one — Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
The second impression, once you get past the halfway mark, is that this is quite a self-indulgent work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it all depends on how invested you were in Tarantino’s fairytale recreation of late 1960’s Hollywood.
Everything about the book is saturated with the filmmaker’s love for old-timey cinema. The book’s subtitle teases, “You shoulda been there!” echoing now-extinct way of promoting creative works, usually of the disreputable kind. The writing mimics the then-prevalent style of prose fiction, which is both rewarding and infuriating.
Here are five big takeaways from the book:
1. The novel expands the story to a considerable extent
Like most novelisations, the book fills in quite a few blanks and develops story to a great extent. Minor characters like Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy, Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz, Julia Butters’ Trudi Frazer, are given a greater role and it embellishes the story.
2. The writing style is unique
As said earlier, Tarantino should take up writing after retiring from his film career, he is that good. The book admittedly needed a lot more editing as the author tends to repeat things over and over again.
3. Cliff Booth murdered his wife — really
While the film left it ambiguous, the book settles the argument. Cliff did murder his wife and got away with it. In fact, he got away with murder thrice. This is not including all the enemy soldiers he killed during his service in World War II. He was declared the soldier with most confirmed Japanese kills in the Pacific theatre.
4. Cliff Booth vs Bruce Lee
In addition to all the people he has killed, Cliff, in his infamous confrontation with martial arts legend Bruce Lee, wanted to kill him. Tarantino differentiates Cliff and Bruce in one way: the Chinese actor just wanted to humble Cliff, not really hurt him. But Cliff? As Tarantino says if he had broken Bruce’s back and rendered him crippled, that would have been fine by him. Tarantino, or at least the book’s narrator, claims that Lee did not respect American stuntmen and regularly ‘tagged’ them — actually hitting them instead of just acting. The less than flattering portrayal of Lee had drawn ire when the film came out and was denounced by the late actor’s daughter Shannon.
5. Brandy was a fighting dog
Remember Brandy, Cliff’s tank of a pit bull dog that came very handy in the fight against the hippies? Even it has a backstory in the book. Tarantino reveals that it was an actual fighting dog and earned Cliff and his friend (the one he murdered) a lot of money in dogfights across the country. During the events of the movie, it has retired but is still, as we saw, is a strong and fierce fighter.