The way Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came to life is rather unique and unlike anything else that Quentin Tarantino has written. He had been slowly working at the story for many years, taking information about 1960s Hollywood and the film industry from many of the actors and crew members he collaborated with, including Bruce Dern, David Carradine, Michael Parks, Robert Forster and Kurt Russell. He envisioned the relationship between a has-been actor and his long-time stunt double with the changing tides of cinema in the form of a novel, which he wrote for five years. It was only at the end that it became clear to him that this could easily work as its own movie, and, backed by Sony Pictures, he made a feature film, released in 2019 and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie.
Now, two years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Tarantino has published the novel version of the film, making this a particular instance where the source material was written prior to its cinematic adaptation, but released years later (likely also to have it qualify as an Original Screenplay for award season). How do the words of cinema’s most famous and self-indulgent writer-director compare to his cinematic magnum opus?
After the first two chapters, it is apparent that this is not going to convert anyone who dislikes the Pulp Fiction filmmaker. While the first chapter is an alternative, extended dialogue between actor Rick Dalton (the DiCaprio character) and casting director Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino on the screen) that takes place inside an office rather than a bar, the second one is a 19-page deep-dive into stunt double Cliff Booth’s cinephile interests, including a tangent on Akira Kurosawa and Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow).
These detours inside the past of certain characters were present in a short and more direct way in the movie, usually more as jokes than anything else (think of Dalton almost being cast in The Great Escape), while the novel is almost evenly split between the events that take place February 8th, 1969, and the backstories of nearly every character. Sharon Tate’s arrival in Hollywood and her marriage with Polish director Roman Polanski are more heavily featured, Cliff Booth’s dark past and murderous tendencies lack any of the ambiguity and likability of Brad Pitt’s charming performance, and side characters like Charles Manson, his followers Pussycat and Squeaky, or actors James Stacy and Trudi Frazer get way more interactions than one might expect on first glance.
This manages to make the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feel very much like its own separate thing. In many ways, it is a darker, more explicit story as far as violence, swearing, and sexuality are concerned, already giving readers a glimpse into how Tarantino will have free rein for his creativity in the written form. To avoid delving too much into spoilers, much of the narrative has stayed untouched, with some scenes featuring much more dialogue (the conversations between Dalton and young Trudi Frazer are a highlight and a terrific love letter to the art of acting) and others being experienced exclusively from one perspective (the incident at Spahn Ranch is witnessed from Squeaky’s POV). The most interesting stylistic flourish that Tarantino employs is to write some chapters from the shooting of the fictional TV show Lancer as a proper western novel, mirroring how in the film those scenes are shot and edited as if audiences were watching the episode.
The ultimate question remains untouched: who told it best? Like all the best cinematic adaptations, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood works great both as a film and as a novel. Quentin Tarantino the writer has more time to delve into his characters and talk freely about actors, directors, real and fictitious films of 1969 and before, in a way that is intoxicating for avid cinephiles and likely incredibly confusing for everyone else (part of the fun is recognising which names were made up). Quentin Tarantino the director made a compelling, hilarious dramatic comedy that is more focused in its narrative and atmosphere, and delivers a bloody and cathartic epilogue that is shockingly missing from the novel.
This is the biggest and most controversial change, and it is a choice that serves in differentiating both versions of the story: the confrontation that happens August 8th, 1969 (when the real Sharon Tate and four of her friends were murdered in their home by members of the Manson family) works as the natural conclusion to the film, delivering the violence that everyone expects from a Tarantino film, as well as a slice of alternative history that hammers home the fairy tale title. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a book is a send-off to an era that is long gone, wallowing in the power of nostalgia and the inevitability of the passage of time. The ending is poignant and powerful, celebrating the immense luck that those working on film and TV productions have, making dreams real and giving people worldwide a chance to escape from the harsh realities of life.
Who knows if the hardcover version will feature this epilogue, but the choice to omit it is commendable and oddly fitting. Quentin Tarantino definitely has a promising career as a writer, and if he really will retire as a director after his next feature, then the world of book readers will welcome him with open arms.