Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the novel, I soon discovered upon reading, is not a straight beat-for-beat retelling of the wonderful movie of the same title. The shocking surprise ending of the movie is mentioned in passing within the first 100 pages of the book – leaving me scratching my head and wondering what the heck this book was really going to be about. And that, dear friends, was the joy in reading this version of the story.
The book ends with TV actor Rick Dalton yet to venture to Italy to make a string of Spaghetti Westerns (and meet his new wife) and instead ends with him in the middle of filming the TV pilot for the new Lancer show in which he plays the villain and where he meets the precocious child actor Trudi. He’s running his lines with her on the phone while next door Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski are having a rowdy pool party. Earlier he reminisced with Steve McQueen waiting at the Polanski’s gate, about shooting pool at a bar, they played three games, won one each and didn’t finish the third because McQueen was called away. After the chat with McQueen and the call with Trudi, Rick finally realises how lucky he is. This is some form of character arc I guess, since Rick has spent most of the book struggling to come to terms with where his career is at.
As well as lots more background into Rick’s life, we also learn a lot more about Cliff Booth – Rick’s stunt double and friend, Cliff’s dog, alcholic actors and the Hollywood movie-making machine. The book feels like an alternate version of the movie, a section of a ‘director’s cut’ or a series of special features. I can’t really say whether it would actually work well as a novel in its own right without seeing the film, because I’ve seen the film at least three times since I wrote about it in this post – Triple Trouble – and I can’t reverse time to allow me to read the book in isolation. Sure it’s written and presented in a typical pulp fiction style, but there’s a calmness to the ending which certainly is atypical of Tarantino’s work.
As with the film, peppered throughout the story are glimpses of the grubby hippy chicks forming Charlie Manson’s ‘family’. Cliff’s visit to their headquarters – an abandoned horse ranch out in the desert – is in the book but the violent run in with Rex and the subsequent home invasion don’t follow that chapter. Pussycat’s actions in his car on the way to the ranch are more X-rated in the book than in the film, and actually perhaps more typical of the type of behaviour expected from one of Manson’s minions trying to recruit a man to their twisted cause.
Unlike the film, the chronology in the novel isn’t strictly linear and takes us up to around the middle or three quarters of the way into the movie’s story while often backtracking to tell us other interesting stuff missing from the movie. For instance while we know Cliff probably killed his wife, we don’t really know the circumstances or how he tried to keep her alive, and we certainly don’t know about the other times he literally got away with murder, or about his heroics while he was in the armed forces in WWII. We also learn that his dog is an ex-pit fighter and this explains why it’s so vicious in the finale of the film.
Tarantino is still presenting us with an alternate reality of Hollywood but it’s as close to the truth as it needs to be for it to still feel like a twisted love letter from director to Hollywood. Rick and Cliff never existed, but these fictional amalgamations cross paths with so many real and make believe characters to allow the writer to explore all the anecdotes and half-truths that I’m sure he’s amassed over his years working or crossing paths with different generations of Hollywood actors. Also most of what he has to say about how Charles Manson motivations and approach to gathering vulnerable people around him rings true compared to the other books I have read on the matter.
While Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the novel isn’t a patch on Tarantino’s screen magic, it is certainly a mighty fine companion piece and a ‘keeper’ for me to slot in on my bookshelf alongside the paperback version of the script for Reservoir Dogs.