Once upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel by Quentin Tarantino

There is perhaps no form of literature quite as relegated to obscurity and ridicule as the movie tie-in novelization. Hell, writing erotic fan fiction probably invites less derision (and can certainly be more lucrative, as evidenced by Fifty Shades of Grey). The dubious gig of authoring a novelization generally involves roughly tripling the word count of an early draft of someone else’s screenplay and reshaping it into prose under a ludicrously tight deadline imposed by a studio ahead of a film’s opening—sometimes less than two weeks before.

The first examples of these reverse-adapted novels appeared during the silent era, but prior to the advent of VHS they maintained relevance as the dominant pre-home-video medium to relive the experience of a movie (when the only alternatives were catching an airing on TV or a potential theatrical re-release).

Some such tie-in novels have rather funnily been adapted from scripts that were themselves based on famous, readily available books. Accompanying Twentieth Century Fox’s release of Great Expectations in 1998 was a newly commissioned promotional novelization by Deborah Chiel … based on the motion picture written by Mitch Glazer … based on the novel by Charles Dickens. At the height of their popularity, novelizations of blockbusters such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Wars sold millions of copies.

Tarantino has had a cameo appearance in every one of his movies, and Once upon a Time … in Hollywood was no exception. The director revives Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Brad Pitt’s characters in his novel.

It’s charmingly on-brand that some of the first books cinema’s premier high-low savant, Quentin Tarantino, read as a child were novelizations—though he’s likely the only auteur to unabashedly continue to hold them in high regard. Late last year HarperCollins announced it had signed a two-book deal with Tarantino, the first release being his debut work of fiction: a self-adapted novelization of his 2019 magnum opus, Once upon a Time … in Hollywood.

Fact and Fiction

Just out (appropriately, as a throwback mass-market paperback, with a hardcover edition to follow this fall), the book promises by default to be the most prestigious entry into the often mocked genre of tie-in novels in their almost century-long existence. (Some might technically consider Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Graham Greene’s The Third Man novelizations, though their qualification is less clear-cut, as they were written in conjunction with their respective screenplays.)

Tarantino’s joyous ninth film—which he claims will be the penultimate of his career—was a high-fidelity love letter to Los Angeles and moviemaking at the infamous moment that the 1960s and all that decade represented came to a violent end. It was also a tour de force of revisionist fantasy.

Tate cuts Polanski’s hair in their hotel room during the 21st Cannes Film Festival, 1968. She’d be murdered the following year.

With Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, 10050 Cielo Drive, 93 KHJ, et al., serving as the real-life nucleus for his flick, Tarantino spun Hollywood circa 1969 into an impossibly entertaining and poignant fairy tale. Through the brilliance of additional characters and mythology of his own making, cinema’s most enthusiastic devotee re-wrote the tragic history of that August by hybridizing fact and fiction into cathartically beautiful filmmaking—far more successfully than his previous attempts at playing God through celluloid (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained).

So how does the world’s biggest cinephile go about retrofitting his most purely cinematic work to date as prose? Tarantino has said that he conceived of this novelization as though it were a hypothetical, unwieldily epic source novel from which his screenplay had been adapted, as opposed to a more straightforward translation of his polished film into book form.

Tarantino is likely the only auteur to unabashedly continue to hold film novelizations in high regard.

Dedicated in part “to all the actor Old Timers who told me tremendous stories about Hollywood in this period,” including Bruce Dern (who memorably played ranch owner George Spahn in Once upon a Time … ), the late Robert Forster (whose career Tarantino revitalized with his 1997 gem, Jackie Brown), and “especially” Tarantino’s go-to, Kurt Russell, the 400-page novel wears its sprawling messiness on its sleeve and frequently expands on and deviates from the film.

Fittingly, the novel often reads like the affable, drunken remembrances of things past from those seasoned showbiz Old Timers—replete with Tarantino’s trademark foot fetishism for good measure. The most elating moments stem from the alternative Hollywood histories Tarantino concocts, bits of which yield terrifically fourth-wall-obliterating winks to the reader (including a brief reimagined possibility of his own career).

Admittedly, for anyone looking to quench a thirst for something resembling truth about Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate—not to mention Roman Polanski’s relationship with the actress—this book unfortunately runs dry. (Instead, I strongly suggest Tom O’Neill’s essential, 20-years-in-the-making nonfiction revelation, CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, released, as with Tarantino’s film, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Tate–LaBianca murders.)

However, for fans of Once upon a Time … in Hollywood’s buddy duo for the ages, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, those glibly shallow, factually weak points are easy to overlook in a book with such effervescent delights to offer in the company of these wonderful characters. If Tarantino’s 10th film is indeed his cinematic swan song, this novel bodes well for a worthy post-retirement creative chapter ahead.

Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts