Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Review)

Dear Reader,

This may be totally obvious to many of you, but — did you know that Quentin Tarantino’s action-packed, comedic-drama spectacle Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now a book!? Yep! You read that right; the 2019 movie became a book in 2021 (not the other way around). For all you readers out there, I know that many of you have strong opinions (critiques) about the inevitable loss of content and context that accompanies the re-packaging of a beloved novel into a tight cinematic feature. However, did you ever wonder about what gets added to the story when the movie is the original version?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969 in a turbulent time when the film industry was falling away from its “gold age,” when five big studios dominated the production of major motion pictures and icons including Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly among others were household names. However, as the 60’s drew to a close, new anti-monopoly laws took a toll on Hollywood and a new era of entertainment, now favoring television, was ushered in.

These changes do not bode well for popular Western actor, Rick Dalton, and his stunt-double-personal-assistant-best-friend Cliff Booth. In true Tarantino fashion, the outrageous shenanigans and drunken antics of these two are not the center of the plot, rather just one of a few gripping storylines. Another plot follows Debra Jo “Pussycat” Hillhouse, the pretty, teenage companion of the blind, octogenarian George Spahn living out in the middle of nowhere on the Manson Family ranch (yes, and we are indeed talking about the cult leader Charles Manson).

Just like the movie, the book includes many long “talking scenes.” In particular, Tarantino takes the time to really describe the era surrounding the action. One passage I found particularly memorable was his description of the creative decisions regarding the direction of the 1968 horror-drama Rosemary’s Baby (which I now I kind of want to read/ see…). Additionally, there was another section that explained the brief relationship between Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys (the rock, surfer group), Charles Manson (the cult leader/ aspiring musician), and record producer, Terry Melcher. Similarly, Tarantino interweaves fictional characters with the sliver-screen behemoths of the time including, film director Roman Polanski, actress Sharon Tate, martial artist/ actor Bruce Lee, among others.

To me, it seemed that the biggest deviation between the book and the movie (without spoilers!) is the sequence of the action. While the beginning of the book starts (to my recollection) in the same way as the movie, there are key moments in the book that come earlier and leave you wondering “well, if this already happened — how in the world is it all going to end?”

With the multiple storylines, diversity of characters, and intertwining plots, I admit that the book can be hard to follow (if you’re bad at remembering names like I am). However, because I saw the movie, I feel that I had a slightly easier time, as my brain naturally conjured images of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth as well as Dakota Fanning as Squeaky (a young woman living on the Manson Family ranch). Also, there’s a touching, comedic scene in the movie between Rick Dalton and his eight-year-old guest star on the set of their TV series which is expanded on in the book (this was a lovely addition).

Also, the book, in my opinion, really does read like a perfect blend between the mid-century American vernacular and “Pulp Fiction.” Finally, if you think you know Quinten Tarantino and know what sort of ending to expect for the now-literary Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you will, as you always are for his works, be surprised.

Overall, as I have seen the movie, I did not expect to actually like the book. That might sound weird to you, but I listen to audiobooks the way others binge-watch TV shows. Sometimes, I’ll just see a title and think — eh, why not. That is to say, I was surprised to find that midway through the book, I was really beginning to enjoy the ride despite my familiarity with the plot.

If you are looking for a book with action, irreverent comedy, long musings on bygone pop culture, and adventure, then — yes — pick up Once Upon a Time in Hollywood even if you have already seen the movie.

Happy reading 🙂



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