Quentin Tarantino makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood his first novel

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Quentin Tarantino’s first novel is, to use a phrase from his work, a tasty drink.

It’s his novelization of his own 2019 film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (the book’s title omits the ellipses). It was published as a consumer paperback from the 1970s, the kind of book you used to find spinning around in a drugstore rack.

It has a retro-tacky slogan: “Hollywood 1969… You should have been there!” If it wasn’t that plump, at 400 pages, you could slip it into the back pocket of your flared corduroy.

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Tarantino isn’t trying to play here what another novelist / writer, Terry Southern, liked to call the Quality Lit Game. He is not there to impress us with the complexity of his sentences or the nuance of his psychological ideas.

He’s here to tell a story, take it or leave it Elmore Leonard’s way, and to make room along the way to talk about some of the things that interests him: old movies, male camaraderie, revenge and redemption, music and style. He understands: Pop culture is what America has instead of mythology. He was bitten by this notion early on, and he remained bitten.

The novel is cowardly. If it was better written, it would be worse. It’s a mainstream paperback that stinks of mainstream paperbacks. In my memory it is the smell of hot coconut oil and mites and mercurochrome.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the same leads as the movie. Some of the dialogues are similar, more or less word for word. But the novel deviates from the film in small and large ways.

Director Quentin Tarantino Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film. (Photo: AP / File)

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The end of the movie Grand Guignol, for example, which culminates with aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) setting a member of the Manson family on fire with a flamethrower, is deleted, at the beginning of the novel, in a few sentences.

The murders make Rick, who is discovered bipolar, famous. He hated hippies anyway. Now he’s becoming “a folk hero of Nixon’s ‘silent majority'” and a regular on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”. Yet, of his acting career, he remembers every misstep, every mortification, every affront.

New scenes from the Manson family are hidden. Tarantino delves so deep into Manson’s once promising music career that you might feel like you’re reading an old issue of Rolling Stone or Mojo magazine. He considers Charlie’s “ooga-booga” dances.

It adds a long, sinister, cinematic scene in which Pussycat (Margaret Qualley in the film) walks into a strange house, takes off her clothes, inserts a red light bulb in her mouth so that her lips “wrap around the silver metal coil. “and goes up to the bedroom of a sleeping elderly couple.

Once up there, Pussycat screws the red bulb into a lamp, turns it on, and screams hops into the couple’s bed, scaring them off. The Mansons called these kinds of “benign” outings “creepy crawl.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is, after all, Cliff Booth’s novel. Booth (Brad Pitt in the movie) is Dalton’s gofer and stuntman. Its history is full. In World War II, we learn, he killed more Japanese than any other American soldier and twice won the Medal of Valor.

It’s full of macho advice, which he casually dispenses. If you want to know what it’s like to kill a man, without actually killing a man, Booth tells Dalton, grab a pig from behind and stick a knife down its throat. Then hold on tight until he dies. It’s as close as it can legally be.

Still, Booth has a sensitive side. He’s a cinema obsessive. Many of his opinions resemble those of Tarantino. There is some good writing here about acting, foreign movies, B movies, movie opening sex scenes, and TV action directors.

Booth is a fan of actor Alan Ladd, for example, because, “When Ladd got angry in a movie, he didn’t act like crazy. He just hurt, like a real guy. As for Cliff, Alan Ladd was the only guy in the movies who knew how to do his hair, wear a hat, or smoke a cigarette.

Some of these opinions perhaps sound too close to Tarantino’s: “Once Fellini decided that life was a circus, Cliff said thank you.” There is a list of favorite Cliff Akira Kurosawa movies. On the cinematography of the 1967 Swedish film “I’m Curious (Yellow)”: “Cliff wanted to lick the screen. “

We find out how Dalton and Booth became friends. Booth saved him from a fire on the set by telling him, “Rick, you’re standing in a puddle. Just fall. We learn how Booth got his pit bull, a movie star. He was given the dog, a fighting champion, to pay off a debt. Booth accompanies some of the fights.

In the movie, Booth refuses to let the dog eat until he takes the first bite of his own dinner: macaroni and cheese in a box. Of this dish, Tarantino writes, “The directions say to add milk and butter, but Cliff thinks that if you can afford to add milk and butter, you can afford to eat something else.

Oh, and Booth killed his wife. In the film, this plot point is left open and has been the subject of much debate. Tarantino, luckily, doesn’t care if you find Cliff lovable.

The murder scene is absurd in its excesses, of course. Tarantino rarely lets a murder go to waste. Violence is the wax on which his skis roll. He knows how to fill the rectangle of the screen – or a page in a pulp novel.

The couple are on a boat. Tired of being put down, Booth impulsively shoots his bikini-clad wife with a harpoon gun, essentially ripping her in half. He immediately regrets it. He holds the two sides of her together for seven hours as they lovingly recount their entire relationship. When the Coast Guard arrives and tries to move her, she crumbles and dies.

If I wanted her at that moment – her upper half, that is – slowly hoisting a huge handgun and shooting Cliff in disbelief in his bronze forehead, well, that’s it. a different novel.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino makes telling a story that turns the pages seem easy, which is the hardest thing of all.

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