The Tie-Ins That Bind: Once Upon A Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

It’s been 22 years since a novelization was a big deal. Everyone at my school was reading The Phantom Menace in print including me. Now two decades later, we have a big deal and it’s a book that adapted a love letter to 1969, not the normal book to set the world on fire. But I didn’t think I’d be covering the writer of the book in this column.

What’s there to say about Quentin Tarantino 29 years after he debuted? The man is a brand unto himself. He’s so well known his flaws such as his basically scoring a World Cup in being problematic are just part of his art. His art shamelessly steals from others. He goes off on tangent after tangent. We know who he is.

He’s also one of the most influential voices in cinema history. If he’s known for stealing others have stolen right back. He’s one of the loudest, most distinctive voices in cinema. You know Tarantino’s art.

So yes it’s a big deal that he novelized his own film. But just for this column, what was done is wild. Tarantino not only made his film into a book, he made it his debut as a prose writer. And he did it in a way that confers extra respect to the medium. See this book is available in ebook form, yes, but the only physical form it exists in is classic MMPB form. One of the most important artists of his age made his book debut in a format both ill regarded for serious creators and dying as e-books dominate more and more. That’s really cool.

So let’s look at this book as what it is. It’s a tie-in. It’s just that the writer wrote Kill Bill. How is it as a book?

Well it’s worth all the hype. That’s what it is.

First off, it’s weird to say this but it’s obvious no ghostwriter was used. The 70s novelizations with the director’s names were usually ghostwritten. Not this. You can completely tell Tarantino wrote it because every page he stops to go down a blind alley obviously he cares about a subject like Aldo Ray or Jim Stacy. At multiple points the book stops for analysis of Rosemary’s Baby and it’s almost self parody.

Yeah if you’re expecting the film in prose form you’ll be let down. Tarantino openly reshapes the narrative with the explosive and inaccurate finale referenced out of chronology. Instead he riffs on scenes and threads from the film but treats the plot as a loose thread so he can go chase his scenes, his commentary, his backstory, and mostly his mood. This is novelization as experiment. Tarantino has turned his film into that rare fluke: a true book that stands alone.

And it’s so good which is weird to say. This is a two time Oscar winner who I could argue deserves more. We shouldn’t be shocked that this jazzy riff on b-movie production is a great read but the novelty of a cinematic titan descending to the lowly novelization leads us to expect less. But no, a great writer is still a great writer in a new form.

The thing is all of his side trips are what make this what it is. This is a guy playing with the space a novel allows to create the full mental world he wants us in. Early on he examines how I Am Curious (Yellow) makes you wonder about if the occasional poor craftsmanship in that film is intended or not. Then he later lays out in exacting detail the plot of a western show and we have to question if it’s meant to be evaluated as the quality of what we’re reading or if he wants it to be a bit rough. (Tarantino can’t not craft a good narrative so it’s actually gripping.)

That the narrative is relatively modest is honestly its grand strength. We’re mostly focused on will Rick get through to the end of his job. It’s just cool to hang here. And that’s funny because aside from Sharon Tate, presented here as a lovely soul, our protagonists are outright bastards. Dalton is an egotistical drunk. Cliff Booth is a murderer. Charles Manson isn’t very nice. All are bigots. But it’s fun to just soak.

The book has its flaws but I’m reminded of SNL’s amazing heroin am ad that explained the side effects were it’s heroin. That’s what this is. The flaws are it’s Tarantino so all of his issues are here. I didn’t mind but if you find him exhausting read another book.

This is ultimately a grand example of the strength of the novelization. Movies don’t easily reshape for comics or radio but in book form they can completely be rebuilt. This is a new piece separate from the film and well worth the hype.

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