Few people in Hollywood have more affection for a throwback gesture than Quentin Tarantino. Old-school film formats, retro title cards, actual printed programs—Tarantino has filled his films, and the spaces around them, with his love of the ephemera and detritus of classic cinema. But no gesture has ever matched the dedication inherent in Tarantino’s first book: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood—A Novel. Not only is the book itself an artifact of a past age, art-designed within an inch of its figurative life to look like the million or so movie novelizations you’d see, water-damaged and broken-spined, sitting in a supermarket spinner rack. (It was apparently penned sans the ghost writer almost any other director in his position would be easily forgiven for employing.) It’s also filled to the brim with Tarantino’s specific obsessions: old movie stars, ’60s Los Angeles DJs, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and, yes, slightly-too-detailed descriptions of women’s hands and feet.
It’s also a very strange book, and a strange act of self-adaptation. Tarantino edits his own narrative relentlessly, taking familiar scenes and shuffling their settings and characters, taking long and presumably expensive-to-film digressions and blowing them out into full chapters, and re-ordering the film’s story in a way that can feel nearly random—producing, in the process, a fascinating companion piece to the Oscar-winning film.
And so, we present here the five strangest things about Tarantino’s debut novel, including its handling of the infamous, much-commented on fight between Brad Pitt’s fictional stuntman Cliff Booth and the famed (and very real) martial arts master Bruce Lee.
As played by Brad Pitt at his most quietly, charismatically competent, professional stuntman/gofer Cliff Booth is the closest thing Tarantino’s film has to a traditional hero. It’s Cliff who investigates, albeit ineffectually, the Manson Family’s takeover of Spahn Movie Ranch. It’s Cliff who does the lion’s share of (brutally) fighting off members of the Family when they launch their ill-fated, ahistorical attack on Rick Dalton’s Benedict Canyon home. And it’s Cliff who serves, throughout the movie, as the calm and confident foil to his old buddy Rick’s endlessly spiraling ego. Cliff Booth (in the movie) is an easy guy to like, regardless of rumors about his past.
Cliff Booth in the book, on the other hand, is a goddamn psychopath.
Let’s start with the obvious: Any ambiguity about whether Cliff murdered his wife, Bobbie, with a shark gun on a boat in the middle of the ocean is resolved swiftly in favor of “Yup, absolutely.” Tarantino’s novel hedges slightly—Cliff’s own narrative says he’s not entirely sure if he pulled the trigger or just twitched his finger in anger—and Cliff is very sorry for having done it. (Tarantino provides a loving description of Booth holding the “torn in half” Bobbie together for six hours in an attempt to keep her alive, one of the most absurdly grotesque passages in the entire book.) But he unquestionably killed her, one of multiple stories the author delights in telling about Booth getting away with murder on American soil. (See also: The dog-fighting partner he got his beloved pup, Brandy, from, and some random gangsters he once shot in the head in Cleveland.) Beyond that, Book Cliff is also an insatiable sex hound who seriously considers picking up a career as a French pimp (before deciding it’s too much work), and is frequently noted to have killed so many people in World War II that he’s well-past keeping track of the number. The character’s winning traits are still there—sans Pitt’s big, smiling face to take off some of the edge—but if Film Cliff is a man who’s confident in his ability to handle himself in a fight, Book Cliff is a guy who cheerfully kills without a second thought.
One of the fascinating things about any movie novelization, from Once Upon A Time… to all the various Star Wars novels, stretching all the way back to the paperback copies of Gremlins: The New Batch or Back To The Future that used to live on our childhood’s bookshelves, is that they tend by necessity to ground the narrative inside their characters’ heads. Tarantino certainly doesn’t shy away from dipping into Rick’s and Cliff’s streams of consciousnesses, literally allowing us to read thoughts that could only be inferred from Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Pitt’s performances in the film. Nowhere is that more revelatory than in the film’s most-discussed scene: the fight that blows up between Cliff and Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Hornet. Given that this is a scene Tarantino has talked about an uncharacteristic amount in the two years since the film’s release, it’s not shocking that the version in the book plays out similarly. What’s different, though, is the matter of perspective.
First off, Tarantino probably isn’t going to get credit, especially from Lee’s already critical family, for putting thoughts into Bruce Lee’s head during this fight he invented to show off how cool his fictional stuntman is. Tarantino’s Lee isn’t necessarily an asshole—although the narrative repeats, as the director did on a recent Joe Rogan appearance, the disputed assertion that he treated his stuntmen on Hornet like shit. But even a favorable portrayal of Lee’s inner landscape plays into the fan-fiction-with-real-people issues surrounding OUATIH in a way that only magnifies the potential for tastelessness. It’s one thing to swap Rick Dalton in for other actors on old Paul Wendkos pictures; something else to put words into Lee’s mouth and thoughts into his head.
The actual fight, at least, plays out much as it does on film, with Lee landing the first hit on Cliff, and then Cliff hurling Lee into a car on the second go. The differences are in the details, including the fact that Booth intentionally throws the first round against Lee, lulling him into a false sense of superiority. (So, what plays out as a potentially humbling point in the film is re-contextualized as cunning strategy.) There’s also the fact that we get both men’s points of view on their goals in the fight: Lee just wants to shut the loud-mouth stuntman up, while Cliff—see point No. 1 above—is literally trying to maim Lee and end his career. (There’s even a slight suggestion that the car throw might have damaged Lee’s spine, which, given his struggles with back issues for the last three years of his life, feels especially pointed and cruel.) Given the clarity with which he addresses it, we can probably take the book as Tarantino’s definitive statement on the fight; whether that will quiet the conversations or criticisms about its portrayal is another point entirely.
Given that the attack on Rick and Cliff by Charlie Manson’s acolytes serves as the climax of the film—with portents of future violence and the real-world murder of Sharon Tate hanging over the movie’s sunny Hollywood setting like a shroud—the single strangest element of Tarantino’s book might be that this high-intensity moment basically isn’t in it. Yes, the events technically take place, but they’re revealed casually, in passing, and about a quarter of the way through the novel. In fact, the four whole paragraphs Tarantino devotes to the attack are immediately dwarfed by a much longer look at its impact on Rick Dalton’s career. (We don’t see him getting the film’s fairy-tale offer of friendship from Tate and Roman Polanski, but he does get another TV Guide profile and a guest-spot on Mission: Impossible out of it.)
The treatment of the fight is the biggest indication available that Tarantino has written this novel, not for newcomers to his story, but for people who’ve seen and committed the film to heart. “What,” it asks, “would be the point of writing out the whole brutal sequence of Cliff slamming Manson Family member Katie’s head into every hard surface in Rick’s house, when you can just go and watch Brad Pitt and Madisen Beaty actually do the damn thing?” Every page spent on descriptions of his own film, after all, is a page the author can’t devote to describing, say, the sweat-soaked alcoholism of ’50s tough guy Aldo Ray.
But the excision of the film’s signature scene also changes the tenor of the entire book, maybe even bringing it into closer alignment with Tarantino’s original goals. By coming right at the end, and foreshadowing itself throughout its running time, the Manson attack turns OUATIH into a film about the (non-existent, in this universe) Tate-LaBianca murders. Here, though, and despite the appearance of a full chapter told from Manson’s success-obsessed point of view, the Family’s violence recedes into the background, just another note in the rising tide of counter-culture coming to swallow guys like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth up. Given how strongly Tarantino has always pushed against characterizing the film as a “Manson movie,” it’s hard not to see his treatment here as a deliberate attempt to de-emphasize its importance to the story he’s actually trying to tell.
Quentin Tarantino loves Easter eggs almost as much as he loves deliberate moviemaking anachronism; take it as granted that pretty much every character in the Once Upon A Time book smokes a Red Apple cigarette at some point or another. But, in his endless desire to play “what might have been” with this storybook version of late-’60s Hollywood, Tarantino the author can’t help but watch the dominoes fall all the way until they collide with his own eventual career. In a late passage of the book, the narrative jumps forward briefly to note that, while 8-year-old actress Trudi Fraser (Rick Dalton’s pre-possessed co-star for his guest spot on the fictional Western Lancer, played with considerable charm and presence by Julia Butters in the film) never does end up winning the Oscar she so desperately craves, she does get nominated by the Academy three times. Her last potential win? For “Quentin Tarantino’s 1999 remake of the John Sayles script for the gangster epic The Lady In Red.”
Tarantino—who, in our world, was in between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill when 1999 rolled around—has stated his affections for Lady In Red before, once calling Sayles’ “the best script ever written for an exploitation movie.” And, hey, if Tarantino can spin happy endings for Sharon Tate and a more cathartically violent ending for Adolf Hitler, who’s to say he can’t work a dream project into his own life, too?
It’s not quite clear whether the writing style in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which runs to shorter, simpler sentences—when it’s not rattling off the names of decades-dead directors, at least—is a deliberate artifact of the books it’s imitating or a factor of Tarantino’s own inexperience with the form. (Both, seems like the likeliest answer.) But that straightforward prose doesn’t stop the book from being genuinely compelling or of accomplishing its author’s desire to immerse the reader in his sun-soaked vision of California on the eve of a generational shift. Among other things, Tarantino has always had the instincts of a short story writer, allowing rich digressions to draw him where they will; you could argue that those urges pay off even better in print than they do on the screen.
And, as with all the best Tarantino projects, the man’s passion for his subject matter bleeds through infectiously. Sometimes that arrives as, yes, long paragraphs about who got cast in which obscure ’60s war film and why. But more often than not, it expresses itself as an endless series of interesting winding roads, from the chapters that tell the Lancer story as straight historical fiction, to the brief windows into (Tarantino’s version of) Polanski and Tate’s relationship, to a breathless description of the plot of a particularly juicy episode of Gunsmoke. “Hey, isn’t this cool?” the narrative demands, even as Tarantino continues to layer on elements that feed into the story of Rick Dalton, the man who could have been somebody but wasn’t. Tarantino’s deal with Harper Perennial for the book was a two-novel affair; there’s enough that’s fascinating here to make that second project something to look forward to.