Whenever a creator leaves one field of artistry and ventures into another the elephant in the room will forever be: should they have stayed in their lane? A self-serving notion surrounding the divergent project is inevitable. When you embark on a novelisation of the very last movie that you made, the stakes are raised even higher on that front.
Thus, the first priority for Quentin Tarantino’s novel, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was to disavow the age-old curse of actors joining bands (which punk misanthrope Mark E Smith famously wanted to legally outlaw) and musicians doling out art exhibits – whereby the line forever thrown at them is ‘get back in your wheelhouse and leave that to the pros’. On this front, Quentin Tarantino succeeds with aplomb, taking to print with consummate ease and gratuitous cinematic satisfaction. And while he’s at it, he offers up a surge of everything else you’ve come to expect.
There isn’t much call to discuss the plot, because if you’re interested in the novelisation then you’ve no doubt seen the movie. The story is suitably reworked, expanded and distorted to avoid the nagging sense of having seen it all before, while never venturing too far off course to drift off point, leave the memo behind, and alienate the audience. The irresistibly romantic notion of Hollywood in the late sixties remains as endearing as ever and the dialogue ripples with the same humour, joyous irreverence and rhythm as it does when distributed from the mouths of Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Co.
However, story and dialogue were never likely to come into question. The filmmaker has been gracing our screens with a brilliant abundance of both since his debut, Reservoir Dogs, splashed cold water into the face of the jaded movie industry back in 1992. Before the book was delivered through the door of critics, the question marks that loomed were over literary control, prose and refinement.
The immediate rebuttal of the novel to these lingering concerns is that Tarantino clearly never intended for this to be some grand magnum opus in the world of fiction that would see his face chiselled into the Mount Rushmore of American literary giants. This is pulp fiction, in fact, it’s beyond that, this is a novelisation complete with a cutesy retro cover and a slew of faux adverts at the back. Thus, the prose is befittingly simple, it never soars but neither does it stagnate or get in the way of a good story. In short, it says please don’t judge an episode of Bounty Law by Robert Bresson standards. While not trying to deliver on something is not in itself creditable, the story bristles with enough bravura in other areas that it brings to mind the notion that alas pizza is hardly Michelin Star, but not everything has to be fine dining.
What remains is whether the notoriously mercurial director could retain enough imaginative control to stick to literary disciplines that stretching over 400 pages and the loss of visionary stimuli demands — and it is on this front that the title of this piece finds its feet. Within the first couple of chapters, ‘Cliff Booth’ is already rattling off his five favourite Akira Kurosawa movies and the few pages of analysis on the late Japanese auteur’s work that follows is quite obviously told through the unfiltered voice of Quentin Tarantino. Rather than serving as a surprising derailment of the narrative, this is Hollywood’s most famous film nerd calling himself bang to rights and just about getting away with it, because in all likelihood everyone reading is just as interested in hearing his thoughts on classic cinema as they are on the narrative at hand.
Ultimately, the conceit of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (the novel) is simple – there’ll be many better books written this year with depth that make Tarantino’s effort look like a puddle, but very few will be written that hit their brief so exactingly, serve up exactly what an audience is after, and like everything he has done in cinema: blow up banality with a ten-tonne detonation of fiendish fun and vitally visceral escapism.