Quentin Tarantino Releases His First Novel: A Pulpy Novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

There’s no busi­ness like show busi­ness. Or maybe — as Bart Simp­son once wrote on the black­board — “there are plen­ty of busi­ness­es like show busi­ness.”

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood, fol­lows aging TV star, Rick Dal­ton, being pushed into play­ing vil­lain­ous char­ac­ter roles. Drunk and depressed, Dal­ton and his side­kick­/hang­er-on/s­tunt dou­ble Cliff Booth watch reruns of his show and get into a series of increas­ing­ly seri­ous scrapes as the actor search­es for a role that will redeem him. The film’s outline–shorn of his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences that made crit­ics lion­ize it as “a love let­ter to old Hollywood”–sounds sus­pi­cious­ly like anoth­er media prop­er­ty in the mid­dle of its final sea­son that sum­mer.

Called a Mad Men replace­ment, Netflix’s satir­i­cal adult car­toon series Bojack Horse­man also fol­lows an aging for­mer TV star and his sidekicks/hanger(s)-on through their mis­ad­ven­tures in Hol­ly­wood (“Hol­ly­woo”). Along the way they con­front issues that fall under the rubric of “tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty,” such as work­place harass­ment, emo­tion­al imma­tu­ri­ty, and the abuse of pow­er in an indus­try with wild­ly unequal pow­er dynam­ics. The show makes clear that nei­ther old, nor new, Hol­ly­wood deserves a love let­ter — no more than oth­er indus­tries that allow such behav­ior. (It also fea­tures a car­i­ca­ture of Taran­ti­no.)

Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood, by con­trast, cel­e­brates the old star sys­tem and its priv­i­leges — or so Richard Brody argues at The New York­er — in an “obscene­ly regres­sive vision of the 60s” that scrubs the decade of its protests and bru­tal crack­downs. The premise under­ly­ing Tarantino’s alter­nate-his­to­ry dram­e­dy seems to be: “If only the old-line Hol­ly­wood peo­ple of the fifties and six­ties had main­tained their pride of place—if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the king­dom hadn’t been hand­ed over to the free­thinkers and deca­dents of the sixties—then both Hol­ly­wood and the world would be a bet­ter, safer, hap­pi­er place.”

Taran­ti­no sets up “hip­pies,” a favorite pejo­ra­tive of his char­ac­ters, as fall guys for the Man­son Fam­i­ly mur­ders, rather than Manson’s own white suprema­cist beliefs. As many crit­ics not­ed at the time, “the only sub­stan­tial char­ac­ter of col­or, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), is played… as a haughty par­o­dy” who gets “dra­mat­i­cal­ly humil­i­at­ed” by Pitt’s swash­buck­ling stunt­man — who is rumored to have mur­dered his wife and who dis­patch­es the film’s female Man­son cult vil­lains with the sadis­tic glee of a true psy­chopath, a scene, Brody writes, “that only ham­mers [Tarantino’s] doc­trine home.”

Cel­e­bra­tion there may be in the film, but there is also mourn­ing. Christo­pher Hooten at Lit­tle White Lies scoffs at the “love let­ter” idea and sees the film instead as a lament for the end of cinema’s “free­thinkers”:

This is Tarantino’s pas­sion project – poten­tial­ly his last film – and it comes across as him try­ing to sneak out a movie with a ’70s sen­si­bil­i­ty and tone before it’s no longer pos­si­ble. Once the likes of Taran­ti­no and Mar­tin Scors­ese have bowed out, that might well be it for auteur-dri­ven film­mak­ing on a block­buster scale. We’ve reached a polar­i­sa­tion in the indus­try where a direc­tor either works as a hired (and fre­quent­ly fired) gun for a Dis­ney or a Warn­er Bros, or else goes cap in hand in the hope of scrap­ing togeth­er a few mil­lion dol­lars to make some­thing more per­son­al and unique.

The Taran­ti­nos of the world might be a dying breed, but Taran­ti­no isn’t leav­ing his art behind so much as turn­ing his hand to “more per­son­al and unique” projects – in this case a nov­el, and more specif­i­cal­ly, “the pulpi­est of pulp fic­tion — the nov­el­iza­tion,” writes Peter Brad­shaw at The Guardian. Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood: A Nov­el finds him “crank­ing up the back­sto­ries, mulching up real­i­ty and alt.reality pas­tiche, ladling in new episodes,” and flex­ing his for­mi­da­ble strengths as a writer of crack­ling dia­logue and action. The book also promis­es an end­ing view­ers of the film won’t see com­ing.

The nov­el explores the inner lives of its female char­ac­ters, includ­ing, of course, Sharon Tate “and the fic­tion­al child actor Tru­di Fras­er,” and adds an even dark­er edge to Cliff Booth, who is said to admire a cer­tain char­ac­ter despite or because he is “uncon­scious­ly racist, con­scious­ly misog­y­nis­tic.” This is Taran­ti­no, after all, none of whose char­ac­ters are ever shin­ing exam­ples of virtue. But in the post-auteur, post-Wein­stein future, he seems to sug­gest, maybe old-Hol­ly­wood anti-heroes like Cliff Booth and Leonar­do DiCaprio’s washed-up star Rick Dal­ton will only shine on stream­ing TV shows and in the pages of throw­back pulp nov­els, “pack­aged like those New Eng­lish Library paper­backs that used to be on carousel dis­plays in super­mar­kets and drug­stores.” You can pick up a copy of Once Upon a Time in Hol­ly­wood: A Nov­el here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains How to Write & Direct Movies

Quentin Tarantino’s Copy­cat Cin­e­ma: How the Post­mod­ern Film­mak­er Per­fect­ed the Art of the Steal

An Analy­sis of Quentin Tarantino’s Films Nar­rat­ed (Most­ly) by Quentin Taran­ti­no

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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