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Review: ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’: The Good, The Bad And The Amateur

Content Warnings: mentions of rape, sexual assault, and violence.

Quentin Tarantino’s novelization of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is pretty good. It’s also pretty bad. But above all, it is, for want of a better word, supremely Tarantino-y.

Just as his films reflect his fascination with both high and low cinema, the novel’s narration veers off constantly to comment on cinema and culture. A brief scene of one character asking another on a date melds into a lengthy exegesis on post-war international cinema and the political themes of Vilgot Sjöman’s erotic drama film I Am Curious (Yellow). Equally, the judgments that Tarantino makes in these exegeses are often startling. His narration declares that Francois Truffaut’s acclaimed movie The 400 Blows is thematically unsuccessful, and that the equally acclaimed director Michelangelo Antonioni was “a fraud”. You might not agree with all of these opinions but these offbeat critiques, infused with Tarantino’s profane, provocative enthusiasm, enliven the history of cinema in a way that a serious scholarly analysis never could.

The novel also indulges in other, less pleasant, eccentricities. Much ink has been spilled over the accuracy of Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee, which Lee’s daughter has criticized as insulting and reductive. The novel also includes two passages describing a fifteen-year-old girl in an unsettlingly sexualized manner, with the narration commenting on her nude body and sexual history. While these scenes do serve to depict how the girl was abused by Charles Manson and his cult, they also read as being exploitative and disturbing in their own right. The novel thus lurches between observing the flaws and immorality of 60’s Hollywood, and indulging in similarly unpleasant and exploitative rhetoric.

A less disturbing but similarly noteworthy element of the novel is Tarantino’s writing style. In place of “saying” dialogues, his characters “exclaim”, “interject”, “blaspheme” and (in a memorably awkward turn of phrase that kills the mood of an otherwise tense scene) “animatedly [express]”. While replacing “he said, she said” with these more colourful descriptors is not necessarily a poor decision, they are often distracting, or a means for an inexperienced author to add emotion to a dull conversation. However, given how compelling Tarantino’s dialogue is, these markers appear to be an unnecessary and almost amateurish addition by a writer more accustomed to writing screenplays.

In fact, the entire novel feels like an experiment, or an unfinished train of thought, showcasing scenes that almost made it into the movie, not all of which are quite polished. In the movie, the question as to whether one of the protagonists, Cliff Booth, killed his wife intentionally or accidentally is left unanswered. The brief flashback depicting the murder leaves it ambiguous, but the novel shows that Cliff in fact did murder her. However, instead of a cold-blooded killing, Tarantino gives us a glimpse of how he immediately regretted the act, and how the two shared a tender moment before her death. It’s an intriguing and unusually heartfelt scene, which makes it a pity that it’s two pages long. By contrast, a scene of Cliff considering being a pimp and killing two gangsters takes up a full, very boring chapter.

Some of the novel’s scenes are fascinating — I would even argue that the novel’s concluding scene is better than the film’s actual ending — while I can see why others didn’t make the cut for the film, such as the aforementioned gangster-killing scene. The unedited, occasionally messy nature of the story certainly makes it drag at points, but while a more adroitly edited novel would be tidier and more coherent, the novel’s rough edges are what make it compelling.

In Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, a young and inexperienced writer is described as writing stories which are “inept, but hauntingly so”. Far be it from me to call Tarantino “inept”, but the disjointed style of the novel is certainly haunting and fascinating. It’s a rough draft, a miscellany of film trivia, an experiment in novel-writing by a man more familiar with screenplay. Tarantino shows off his knowledge (often to the detriment of things like pacing and narrative coherence), testing out new material and seeing what works. Perhaps Tarantino will become a better novelist as time goes on, but there’s a charm to how this book is a behind-the-scenes look at a story still in construction, full of blind alleys and experiments.

It’s weird, self-indulgent, sometimes problematic, occasionally brilliant, often messy. But I can’t help but love how it’s so idiosyncratic and untidy — in a word, how Tarantino-y it is.

Image credit: Wang Sum Luk

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