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It’s got MacGuffins! – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, by Quentin Tarantino

After my wee bit of silliness last week, here is my actual review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino. It was published on June 29, 2021, as a mass market paperback. The format of the book suits the style and subject of the film: it is a story meant to have mass appeal and it also depicts the mass public’s ideas about Hollywood film production, stars and iconic films. Tarantino brings together the myths and legends of films, studios, actors and fans of six decades ago, and the strangely enduring myths and legends of today. The book consists of screenplays within stories within a frame narrative of the Hollywood film industry from the 1960s onward. He merges fiction – depictions of actors, their roles, and the texts of screenplays of the films in which they are acting – with historical events and people.

Once Upon a Time in HollywoodA Novel, by Quentin Tarantino (Publisher: ‎ Harper Perennial; June 29, 2021; paperback, 416 pages)

If you are not a film aficionado, and you don’t know American films or the Cowboy, Western (Old West) or Spaghetti Western film genres from the 60s, 70s and 80s, then you will not experience this time warp sensation when you read the book. It will merely be many pages of descriptions and speeches consisting of lists of names of people, films, and TV shows, all likely going over your head. You would not pick up whether he is mentioning a person who really existed, or a fictional character.

Tarantino’s Hollywood

The book, even more than the film, is a detailed and definitive statement about Tarantino’s own work and life: “This is my world”, it says, and also “This is my artificial, constructed world,” since everything in this world comes from acting, which is artifice, pretence, smoke-and-mirrors, and a passing parade.

Into this world of make-believe Tarantino inserts the very real and awful characters of Charles Manson and his murderous family of dirty-footed, shabby, dangerously deluded hippies. But even then, Tarantino, with the artistic licence granted to writers of fiction, changes the historical events that happened because of Manson’s craziness. The story in the film becomes a fairytale with an entirely different ending from what happened in real life to Sharon Tate and her family and friends, that terrible night in the Polanski mansion in the Hollywood hills.

Ultimately, the book and the film are vehicles for Tarantino, the auteur, that serve to depict his version of Hollywood. Almost every element, every detail, is derivative – derived from Quentin Tarantino, that is. Film critics have gone to the trouble to analyze the many references, cameos, flashbacks, mentions, associations, “Tarantino MacGuffins”, and stylings in the film: just about everything in the film can be linked to other films by Tarantino and famous Hollywood productions with which he had been involved. Sometimes, in both the film and the book, he has changed the names of real people, other times not. His lawyers must have had a big job to check for copyright infringements and potential libel suits. But this, names and all, is Tarantino’s world.

Layers of film references

In the novel, he tells his story with the occasional nod to folktales and fairytales, starting with the title, which itself is a reference to the earlier Western films, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), a Neo-Western style film directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), a Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Leone – the original Western blockbuster. And Once Upon a Time in the West was influenced by many famous Western films, which have themselves been influenced by earlier Westerns and even earlier films with the classic loner-on-a-quest-does-good theme, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943).

Like Leone, Tarantino also uses stock conventions of American Westerns in both the film and in the book, but sometimes reworks them or modernizes them. For instance, the character “Rick Dalton”, who is an actor who frequently plays the baddie in Cowboy films, has the classic mannerisms down pat: the swagger, the twitchy gun finger at the holster, the cool manner, the inhumanly perfect kill rate, the eyes narrowed in the bright sunlight, the big, easy-going horse, the hat, boots, smokes – you name it.

A twist of the convention

But in Tarantino’s Hollywood, Rick Dalton has moved on from playing the hero to playing the bad guy. He also has a slight stutter when he gets anxious, he forgets his lines, and on set, he has a long, twirly moustache, long hair and a fringed jacket – looking exactly like Dennis Hopper playing “Billy” in Easy Rider in 1969 minus the sunglasses and motorbike. The motivation for this is that the director of the film that Rick is playing in, “Sam Wanamaker”, wants a more “modern” look, and wants him to make his co-star jealous. And in a tangle of literary references, he also wants Rick to play the character of “Caleb DeCouteau”, the outlaw, as if he were Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.

“Sam stands behind the sturdy wooden chair, lays his hands on the back of it, and says, ‘Rick, this is the chair from which you’ll make your ransom demands for Mirabella.’
‘Well, great, Sam,’ Rick drawls. ‘That’s a damn good-lookin’ chair.’
‘But I don’t want you to think of it as a chair,’ Sam corrects.
‘You don’t want me to think of it as a chair?’ a perplexed Rick repeats.
‘No, I do not,’ Sam says.
‘What do you want me to think of it as?’ Rick questions.
‘I want you to think of it as a throne. The throne of Denmark!’ he concludes.
‘Having not read Hamlet, Rick has no idea Hamlet was Danish, so he doesn’t comprehend the “Throne of Denmark” reference.
He repeats to his director, somewhat incredulously, ‘The throne of Denmark?’
‘And you are a sexy evil Hamlet,’ Sam says with a flourish.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino, p. 311 (Image: Edwin Booth as Hamlet c. 1870)

“Sam stands behind the sturdy wooden chair, lays his hands on the back of it, and says, ‘Rick, this is the chair from which you’ll make your ransom demands for Mirabella.’
‘Well, great, Sam,’ Rick drawls. ‘That’s a damn good-lookin’ chair.’
‘But I don’t want you to think of it as a chair,’ Sam corrects.
‘You don’t want me to think of it as a chair?’ a perplexed Rick repeats.
‘No, I do not,’ Sam says.
‘What do you want me to think of it as?’ Rick questions.
‘I want you to think of it as a throne. The throne of Denmark!’ he concludes.
‘Having not read Hamlet, Rick has no idea Hamlet was Danish, so he doesn’t comprehend the “Throne of Denmark” reference.
He repeats to his director, somewhat incredulously, ‘The throne of Denmark?’
‘And you are a sexy evil Hamlet,’ Sam says with a flourish.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino, p. 311

Not quite a novel

In terms of what makes a novel a novel, this book lacks many of the fundamentals: apart from the writing style, which is sometimes careless and often unremarkable, there is little or no character development, there is hardly any plot, the narrative arc meanders backwards and forwards, and the descriptions read like expansions of scene headings. Mostly written in the present perfect tense, like for a scene in a screenplay (for instance, “Interior, bedroom – Day”) and in the third person, some of these descriptions of settings are annoyingly long and detailed. It is as if Tarantino were describing what is happening on the screen down to the smallest detail of mannerisms, clothes, hair, and dialogue from scripts.

This includes supposedly normal speech for the time, meaning it is American English, full of swearwords, random and fragmentary, unrestrained, and very slangy. This means that the word “f***” appears more often in this novel than in any other novel I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something. For instance, on p.263 it gets used 23 times, as a verb, noun, adjective and adverb. It’s not much different in the rest of the book. It seems to be the default swearword – or any word.

The very important missing thing

And here’s the strangest part: the book has a different climax from the film, if you can call it a climax at all. I’d say the story just fizzles out with no climax to speak of. Remember that important question, formulated by Neil Gaiman, that readers ask, and that authors must address: And then what happened? In this novel, I had to go back and read the final chapter quite a few times to confirm that even after that, I still could not remember what happened next, nor was what happened at the end thrilling or satisfying. (Maybe I’m just someone who does not understand the subtleties of being an actor and achieving whatever it is that Rick achieved.)

In the film, there is an absolute whopper of a climax, which is very enjoyable and indulges just about every desire for revenge and retribution felt by the viewer. The film builds a picture of the Manson Family as mad, bad and dangerous to know, and drops all kinds of hints to draw the viewer into believing that they are godawful and are going to do something even awfuller. And then that climax happens.

This does not happen in the book. The climax depicted in the film is not depicted in the book. The events that take place at the climax of the film are briefly described in Chapter 7 of the book, on pp. 110 to 111.

For a novel of more than 400 pages (even in the small, mass paperback format) this is not where you’d expect to find any climax, not when more than half of the book still has to be read. It’s just five paragraphs long, whereas in the film, it is a quite long, ultra-violent, shockingly funny and satisfying scene. It is indeed the film’s climax and it is followed by just a three more brief, explanatory pieces of dialogue (Rick Dalton to the cops, Rick to his neighbour “Jay Sebring” from outside the gate of the Polanski-Tate estate, and Rick to “Sharon Tate” and her friends.)

In those moments of resolution in the film, Rick, having longed to find some way to engage with the famous Polanski-Tate couple and so get closer to fame, walks up the long, lamplit driveway to the Polanski’s mansion, with Jay Sebring at his side. The camera pulls back to a long shot of Rick shaking hands with Sharon and the others, and it seems as though he has walked up the glittering stairway to paradise. His dream has come true, once upon a time in Hollywood. Ergo: the end.

Breaking the fourth wall

The final parts of the film that build up to the climax, have a voiceover in which the narrator tells the story of what is happening. This is Tarantino, breaking the fourth wall – he is talking directly to the viewer. It is the moment when he, the film-maker, the lover of films, the writer, actor, director and producer, depicts the ending that he wants in his version of Hollywood. It has quite a strong impact, and you almost expect the final shot to dissolve into a close-up of the pages of an old, leather-bound book, like in the Shrek films and in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The end of the story

In the novel, however, there is no such moment or narrator. Finally, Rick, with the help of a precocious child actor with whom he is working, spends a night rehearsing his lines. The kid tells him how great she thinks their jobs are, and on consideration, Rick agrees. He thinks to himself how lucky he is to be working in Hollywood, and on set the next day, he and the genius munchkin nail their scene.

“And for the first time in ten years, Rick realizes how fortunate he is and was. All the wonderful actors he’s worked with through the years – Meeker, Bronson, Coburn, morrow, McGavin, Robert Blake, Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson. All the different actresses he got to kiss. All the affairs he had. All the interesting people he got to work with.
[…]
He looks around at the fabulous house he owns. Paid for by doing what he used to do for free when he was a little boy: pretending to be a cowboy.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino, p. 399 (Photo by David Bartus on Pexels.com)

“And for the first time in ten years, Rick realizes how fortunate he is and was. All the wonderful actors he’s worked with through the years – Meeker, Bronson, Coburn, morrow, McGavin, Robert Blake, Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson. All the different actresses he got to kiss. All the affairs he had. All the interesting people he got to work with.
[…]
He looks around at the fabulous house he owns. Paid for by doing what he used to do for free when he was a little boy: pretending to be a cowboy.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino, p. 399

Paid for by doing what he used to do for free when he was a little boy: pretending to be a cowboy.” True that: millions of dollars made and spent by pretending to be someone in a film. That’s acting, no more and no less. It’s not saving the world, or service to humankind, or rocket science. It’s just entertainment – here today, gone tomorrow.

What is the reason for this book?

Why did Tarantino write this novel which is not really a novel, but rather a greatly expanded, reformatted screenplay?

I think that it allowed him to tell his story in much more detail and depth than was possible in the film. Secondly, it promotes the film and gives it a longer shelf life. The back cover advertises the soon-to-be-published “Deluxe Hard-cover Edition”, with “new material including never before seen photos”. I have a feeling that this might be the start of a franchise. After all, at the end of both the book and the film, both protagonists are still alive and have prospects to look forward to.

The film came out in 2019, and, since Tarantino wrote the screenplay, that ending was already a done deal by the time he produced the novelization. The scenes from the film which are depicted in the book are almost the same, word for word. There are additional events and scenes in the book, for instance about Cliff and his fighting dog, or Rick’s visit to the “Spahn Ranch”, and of course a lot more dialogue. But the fact that Tarantino did not incorporate that scene into the book, with Cliff and his dog and the crazed “Manson Family” hippies, could mean that Tarantino – again breaking the fourth wall – wanted to demonstrate that in Hollywood, films are “once upon a time” creations. They do not have to be realistic, or congruent, or have the all features and meet the criteria of a particular genre. They are the artistic vision of the director who can do whatever they want with it – no matter how anachronistic, outrageous or unusual it ends up being.

Read it? Avoid it?

Should you read it? Oh well, you can probably pick up an inexpensive copy at your local supermarket, so why not. However, if you want any gratification and a satisfying ending, rather watch the film.


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