QUntin Tarantino made a career out of renting movie junk in gold: With the ecstasy of an insider, he worked with the language of B-movies and the rhetoric of grindhouse. Now he has done the same with a genre to which the literary world wrinkles its nose, the most pulpit of pulp fiction: novelization. This is normally the most humble type of movie brand promotion, which had its heyday before the VHS era, aimed at movie fans who wanted a way to relive the experience.
Tarantino has turned his most recent film, Once upon a time in hollywood, in a novel: play with the timeline, set the backstories in motion, mix reality and the pastiche of alternate reality, add new episodes. The result comes packaged in something akin to those New English Library paperbacks that used to be on carousel displays in supermarkets and drug stores. On the covers it blatantly includes advertisements for real and imaginary old commercial paperbacks, like that of Erich Segal. Oliver’s story, sequel to Love story (“It will soon be a great movie”).
Many film directors have written fiction: Michael Cimino, Gus Van Sant, Ethan Coen. Ousmane Sembène adapted his own novel, Mandabi, in a movie. But why this choice to go into fiction? Perhaps because the Hollywood setting gives it the right mix of Jackie Collins-style glamor and excitement. (Y Pulp fiction It would have been too obvious). So here are your late-1960s Hollywood antiheroes: Rick Dalton, played on screen by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the cheesy TV cowboy actor whose career is unraveling. The novel calls him “an Eisenhower actor in a Dennis Hopper Hollywood,” a nice line not used in the movie, perhaps because DiCaprio looked too wonderfully modern to be Eisenhoweresque. Cliff Booth, previously played by Brad Pitt, is Dalton’s best friend and now twice as many stunts that can’t be used; Cliff is hated by industry because he is rumored to have murdered his wife on a fishing boat. Tarantino expands that episode into a gruesome and hilarious piece; he happily sympathizes with Cliff.
Rick’s personal crisis comes to a head when he realizes that he lives alongside the hottest young men: Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, whose dire fate was to coincide with that of cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, whose own Lives, as in the movie, are imagined with a macabre black comedy.
I have to admit that I was disappointed in the way Tarantino changes the ending, merely giving a throwaway mention up front to the ultraviolent phenomenon that shaped the film’s ending. Of course, fans of the original will already know all about the grand finale; Or it could be that you want the novel and the film to complement each other, like a multimedia installation. But the book is completely outrageous and addictively readable on its own terms, even the wildly wordy digressive sections and endless movie and TV wise riffs.
As usual, the novel shows Tarantino as a provocative black belt. He says that Cliff likes the spy character Matt Helm despite or because Helm is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynistic”, but the rest of the time his characters clash with our sensibilities.
At the Cannes press conference for the film, Tarantino was enraged with questions that suggested he was not interested in female characters. In the novel, the inner world of Sharon Tate and the fictional child actress Trudi Fraser are somewhat completed, in particular Trudi, who has gone from her on-screen character to a character of real yet eccentric charm.
The book is a reminder that Tarantino is indeed a really good writer, and it should come as no surprise that his brilliance as a screenwriter is transferable to fiction, to the fireworks of dialogue, but also to the building blocks of narrative. He may not be in the Elmore Leonard league but, like Leonard, he is not concerned with the literary mainstream. I read this in one go, like I was watching a movie.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism