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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood: The Novelization

By October 19, 2021April 5th, 2022No Comments

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino has a book trailer!


Tarantino’s polarizing 2019 film about Hollywood in 1969 recently found a new, expanded life as a novelization. But whether you loved or loathed the director’s choice to re-write history, one thing is certain–this film got a lot of people talking. So why aren’t they talking more about the novelization of the film? 

The director’s debut novel hit shelves back in July of this year and it’s not what you might expect. Yes, the book includes deleted or unfilmed scenes from the movie. But more importantly, it fleshes out the back story of the main characters. Also, the book includes a world of new scenes that never even made it into the script. Warning: spoiler alerts galore!   

Once Upon a time in hollywood novelizationOnce Upon a time in hollywood novelization

The Film Version

For those who haven’t seen the film, the story goes a bit like this. Hollywood, CA. 1969. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging TV star obsessed with reviving his career. After a six-month stint in Italy making spaghetti westerns for director Sergio Corbucci (a thinly veiled Eastwood/Leone sketch), Dalton is back in Hollywood on a desperate mission to stay relevant. 

Dalton’s stunt man and confidant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is a war vet who lives in a trailer with his pitbull, Brandy. Booth is stuck with Dalton, due to career troubles of his own. Nobody in Hollywood will touch him amid rumors that he killed his wife, which may or may not be true. Unable to get work as a stunt man, Booth is employed as Dalton’s chauffeur after a DUI arrest resulted in the suspension of the actor’s license. 

At one point, Booth picks up a would-be Manson girl hitchhiker, Pussycat, and brings her to Spahn Ranch. Booth senses something fishy is going on when he arrives to find a bunch of rogue hippies living onsite. The stuntman knows because he worked at the ranch in the ‘50s, back when he and Dalton were employed on the western TV Series Bounty Law that made Dalton famous. Booth decides to alert George Spahn, who is nearly blind and clueless about the culty takeover happening under his nose. This is Booth’s first run-in with the Manson family derelicts, but it certainly won’t be his last. The scuffle that occurs between Booth and Clem at Spahn Ranch foreshadows the film’s later climax. 

A Fairytale Ending…

Sharron Tate and Roman Polanski have recently moved next door to Dalton. The washed-up actor wants to befriend them in the hopes of making a connection that will revive his career. When the Manson family shows up at the Tate/Polanski house, Dalton hears their car and unwittingly intercepts the murders. The family decides to kill Dalton instead because “Hollywood taught them to kill.”

Manson Family members Tex, Sadie, and Katie break into Dalton’s pad and are greeted by Booth, freshly high off an LSD-laced cigarette. Booth, along with help from his pitbull, Brandy, violently murders Tex and Katie, leaving Sadie critically injured. 

Dalton is floating in his pool with headphones on listening to his walkman, oblivious to the chaos inside. Sadie stumbles outside, shocking Dalton out of his relaxation. The actor grabs a flamethrower he once used in a film and finishes the job by incinerating Sadie. When Booth is carted off in an ambulance to treat a stab wound to the leg, Sharron Tate and Jay Sebring invite Dalton inside for a drink. Finally, justice is served. If only it happened that way in real life…     

‘Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’ The Novelization

According to Tarantino, the novelization is “a complete re-thinking of the entire story.” In the book, the director-author adds several details to the lives of his main characters. This includes a thoroughly detailed backstory for the stuntman, Cliff Booth. The result? A more in-depth, humanistic perspective on his characters.

One difference is Tarantino’s infamous re-telling of the Manson murders happens toward the beginning of the novel. This event serves as the jump-off point for the rest of the story, which delves into Rick Dalton’s dreams coming true when he becomes a regular on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The regular TV spot reignites the actor’s fame flame and makes him relevant to a whole new generation of fans. This is due, in part, to Sharron Tate’s influence. The novelization then dives into Tate’s psyche, humanizing the martyred actress in the world Tarantino has created.

The Plot Thickens…

The author adds several plot points that take the reader on a journey deep inside the fantasy world of Hollywood in 1969. Tarantino expands on several scenes from the film that offer another window into the minds of his characters. For example, we learn that Cliff Booth’s motives for picking a fight with Bruce Lee are connected to his personal fight against the instinct to kill.

We get the whole story about Booth’s military career fighting in the Pacific theater during WWII. He was captured as a P.O.W. in the Philippines, which helps explain his ongoing struggle against his killer instincts. Both the stories of Booth’s time as a P.O.W. and how he came to own his dog, Brandy, are reportedly based on true stories. Several subplots from the film receive further treatment within their own chapters. For example, the backstory of the Lancer series is a mini-novelization within the greater novelization and the lead actor James Stacey gets an entire chapter dealing with the story of his career. 

Tarantino also explores Charles Manson’s aspirations of rock and roll stardom in a way that hasn’t been done before in pop culture. Before this novel, Manson’s songwriting efforts were only known to rock n’ roll heads or people who were already fond of researching the subject. The author brings this detail, along with an array of ‘60s pop culture fun facts to a wider, modern audience. 

Film vs Novel

According to Tarantino, the arc of the story in the book is more true to his original vision for the film. The novelization is the story Tarantino wanted to direct and then some. Obviously, this tale is too big to fit into a single film. So, he chopped many scenes from the original script and saved them for the novelization then added tons of new material. For instance, the way the book ends is very different from the fantastical re-writing of the Manson murders in the film version. In the book, the Manson “murder” sequence happens much earlier and serves a different purpose in the progression of the story. Incidentally, Tarantino actually shot the final scene in the novel for the film–a phone call between Rick Dalton and Lancer actress, Trudi. However, the director had to scrap it, otherwise, that would be the end of the movie.   

Tarantino’s Writing Style

Tarantino’s prose is stripped down, visual, and to the point. The book reads like a screenplay, minus the technical stuff, and is surprisingly addictive. The author’s gift for naturally interesting dialogue is in full blossom from the very start. The story begins with Rick Dalton paying a visit to a Beverly Hills talent agent, Marvin Schwarz. The two sip coffee in the agent’s office, chewing the fat and being fabulously Hollywood. Scharwz specializes in reviving the careers of Hollywood has-beens and Dalton is his new prospect. The scene is simple yet somehow, it is utterly engrossing. The reader is compelled to go on.

It’s obvious the author had a lot of fun writing this book, romping around playfully in the world he created. This is the birth of the “New Hollywood” era of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that Tarantino–and everyone else with filmmaking ambitions who was born during or after the ‘60s–aspired to emulate. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood takes place on the cusp of that revolution, during a time of social, sexual, and cultural upheaval. It’s fitting that the film, and now book, that pays such a colorful homage to this culturally defining moment should come out now. Half a century later, we again find ourselves in a time of social upheaval, on an even grander scale, although the circumstances are very different. 

What If?

Tarantino’s version of history begs an interesting question: what would have happened if the Manson murders were thwarted? Could the optimism of the hippies have lasted a little bit longer? Would the positive aspects of their movement be more thoroughly celebrated today, rather than the negative? Maybe we would be quicker to recognize the revolutionary inclusive and spiritual elements of that movement, instead of the drug casualties, Altamont, and the Manson murders? We’ll never know, but at least with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood the novel, we can fantasize about a more glamorous time, right alongside the author.


Patrick Salway is a writer, musician, and actor living in Los Angeles. Follow him on social media @blone_noble and @veneer_publications. Listen to VENEER.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out 14 Novelizations Of Classic Films.

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