“Quentin Tarantino Turns His Most Recent Movie Into a Pulpy Page-Turner”

From a New York Times book review by Dwight Garner headlined “Quentin Tarantino Turns His Most Recent Movie Into a Pulpy Page-Turner”:

Quentin Tarantino’s first novel is, to borrow a phrase from his oeuvre, a tasty beverage.

It’s his novelization of his own 2019 film “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”  It’s been issued in the format of a 1970s-era mass-market paperback….It’s got a retro-tacky tagline: “Hollywood 1969 … You shoulda been there!” If it weren’t so plump, at 400 pages, you could slip it into the back pocket of your flared corduroys.

Tarantino isn’t trying to play here what another novelist/screenwriter, Terry Southern, liked to call the Quality Lit Game. He’s not out to impress us with the intricacy of his sentences or the nuance of his psychological insights.

He’s here to tell a story, in take-it-or-leave-it Elmore Leonard fashion, and to make room along the way to talk about some of the things he cares about — old movies, male camaraderie, revenge and redemption, music and style. He gets it: Pop culture is what America has instead of mythology….

The novel is loose-jointed. If it were written better, it’d be written worse. It’s a mass-market paperback that reeks of mass-market paperbacks. In my memory, it’s the smell of warm coconut oil and dust mites and puddling Mercurochrome.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” runs along the same tracks as the film. Some dialogue is similar, just about word for word. But the novel departs from the movie in ways small and large.

The movie’s Grand Guignol ending, for example, which culminates with the aging actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) torching a member of the Manson family with a flamethrower, is dispensed with, early in the novel, in a few sentences.

The killings make Rick, whom we discover is bipolar, famous. He hated hippies anyway. Now he becomes “a folkloric hero of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’” and a regular on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”…

New Manson family scenes are tucked in. Tarantino goes so deep into Manson’s once-promising music career, you may feel you’re reading a back issue of Rolling Stone or Mojo magazine…

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is, at heart, Cliff Booth’s novel. Booth (Brad Pitt in the film) is Dalton’s gofer and stunt double. His back story gets filled in. In World War II, we learn, he killed more Japanese than any other American soldier, and earned the Medal of Valor twice….

Yet Booth has a sensitive side. He’s a movie obsessive. A lot of his opinions resemble Tarantino’s own. There’s good writing here about acting, about foreign films, about B movies, about early movie sex scenes and about television action directors….

Booth is a fan of the actor Alan Ladd, for example, because: “When Ladd got mad in a movie, he didn’t act mad. He just got sore, like a real fella. As far as Cliff was concerned, Alan Ladd was the only guy in movies who knew how to comb his hair, wear a hat or smoke a cigarette.”

Some of these opinions sound perhaps too much like Tarantino’s own: “Once Fellini decided life was a circus, Cliff said arrivederci.” There’s a list of Cliff’s favorite Akira Kurosawa films. About the cinematography in the 1967 Swedish film “I Am Curious (Yellow)”: “Cliff wanted to lick the screen.”

We discover how Dalton and Booth became friends. Booth saved him from an on-set fire, telling him: “Rick, you’re standing in a puddle of water. Just fall down.” We learn how Booth got his pit bull, a star of the movie. He was given the dog, a champion fighter, to pay off a debt. Booth tags along on some of the fights….

In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino makes telling a page-turning story seem easy, which is the hardest trick of all.

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