Quentin Tarantino has made a career of alchemist in gold: with the ecstasy of a connoisseur, he worked with the language of the B movies and the rhetoric of the grindhouse. Now, he has done the same with a genre that the literary world wrinkles its noses with, the most luscious in pulp fiction – novelization. This is normally the more modest type of movie brand promotion, which peaked before the VHS era, targeting moviegoers who wanted a way to relive the experience.
Tarantino shot his most recent film, Once upon a time in hollywood, in a novel: play with the chronology, increase the stories, grind the reality and the alt.reality pastiche, squint in new episodes. The result is packaged in something like those New English Library paperbacks that were once on carousel displays in supermarkets and drugstores. In the cover pages, he cheekily includes advertisements for old real and imagined commercial paperbacks, like Erich Segal’s. Olivier’s story, Following Love story (“Soon a major film”).
Many 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 for an entry into fiction? Maybe because the Hollywood setting gives it the right confection of Jackie Collins glamor and excitement. (And pulp Fiction would have been too obvious.) So here are his late 1960s Hollywood antiheroes again: Rick Dalton, played onscreen by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the nerdy television cowboy actor whose career is on the skates. The novel calls him “an Eisenhower actor in a Dennis Hopper Hollywood” – a beautiful line not used in the film, perhaps because DiCaprio looked too beautifully modern to be Eisenhoweresque. Cliff Booth, previously played by Brad Pitt, is Dalton’s best friend and now cascading unusable; the industry hates Cliff because he allegedly murdered his wife on a fishing boat. Tarantino expands this episode into a macabre and hilarious setting; that’s cheerfully sympathetic to Cliff.
Rick’s personal crisis comes to a head when he realizes he lives alongside the hottest youngsters: Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, whose terrible fates were to coincide with that of cult leader Charles Manson and its supporters, whose own lives, as in the film, are imagined with a macabre dark comedy.
I have to admit, I was disappointed with the way Tarantino changes the ending, simply giving a throwaway mention at the start of the ultraviolet panic that formed the film’s finale. Of course, fans of the original will already know all about the great finish; or he may want the novel and the film to complement each other, as a multimedia installation. But the book is utterly outrageous and addicting to read on its own terms – even the wildly verbose digressive sections and endless scholarly riffs on movies and television.
As usual, the novel shows Tarantino as a provocative black belt. He says Cliff loves the parodying spy character Matt Helm despite or because Helm is “subconsciously racist, consciously misogynist,” but the rest of the time his characters crash into our sensibilities.
At the film’s press conference in Cannes, Tarantino was enraged at questions suggesting he was not interested in female characters. In the novel, the inner worlds of Sharon Tate and fictional child actor Trudi Fraser are quite completed, especially Trudi, who has been developed from his on-screen character into a real charming yet eccentric character.
The book is a reminder that Tarantino is, in fact, a very good writer, and it should not be so surprising that his brilliance as a screenwriter is transferable in fiction, in the fireworks of the dialogues but also the building blocks of the story. He may not be in the Elmore Leonard league but, like Leonard, he is pleasantly indifferent to the mainstream literary stream. I read this all at once, like watching a movie.