Once Upon a Novel

Warning: I’m no expert on novelizations.

Luckily, that probably makes me representative of the masses. As such, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the common conception of novelizations is that they’re straightforward retellings of their corresponding movies; they translate the film to text, adapting it for a different medium but still hewing closely to the original story.

By this simplistic definition, Quentin Tarantino’s self-described novelization of Once Upon a Time .. in Hollywood is not a traditional novelization; calling it a novelization is akin to labeling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a novelization of Hamlet.

True to Tarantino, he claims he’s operating in a familiar genre, but then upends its typical strictures. A measly percentage of the book relays what we saw on screen as is. In fact, I’d go so far as to posit that the novel should be considered a standalone work on its own terms. It’s obviously a companion piece, but not one that necessarily gives us more information to understand the movie, filling in the backstory and gaps left open. The novel can be treated like it’s own work of art, in conversation with the first telling, but a new take that is it’s own take as well.

For instance, the novel’s Cliff Booth isn’t Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, especially since both versions spend so much time on cinema as a collaborative medium. Pitt’s Cliff is related to the novel’s Cliff, but they’re not the same character.

The movie will always be the movie, and nothing in the book should change how we view what happens in it. The book feels more like a “WHAT IF the movie went down this path…”, a collection of ideas that QT had while working on the story. It’s his long-promised stab at building an extended universe, but instead of every new installment conforming to the existing canon, the canon becomes more of a multiverse.

If Tarantino keeps building out this Hollywood universe — as he plans to — he could reaffirm my theory by casting different actors to play the same characters. It’d be a dream to finally see Leo on stage, but unless he radically changes his approach to the role, wouldn’t it be more interesting to behold a different actor’s Rick Dalton?

What’s so impressive about the book is that it makes the characters feel like they exist *outside* the movie. Because they do; in QT’s head. And he develops them so thoroughly that they really feel real.

Which is thematically on point for Hollywood.

And celebrity!

In tandem, the movie and the novelization go to the root of how audiences engage with art. Movies predominantly deal with the external — what can be seen, and what’s said out loud (minus the explanatory voiceovers) — while novels give voice to the internal — character motivations, what they’re thinking, feeling, etc. — from an omniscient (but still subjective) perspective. The relationship between the movie and the book make it clear: what artists deem to tell us and include alters how we interpret what’s in front of us.

That’s true for the art itself, and for the artists who create the art, our relationship to whom obviously informs our relationship to their art.

If these ideas aren’t paramount to the institution of Hollywood, then I don’t know what is…

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