“Do you have the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino in stock, please?” I asked the chap behind the counter in my local Waterstones.
“Over there,” he said.
Yeah, I’d walked past a whole display of them on my way in. If you know me, you’ll know that’s typically me.
I took it to the counter and paid. The chap said, “I’ll be giving this a read too.”
“I haven’t read a movie tie-in novel in about twenty years,” I offered, “and I honestly thought I never would again. But this one I’m making an exception for.”
What I told the chap in Waterstones was almost right. The last movie tie-in novel I read was The Phantom Menace by noted fantasy writer Terry Brooks, published in 2000. It didn’t help to clarify anything that happened in that frankly baffling film and I didn’t bother reading any of the subsequent prequel novelisations.
To be fair, if Charles Dickens had been brought back from the dead and given the job of translating The Phantom Menace into words, I doubt he could have done any better. It was an impossible task.
It was a shame, because my journey as a novel reader began with Star Wars. I was six-years-old when the original movie was released and it was the subject of my first ever movie theatre experience.
After that, Star Wars became my religion and I started collecting anything and everything I could get my tiny hands on. My long-suffering parents bought me the action figures (obvs), the comic books, the jigsaws, the trading cards, the breakfast cereal, the transfer sets, the board game and, of course, the novelisation.
Written by celebrated sci-fi/fantasy scribe Alan Dean Foster (but credited to George Lucas), the novelisation of Star Wars (boasting 16 pages of fabulous colour!) became the first ‘proper’ novel I ever read. Just to clarify, when I say ‘proper’, I mean that it wasn’t necessarily targeted to my age group. It had long words in it and you’d see actual grown-ups reading it on the bus, so to my young mind it was a ‘proper’ book. Most important of all, however, was that it wasn’t read to me by an adult. It was a novel I wanted to read on my own, and read it I did.
After that came the Star Wars spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), also by Alan Dean Foster (although this time featuring his name on the cover). This saw Luke and Leia marooned on the planet of Mimban where they encounter Darth Vader. In addition, there were the Han Solo spin-off novels, Han Solo at Stars’ End, Han Solo’s Revenge (both published in 1979) and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy (1980), all written by Brian Daley. That dude had one hell of a work rate.
Anyway, I devoured them all, and after that I started nagging my parents to buy me any novel I saw by any of the above authors. Also, pretty much any novel with spaceships on the cover (I remember Harry Harrison being a particular favourite). I was now officially a reader, and my gateway drug had been Star Wars.
My twenty-one year hiatus from the film/TV tie-in novel had nothing to do with snobbery, I just want to make that clear. I have never once turned my nose up at that particular artform. On the contrary, I had often looked at the author names on the array of Star Trek, Doctor Who and Star Wars books in my local bookshop and thought, “You’re making a living as a writer. Good for you.”
And I’ve always understood that, in the hands of a good writer, a tie-in novel can enrich its source material. It can add depth to it and, in the best cases, make you look at it in a different way. And that’s what intrigued me about the novelisation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I thought the movie was terrific and I had faith in Tarantino as a novelist as well as a screenwriter, a field in which he is already proven. Also, a filmmaker novelising his own work was a new one on me, so there was no way I was not going to indulge.
Needless to say, the book didn’t disappoint. It deals less with the events depicted in the movie and more with the characters; fading TV and film star Rick Dalton, stuntman Cliff Booth and, arguably the principal one, Hollywood itself. This was an aspect of it I absolutely loved. Tarantino explores in forensic detail the insider politics of the old Hollywood studio system; the backscratching, the betrayals, the affairs, the ebbs and flows of career highs and lows. It really is fascinating stuff, and the period detail is incredibly evocative. This could only have been written by someone in love with the subject matter.
I found the exploration of Cliff Booth’s background particularly fascinating (played by Brad Pitt in the movie). We learn of his record as a WWII hero (more Japanese kills than any other US soldier, including by knife), of his love of foreign films and of the death of his wife. In the pages of this book he becomes a far deeper character, more nuanced, and more dangerous. Basically, we know now that when Bruce Lee picks a fight with him, he’s actually picking a fight with a killer.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first movie tie-in novel I can remember seeing reviewed in newspapers. No other title springs to mind. I mention this for a very specific reason.
I am a member of a writing group, and not so long back we were lucky enough to have Una McCormack as our guest speaker. Una is the author of numerous Doctor Who and Star Trek tie-in novels, including the USA Today bestseller Picard: the Last Best Hope. During the Q&A after her talk, I asked her if the tie-in novel was undergoing a renaissance. The reason I asked that question is because I had read a fairly recent article in The Guardian saying that the stigma around tie-ins was on the wane and it was becoming a respected artform (thanks to books like the Jurassic World tie-in The Evolution of Claire by Tess Sharpe). I wanted to know if she agreed with this hypothesis. Una replied that that day had not yet come. Articles in The Guardian about tie-in novels is one thing, but when they start actually reviewing tie-in novels, she said, only then the artform would truly have achieved respectability.
The Guardian reviewed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino.
I stayed chatting to the chap in Waterstones for a little while, reminiscing about our past love affairs with licensed products, and he proudly stated that he still had all his Doctor Who novels by Target Books from when he was a kid. I was pleased about that because they obviously brought him joy and that’s a wonderful thing. Also, here was someone other than myself who had discovered the gift of the novel via the humble film/TV tie-in. That was a good feeling.
Oh, and I still have all my old Star Wars tie-in novels too, in case you’re wondering.