Hot Topic: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: a Fantastic Novel and Film


Over the summer, I worked my first job as a server at a local restaurant. I worked long hours but still had too much time at home to sit in anticipation of arriving at Colgate. When I wasn’t working, passing time became much easier after my mother handed me the novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This novel, published on June 29, 2021, completes the story of its Academy Award-winning film prequel — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The book provides generous cultural context to back up its intrepid prequel and many additional plot details to expand on its story and engross readers, like myself, who have seen the film multiple times.

Whether you like it or not, director Quentin Tarantino is undeniably unique for not censoring his artistic creativity or putting on a facade, even if it might gain him more approval in Hollywood. This honesty is part of what makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood truly singular, along with stimulating conflicts and action sequences that couple well with the rarely seen genuine ’60s personalities, where language that would nowadays be considered derogatory was common and often culturally encouraged. The film continues the style of critically acclaimed ‘Once Upon a Time’ films by Sergio Leone that capture the historical significance of a time and place in history and insert fictional characters and plot. In addition to a picture that captures life in the 1969 Hollywood film scene, I found this film to serve as a nostalgic lens for Quentin Tarantino to look back at simpler times and, perhaps, reflect on what he wishes the Hollywood world would still look like.

Although it is a thrilling film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood certainly lacks some of the backstories necessary to prepare its audience watching the movie some fifty years after the depicted events. It takes the most impactful moments from the entire story and sparsely connects them. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel realizes all the film’s shortcomings but doesn’t bore you by describing the memorable scenes from the film. Instead, it focuses on interesting characters who were unexplored like Cliff, Sharon Tate and Trudi Frazer. This added perspective provided a lot more depth and explained the characters’ unique personalities; it made it easy to understand the intention or history of essential scenes like the attempted murder of Rick and Cliff by Charles Manson and his hippie gang.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood received a groundbreaking sequel in a form I did not expect. The first time I watched the film, in 2019, I struggled to stay in my seat as I watched the thrilling performance by Brad Pitt as Cliff, Rick’s friend and stunt double, surprise us by graphically killing hippies in Rick’s home. I was struck by Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Rick, a once-successful but now-fallen, mopey and nostalgic actor who plays the role of a bad guy in a cowboy film. He unexpectedly alleviates his “real-life” grief and learns to appreciate what he has after bonding with Trudy Frazer, the child actress playing a hostage in the movie within the movie. The interplay of a film within a film, with the two characters bonding offset, was so complex that the acting felt more real than anything of its kind. The novel provides the same excitement without too much repetition as it explores the future and past of the film’s most important characters.

At first, I hesitated to read the book. I couldn’t imagine it adding anything too attractive to the already fantastic film. On the contrary, I expected it to spoil the movie with pointless dialogue. I was proven wrong: the novel contains plenty of additional details and tells the past and future of all the great characters that the film did not have time to include. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel was funny, fresh and action-packed. I encourage you to read the novel and watch the film because they are two different stories that complement each other well.