I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Tarantino movie all the way through – I may have seen some of Pulp Fiction – but I couldn’t resist the paperback, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

For a start, the size and format reminds me of paperbacks back when they were something you could put in your pocket. Back in the days when buying a paperback novelisation was the closest you could get to seeing a film like Enter The Dragon because you were too young to get in X Certificate films. But in execution, it reminds me of Ellery Queen’s 1965 novelisation of A Study In Terror. I say that because – without having seen the movie – the book seems to contain huge digressions which can’t be part of the movie – in a similar way to Ellery Queen having his modern day namesake review Dr Watson’s account of Sherlock Holmes’ encounter with Jack the Ripper and investigate the background of the manuscript.*

*In its page count and behind-the-scenes gossipiness it also reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Bantam paperback on The Exorcist from Novel to Film

All I really know about he movie Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is that the final new issue of Mad magazine ran a “time warp” black-and-white parody of Bounty Law, the 1960’s TV series which forms the back story of the movie’s “Rick Dalton” (Leonardo De Caprio). The picture I get from the novelisation is that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood centres on Dalton, now reduced to guest shots in TV westerns starring up-and-coming actors. Tarantino has an agent draw a J.G Frazer type analogy with the young stars feasting on Dalton’s reputation every time he plays a villain. “What the audience sees is Bingo Martin whippin’ the guy from Bounty Law’s ass…another coupl’a years playin’ punchin’ bag to every swingin’ dick new to the network..is going to have a psychological effect on how the audience perceives you.” The agent offers Dalton a chance to reinvent himself playing roles in European movies and the story follows the next few days as Dalton makes up his mind. Meanwhile, Dalton’s driver, a former stuntman and psychopathic killer called Cliff Booth is drawn into an encounter with the Manson family, and Manson himself accidentally calls on Dalton’s neighbour Sharon Tate while chasing up a record producer who promised to listen to some of Manson’s songs.

For the most part the novelisation concerns itself with Hollywood tall tales and the characters (or Tarantino’s) musings on 1960’s pop culture. I found most of this entertaining although I’m not sure whether this is because I’m a similar age to Tarantino and can remember Dean Martin and Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino has Tate drop into a cinema that is showing the Matt Helm movie and explores her memories of the moment when she performs her first slapstick fall. Even in the 1970’s when I saw The Wrecking Crew on TV, Tate’s character seemed patronising and misjudged, so it’s poignant to have Tarantino illuminate Tate’s pride at pulling off ‘the Jerry Lewis’ role. He leaves us with a sense of Tate truly (and forever) ‘living in the moment’ – enjoying her success with no thought of a future permanently excised.

Wayne Maunder in LANCER

But the novelisation is dominated by the filming of The High Riders, the pilot episode of Lancer (1968). According to the novel, Lancer was designed as a vehicle for up-and-coming star James Stacey. The novel outlines the process by which Stacey was tested out in a two-part episode of Gunsmoke. In the televised pilot, the series almost seems like a Western precursor of The Persuaders with autocratic rancher Andrew Duggan bringing together his estranged sons to fight off the bandits threatening his property. Aristocratic Scott Lancer (Wayne Maunder) is a former army officer, while Johnny Madrid Lancer (James Stacey) is a former gunfighter and mercenary.

Tarantino has his lead character Rick Dalton playing the villain Caleb DeCoteau- a character who was named Day Pardie and played by Joe Don Baker in the actual TV episode. In the UK, Lancer was screened on BBC 2 in May 1969 – like The High Chaparral – a high-profile series to attract viewers to the new colour service. To be honest, the only scene from Lancer that ever stuck in my memory was from the November 1972 BBC 1 repeat of The High Riders. In the opening sequence a Pinkerton agent tracks Scott Lancer (Wayne Maunder) to Boston with a summons back to the Lancer ranch in California. Maunder is dressed in a top hat and opera cloak, set against a gas lamp. And I guess the reason why it rooted in my memory was because it was the first time I comprehended that America had cities at the same time as the cowboy lifestyle – or perhaps because I realised that cowboy stories were taking place at the same time as Sherlock Holmes stories.

Tarantino goes into a lot of detail about the Lancer pilot, which was directed by Sam Wanamaker, founder of Shakespeare’s Globe and actor in films like The Criminal. That’s important because Tarantino has Wanamaker as a character trying to convince the frankly thick Rick Dalton of the Shakespearean overtones of his character. Whether this happened or not – who knows – Wanamaker was reputedly quite an unworldly director (Harry Robertson told a story about him booking a bunch of jazz musicians to record the score for his movie The File of the Golden Goose (1969) and expecting them to just improvise against the rough cut). But Tarantino’s version of The High Riders is different in many ways from the TV show – almost as if it’s an abandoned treatment for a Tarantino Lancer movie. Perplexingly, Elizabeth Baur’s adult character of Lancer’s niece Teresa, is replaced by a young daughter played by an eight year-old, professional-beyond-her-years actress who becomes Dalton’s mentor.

Despite a creepy chapter featuring a home invasion by the Manson family, the looming horror does not form a climax and is only alluded to in a throwaway paragraph. Tarantino outlines the stepping stones and ranks of Hollywood – the events with which people define themselves and the constant struggle for success. In the novel at least, Rick Dalton finally reaches a kind of satisfaction, realising that it’s better to live in the moment than to constantly berate himself over an imagined lost success. The novelisation is certainly entertaining. Does it give a true impression of the movie? I doubt it. Like all novelisations it lives best in the imagination.