Reading lists

Pulp fiction: why 1969 wasn’t just a great year for film

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a love letter to the film and TV of 1969, but it was also a year of iconic novels - many of which could have easily inspired a Tarantino movie 

Alex Larman
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Tarantino's 2019 film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Picture from Sony Pictures.

‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man’.

So laments Danny the drug dealer in Bruce Robinson’s seminal 1969-set Withnail and I, mourning the end of the decade which began with such promise and ended in such disarray. Whether it was the mad eruption of violence at the Altamont Festival in December 1969, the Manson murders in August or the ever-worsening Vietnam War, it seemed as if society was being torn apart by its angry and disappointed citizens, albeit to the most excellent of soundtracks. Even the first moon landing in July 1969 could not raise spirits forever, with rumours soon circulating that it was a Stanley Kubrick-directed hoax; others, jaded by the painful hangover that was kicking in after the party, murmured that space seemed infinitely preferable to whatever lay on earth. 

It is this mixture of violence and regret that has preoccupied Quentin Tarantino, whose ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, opens this week. Tarantino’s Hollywood is, figuratively and literally, thousands of miles from Withnail’s world of shabby pubs and filthy flats, but it has a similar sense of fin-de-siecle dismay. It portrays Los Angeles full of fading TV actors and never-been stunt doubles, struggling to come to terms with the end of the Sixties, even as Manson and the ‘Family’ draw ever closer to their friend and neighbour Sharon Tate. To misquote Eliot, the director sees the skull beneath the sunshine. Yet even as Tarantino portrays the dark side of the era, he does so with his usual extraordinary pizzazz; he is helped by the extraordinarily talented trio of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie who bring, respectively, a TV star, his stuntman friend and Sharon Tate to vivid life.

For a director whose work is so obsessively indebted to film and music, his debts to literature are less obvious, but with at least one bona fide literary adaptation so far in Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, which became 1997’s Jackie Brown, and his other works imbued with allusions to crime writing (Pulp Fiction, if you will), Tarantino draws on books just as much as any other cultural media. 1969 was one of the most interesting and eclectic years in English-language publishing, and the books that appeared then – from Philip Roth’s breakthrough Portnoy’s Complaint to Jacqueline Susann’s trash masterpiece The Love Machine – remain hugely influential, if not always beloved, today.

These are some of the works that share their DNA with the film. If you want a deep dive into some of Tarantino’s influences, from the obvious to the obscure, you’ll love these novels as well. 

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