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. 

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Just about every crime or gangster film made since 1972 owes a debt to Frances Ford Coppola’s multi-Oscar-winning classic, including much of Tarantino’s oeuvre. It would, of course, not exist without Mario Puzo’s bestselling book, first published in 1969 and never out of print since. Although Coppola pruned some of its soapier excesses, much of what is considered iconic and thrilling (‘I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse’, the horse’s head in the bed, Don Corleone) is all present in Puzo’s novel. It also provided a good amount of the material for The Godfather Part II, specifically the young Don Corleone storyline, but, unsurprisingly, the well had run dry by the time The Godfather Part III was finally made. The appearance of Al Pacino, Michael Corleone himself, in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as a low-rent agent can be seen as a typical Tarantino homage to his forbears.

Dress Her In Indigo by John D. MacDonald

At heart, many of Tarantino’s films are sordid explorations of the deadly combination of wrongdoing and greed, and many owe a spiritual debt to the work of the great crime writer John D MacDonald, whose Travis McGee novels are some of the finest American detective fiction ever written. McGee is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ who undertakes his cases without fear or favour, and swiftly becomes involved in Byzantine plots that often involve duplicitous women, violent men and exotic locations. Dress Her In Indigo is widely regarded as one of MacDonald’s best novels, taking McGee to Mexico to investigate the death of a young woman amidst the expatriate community of hippies and ‘travellers’; just as the characters in Hollywood know that the hippy dream of the Sixties is coming to an end, so McGee reserves a level of contempt for the stragglers and would-be flower children. Plus there’s a character who deserves her own Tarantino-directed spin-off, a British aristocrat called Lady Becky, whose stated ambition is to be ‘the jolly best piece of Anglo-Saxon ass in all Christendom.’ 


Bullet Park by John Cheever

Leonardo DiCaprio, the star of Hollywood, has made something of a speciality of playing flawed and vulnerable men in adaptations of some of the great American stories of the 20th century: Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, for instance. Should he wish to take on another, then Eliot Nailes in John Cheever’s novel would be a good fit for his estimable talents. Nailes is a devoted yet troubled family man who comes into contact with the violent Paul Hammer on the Bullet Park estate. Hammer, who isn’t a million miles away from Hollywood’s antagonist Charles Manson, is a demonic madman who becomes obsessed with murdering Nailes’s son Tony in an attempt to purify society. For all the immaculate picket fences and neighbourly good cheer, Cheever’s novel depicts a very American vision of hell in a way that Tarantino would undoubtedly applaud.  

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Tarantino’s 2009 WWII film, Inglourious Basterds, attracted both praise and criticism for its revisionist attitude towards the period. His critics should have read Kurt Vonnegut’s blackly comic masterpiece, published four decades earlier. Its storyline, focusing on the WWII soldier Billy Pilgrim and his claims to have been held captive by aliens, both anticipates Tarantino’s signature time-jumping narratives in its decade-spanning storyline, and, in its omniscient, intrusive narrator, allows a slyly ironic authorial voice to comment on the absurdities of the events depicted. It even manages, in the vengeful Paul Lazzaro, to feature a POW-turned-small-time hoodlum whose boast is that he can have anyone killed for ‘a thousand dollars, plus travelling expenses’. As Hollywood attracts criticism for its revisionist account of the Manson killings (no spoilers here), Vonnegut’s depiction of the Dresden bombing that Pilgrim is caught up in offers thrilling counter-factualism that would send historians white with anger and confusion.     

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

At first glance, a story of frustrated love between a Darwinist gentleman-of-leisure and a disgraced governess, set in Victorian Lyme Regis, would appear to have little to do with Tarantino’s California and its inhabitants. Yet by 1969, John Fowles, an Oxford-educated public schoolboy and former English teacher, was one of the cult writers across America, thanks to his previous bestsellers, the psychological thriller The Collector (1962) and the strange, metafictional The Magus (1966). If Tarantino’s characters abandoned the world of TV and film for a moment, they would surely appreciate Fowles’s skill in playing with narrative and character, just as their own creator does. As with Slaughterhouse-Five, the omniscient, all-knowing narrator practically becomes a character in his own right, and the metafictionality even extends to the provision of multiple endings, with the wry implication that the author has no more right than the reader to decide what the ‘real’ conclusion should be.  

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

Supposedly one of Boris Johnson’s favourite fictional characters, the venal, lecherous and cowardly Harry Flashman made his only cinematic appearance to date in Royal Flash, an adaptation of the second novel in the series, directed by one of Tarantino’s heroes Richard Lester. (He had wished to direct the first, but could not obtain funding.) Yet the books, which mix real-life characters and fictional ones to dramatic and comic effect, represent a masterclass in how to bring the past alive in surprising and accessible fashion. As Flashman, in the first novel, finds himself lusting after Queen Victoria (‘pretty enough below the neck’), commanded by the Light Brigade’s Lord Cardigan (‘too stupid ever to be afraid’) and is expelled from school by Thomas Arnold, MacDonald Fraser creates a semi-realistic universe not so far from Tarantino’s Hollywood, where Bruce Lee and Mama Cass encounter washed-up B-movie stars and stuntmen. It goes without saying that a Tarantino film of Flashman – in the style of Django Unchained – would be an immense pleasure.   

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