When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hit theaters in the summer of 2019, the traditional debate over how seriously to take the violence in a Quentin Tarantino movie erupted for at least the ninth time. Tarantino’s look at Hollywood in the late 1960s ends in an orgy of gore and violence, as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters tear three members of the Manson family into bloody shreds, then set the shreds on fire. That’s par for the course for the director of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, but this time around, the death that drew the most conversation and debate didn’t happen on screen at all.
The backstory for Brad Pitt’s character, war-hero-turned-stunt-man Cliff Booth, includes a rumor that he murdered his wife and got away with it and in the film, Tarantino doesn’t resolve the question of whether or not the rumor is true. Tarantino shows Booth preparing to go scuba diving while his wife Billie (Rebecca Gayheart) drunkenly berates him, then shows her stepping right in front of the barrel of a harpoon gun Booth is holding, but cuts away before anything happens. That ambiguity drew a crowd, as critics, fans, and half of Hollywood argued over whether or not Pitt’s effortlessly cool stuntman was also a murderer (and whether or not that mattered). Cast members (and Tarantino himself) said they knew more than they were telling, but no one who hadn’t worked on the movie knew for sure. Until Tuesday, when Tarantino published a novelization of his own film in which Cliff Booth definitely, undeniably, explicitly murders his wife and gets away with it.
Tarantino gives Billie’s death an entire chapter (“Chapter Ten: Misadventure”), but the first sentence is sufficient to settle any debate, at least regarding what happens in the novel: “The minute Cliff shot his wife with the shark gun, he knew it was a bad idea.” Cliff’s shot tears his wife into “two separate halves,” which the remorseful murderer holds together for seven hours, keeping her alive until medical help arrives. Booth keeps his wife talking to distract her from her injury, and the couple more or less reconcile, after having “the seven-hour conversation they could never have in life.” Then the Coast Guard shows up, tries to move Billie off the boat, and she falls apart and dies. Later in the chapter, in an extremely unpleasant passage set in Cliff’s mind, the stuntman convinces himself that his wife’s death was “practically the accident he claimed it was,” for the following reasons:
One, it was a hair trigger. Two, it was more instinct than a decision. Three, was it a pull, or was it closer to a twitch? Four, it wasn’t like anybody was gonna miss Billie Booth. She was a fucking cunt. Did she deserve to be ripped in two? Maybe not. But to say without Billie Booth on this earth the sweet life goes on unabated would be an understatement. Really, only her sister Natalie was upset, and she was even a bigger fucking cunt than Billie. And she was really only upset for a while. So Cliff carried the guilt, Cliff carried the remorse, and Cliff vowed to do better. What more does society want? The countless numbers of American soldiers he saved by killing Japs were definitely worth one Billie Booth.
So there you have it: In the novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Cliff Booth is unambiguously a murderer, and a misogynist to boot. In fact, he’s a murderer four times over: The novel’s Cliff Booth also shoots two mob henchmen at a pizzeria in Cleveland when they ask him to leave their boss’s mistress alone. After killing his wife and vowing to do better, Cliff kills an acquaintance in a dispute over whether or not to enter his dog in a dogfight, stuffs the guy’s body in the trunk of his own Impala, and abandons the car in Compton. He’s not a good guy, at least in the book!
As explicitly as Tarantino handles the Cliff Booth situation, he treats the film’s other controversial act of violence, the bloodbath that ends the movie, entirely differently. Almost six-and-a-half minutes of extremely violent screen time elapse in the movie from the time the Manson family kicks open Rick Dalton’s door to the time the police arrive. In the novelization, which jumps around in time more than the film, Cliff and Rick’s encounter with the Manson family is only alluded to in a flash-forward in the seventh chapter, in a scene after the killings, in which director Paul Wendkos offers Dalton the starring role in Hell Boats due to his new notoriety. In that context, Tarantino’s decision to make the novelization’s version of Cliff Booth an outright serial killer feels even more like his treatment of Cliff Booth is designed to troll people like Andy Samberg, who told Collider, “I wanted [Billie’s death] to be an accident so that I could enjoy the rest of the movie, so I let myself believe it was an accident.” If you’re going to enjoy the novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you’ve got to be okay with the idea that one of its characters is extremely bad news.
The question of what Cliff Booth in the novelization can tell us about Cliff Booth in the movie is a little more complicated, because before deciding if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s novelization is “canonical,” you’d have to accept the idea that a feature film without any underlying source material or extended cinematic universe could have a canon to begin with. It’s pretty dumb when novelizations flesh out details or explain plot points of multi-film sagas, but the thought of applying that model to a one-off movie is loathsome. Besides, everything about Tarantino’s novelization, from its cover to the ads in the back for novelizations of Serpico and Oliver’s Story, suggest that this book is meant to fit into an older tradition of film novelizations, when they were hastily written pulps that often differed substantially from the finished movie because their authors worked from early screenplay drafts while production was ongoing. It doesn’t really matter that Quentin Tarantino wrote both the screenplay and the novel in this case: the universes still don’t connect, any more than either one connects to the real world, where Cliff Booth’s wife never existed, but no one saved Sharon Tate. That said, if you run into either the novel or movie version of Cliff Booth, maybe don’t marry the guy. I’ve heard rumors.