Tristram Shandy: Self-Reflective, Unfilmable, and Absurd.

tristram shandy

How does one chronicle a life? Where do you even start? These are some of the questions that Laurence Sterne delves into with his novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Sterne wrote this novel, actually a series of volumes, throughout the mid-18th century. The story follows the life and events of the main character, Tristram Shandy. However, this becomes much more convoluted; Sterne challenges the traditional methods of storytelling. Sterne has Tristram narrative the plot of his own life, but provides so much context and description that the story barely even touches on the events of his own life. Tristram will often provide his own thoughts and feelings on events that take place even before his birth, bringing the reader upon a long and descriptive journey through much more than simply the direct life of Tristram Shandy. Specifically, much of the novel deals with Tristram’s father and his influence upon Tristram’s life. Considering the era it was written, 1759-1767, “Tristram Shandy” was clearly ahead of its time. Sterne appeals to what would later be considered modernistic and post-modernistic approaches to literature, demonstrating the innate humor and absurdity of life itself.

Taking into consideration the length, indecipherability, and detail of Sterne’s novel, it seems impossible to adapt into a film. However, Michael Winterbottom’s film, “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” provided a simultaneously intelligent and hilarious take on Sterne’s famous character. Rather than attempting to narrate Shandy’s story in film, Winterbottom concurrently satirized modern film while finding a way to present a modern take on the themes found in Sterne’s novel. “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” is a sort of mockumentary, in which the actors are playing as actors attempting to actually turn the novel into a film. Winterbottom demonstrates the absurdity of transferring this literary work onto the big screen, shown by this “film-within-a-film.” The audience can see the creation of a “fake” “Tristram Shandy.”

Using this self-reflexive style, Winterbottom is not only modernizing Sterne’s primary theme, but simultaneously critiquing modern big-budget films and producers. The film touches upon this; forty minutes into the film, the main actor is questioned about “why would you put certain aspects into a movie?” This relates back to Sterne’s novel itself, with the vast amount of detail that is given to further understand Tristram’s character. Winterbottom also explores humanity’s need for the grandiose, another theme examined in the original “Tristram Shandy.” The filmmakers/producers within the film are searching for a love story or battle scene to bring in more money for the film; similarly, Tristram Shandy’s story itself is almost self-indulgent. The sheer amount of unnecessary detail in telling his own story is modernized by Winterbottom’s critique of filmmakers sacrificing storyline for unnecessary elements. Winterbottom succeeds in making a film that was thought to by unfilmable by avoiding telling the direct narrative itself.

Reviews for the film have all been, for the majority, very positive. One review describes the film as a “silly, often confusing, and continuously endearing experience that is the human adventure” (Spirituality and Practice). BBC’s Adrian Hennigan called the film one of the “funniest British films in years,” but demonstrates that the themes of the original novel are present without much of the plot itself. “More an irreverent take on the world of filmmaking than a period drama…the actual novel gets pretty short shrift.” Here, Hennigan demonstrates that the original point of the novel, the absurdity of chronicling the human condition, is still relevant today in the film industry. Peter Travers of “Rolling Stone” magazine claims you learn “all sorts of academic things” but refused to delve into the actual themes explored. He states that “Lillian Anderson and Jeremy Northam add to the wicked mischief in ways I couldn’t possibly explain. Don’t ask me.” Essentially, Travers shows us that a general understanding of the novel is necessary to fully appreciate what Winterbottom is doing in his film. While you may learn some though the film itself, much of his satirical intentions go unnoticed or may seem confusing without context (Rolling Stone).

“How is the film a mockumentary (a documentary parody), a parody of “making of” film, or a satire of reality programming? And is such a project within the spirit of Sterne’s novel?” As the reviews above show, even with a lacking foundation of Sterne’s work, an audience will appreciate the satire of “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” The film ridicules many of the “necessary” elements of modern Hollywood films; the search for a love story or war scene within the film is the best example of this. It mocks modern actors for their self-centered behavior, competing for lead roles. These maintain the spirit of the original novel by demonstrating their absurdity. The film modernizes the themes of the novel. The self-reflexive nature of the film helps the audience to understand that all films are fake, even a reality program or a documentary. Every decision that you see on screen, for the most part, is intentional. This is self-reflexive of the film-within-the-film as “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story” is a film itself. It shows the creation of a film though a film.


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