Since as long as art has existed, the artist has sought to explore the bounds of his chosen medium. This has been accomplished in a myriad of ways; from poems written like short stories, to Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” in which he placed a guitar next to an amplifier and recorded the subsequent static for 40 minutes. This breaking of boundaries often serves to advance the artist’s larger theme and in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman breaking boundaries mirrors the theme of “discordia concors–the notion of ‘harmony through discord’ ” (Porton). This is why this 700 plus page book that has been “so widely believed to be unfilmable” is actually perfect for adapting to film – because the story’s conclusion serves less of a purpose than the journey getting there (Scott).

As previously mentioned, Tristram Shandy has been referred to as “unfilmable”. This designation comes for a multitude of good reasons, at least when viewing film in its traditional sense as a plot of linear events with a beginning, middle, and end. Tristram Shandy, as reviewer Sue Arnold notes, “has no plot” (Arnold). To further confuse the matter, this plot-less book is over 700 pages, “chapters break off in mid sentence”, and within this dense book are contained a myriad of largely pointless digressions that seem to deal very little (if at all) with the supposed subject of the book (Arnold). New York Times movie reviewer A.O. Scott sums up the problem nicely: “Tristram Shandy abound[s] in digressions, chronological displacements and self-referential stunts… guaranteeing failure for even the most imaginatively resourceful filmmaker” (Scott).

Beyond the structure of the narrative, a film adaptation of Tristram Shandy would have to do battle with author Laurence Sterne’s many sources of inspiration, all of which severely date the novel. One needs to be well aware of the historical context the book was written in. Sterne’s influences include “the empiricism of Locke and Hume”, dominating the philosophical conversation of the time. Furthermore, Sterne is “an antinomian clergyman who also derived sustenance from the Renaissance humanism of Rabelais and Erasmus” and his novel is in some ways a conversation between these two competing views of the individual’s experience. Furthermore, Sterne wrote in an era where the novel was just beginning to take shape. Other novels at the time were basically all cut from the same cloth, with a predictable progression, the same character types, and an overall obsession with order and rationality. In this way Sterne’s novel is at its most groundbreaking and at its most unfilmable, for Sterne seemed to delight in breaking every convention of the “novel” and the medium of the written word.

The biggest mistake a director could make when adapting Tristram Shandy would be to attempt to tell the story accurately to the book – or, even worse, attempting to rearrange the events of Tristram Shandy in linear order. In fact, director Michael Winterbottom imagines how an artistic meeting might go if the director was trying to stick close to the source material. The whole meeting eventually breaks down when the actors and producers are unsure even what the theme of the book was. The director calls it “funny” even though no one knows why, and they have to hire someone to tell them what the theme is (Winterbottom). When it comes up that the movie is under its scheduled run time an actor remarks “It’s a big book. There’s plenty to choose from”. They then sit around deciding what vignette from the book they should add, arbitrarily throwing out various characters and situations they could use. What is shown is that the book is just too rich to even attempt an accurate portrayal of some of the events – to arbitrarily cut some parts and bring in others. It just becomes one cut and dry movie or another; include Widow Wadman and it’s a romantic comedy; focus on the story of uncle Toby’s story and it becomes a war epic; View the events from Tristram’s father and it’s a father-son drama. All of these are accurate events from the novel, but Tristram Shandy is decidedly none of these netflix genres. Faithfulness to the source text’s theme is actually lost when one tries to stick to the material – one of many paradoxes Winterbottom brings to light about the differences between the two genres.

“It isn’t a novel” (Arnold). Sue Arnold wrote this in her review of the book, and Winterbottom seems to take this to heart. It is easy to be misinformed by the conventions associated with a medium. Often art is misunderstood because of the structure the viewer believes it to be operating in; like attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole on a child’s playset. Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” isn’t supposed to be a radio hit like his “Lola”. It is a statement about what really constitutes music. Is music inherently human? What differentiates “music” from “random noise”, seeing as static feedback actually follows formulaic laws of electricity and harmonics. Yet the cd was widely panned a rip off scheme until years later where it has been heralded as years before its time. Winterbottom, like the rest of the review community, appreciates Tristram Shandy for it’s genre and medium bending techniques. The black page that appears after a character dies is hilarious (at least to English professors), a clever use of the tools of the medium. Some novels use grand metaphors and analogies to get across the theme. Others use clear and distinct language and fine description to relate the theme. Tristram Shandy uses “breaking the rules” to get across its theme of life being a chaotic wonderful mess.

Winterbottom to his credit got this last point and ran with it. Unlike his fictional film crew, he realizes the tool Sterne employs: medium bending. Winterbottom takes this a step further though. If the novel’s tool is genre bending, then some, if not most, of those techniques that worked for Sterne are likely to be lost in translation to film. Winterbottom, in a deliciously ironic bit, attempts to emulate the black page in Tristram Shandy to illustrate this very point. In a meeting the director mentions the black page and how it was groundbreaking to his staff. The screen then goes dark for a minute or so as they continue to talk, with an actor stating the obvious “I think the audience will be a bit bored” (Winterbottom). The whole thing is a failure, as most critics thought an adaptation of the book would be, but with Winterbottom’s smart move to film the filming of the movie, the whole thing speaks to Sterne’s larger point. Chaos and failure are part of the human condition, and they are to be celebrated for how spectacularly we as humans can fail but keep on trudging diligently ahead, as Winterbottom’s fictionalized crew does.

The larger success of Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story” is that he focuses on themes, which can be translated between mediums quite successfully, and lets the rest fall by the wayside. Whereas his fictional crew focuses on literal events that worked for Sterne in his novel, Winterbottom takes a different and more successful approach:

eschewing the convoluted discussions of religion, philosophy, and warfare that slow down the modern reader of Sterne, Winterbottom instead interweaves some of the key incidents from the novel with a framing story in which the filming of: “Tristram Shandy A Cock and Bull Story” itself becomes a fictional construct–and a fun-house mirror refection of the travails and pleasures of shooting a movie” (Porton).

Having updated the material quite significantly allows Winterbottom to reach his audience in conventions they are used to, thus more effectively communicating Sterne’s themes. For example, in Sterne’s novel there is a continual preoccupation with the idea of manliness. Multiple male characters have unfortunate accidents to their “equipment” as its put, and Tristram’s father’s preoccupation with the length of his sons nose, since all great man have large and prominent one’s. The nose bit would hardly get across to a modern audience anything about manliness, and the actors are as confused as anyone why they must be fit with such large prosthetic noses. Yet the actor’s bickering over lead role, promiscuousness, and height all translate to a modern audience quite effectively.

While some may question how a movie can be called an adaptation when the movie is nothing like the novel, “Paradoxically enough, a healthy disrespect (mingled with affection) for Sterne’s novel is perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Tristram Shandy” (Porton). As Sterne seemed to take hardly anything seriously, Winterbottom’s invented ignorance of Sterne fits perfectly. Even though the movie is less about the novel and more about the creation of it’s movie, the larger picture of Sterne’s views is as plain as day. As Patrick of Shandy Hall says “The theme of Tristram Shandy is a very simple one. Life is chaotie, its amorphic, no matter how hard you try you can’t make it fit any shape” (Winterbottom). Patrick elaborates on Tristram’s father, and in doing so shows Sterne’s ultimately positive outlook: “Walter is indeed the most unfortunate of men and, if his life can be celebrated, so to can all of ours” (Winterbottom). Winterbottom, through his exposition of the filming process, reveals the messy chaos of humanity, but for better or worse, it is ultimately a beautiful thing.

 

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