1) Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story follows a fictional film crew attempting to film Laurence Sterne’s classic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The overarching theme of the movie is the wonderful chaoticness of life, revealed through a “behind the scenes-esque” look at filming a movie. The theme is taken from Sterne’s novel, and by interweaving parts of the novel (via the scenes the fictional film crew shoots) with modern equivalents of the novels themes such as the lead actors squabbling over height in comparison to Tristram’s father’s obsession with the size of a nose, the movie lives up to its adaptation billing.


2) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel written by Laurence Sterne in the mid to late 1700s. At the time the novel was an emerging art form, and Sterne’s novel basically takes the genre and turns it on it’s head. He ignores the idea of a standard plot progression, instead jumping around tangentially. He messes with the form of a book by including different colored pages  at various points in the plot. This overall havoc speaks to Sterne’s larger theme of life being chaotic. It doesn’t fit a nice, standard progression like in the novels at the time. It is crazy and amorphous, and through Tristram’s musings we see that the story is important because of the journey, not just for its pay off at the end.




– One of an endless number of scholarly reviews of Tristram Shandy. The book is a highly commented upon piece of work, both from scholars as well as amateur commentors.



– A website that illustrates characters from various literary masterpieces gives us Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim.



– The Tristram Shandy official facebook page. With facebook being used by more and more people of all ages, it isn’t surprising this dense literary classic has its own facebook page. What is surprising is that it only has roughly 2500 followers. Facebook has over 500 million registered users, and it seems that more than 2500 people could muster the energy to “like” the page. It may speak to a much older audience who appreciates the book, or that the college aged users who were required to read it didn’t “like” it so much.


4) The producers of the film-within-the-film seemed obsessed with battle scenes and love stories. How is this a send-up of Hollywood-style entertainment films?


– The recent offerings in movie theaters has been a sad bunch. A quick look at the top box-office performers on Rotten Tomatoes has you looking at a list where 7 or 8 out of the top 10 money making movies are ranked below 40% for positive reviews. The current number 3 grossing film in America received an embarrassing 14%. Most of the movies on the list are either super hero epics (which combine both a love story and battle sequences) or romantic comedies.  This is exactly what Winterbottom points to with his fictional film crew. Complicated themes and historical accuracy don’t put butts in seats. Giant metal robots battling in a computer generated Chicago… in 3-d is what sells, not artistic vision or daring thematic moves. A piece of graffiti I saw the other day sums it up perfectly: “If you can’t make it good, make it 3-d”.


1) The movie American Splendor follows, loosely, the life and times of Harvey Pekar, whom is famous for writing the realist comic series “American Splendor”.  The film seeks to spotlight Pekar’s life, as well as contain within it the same themes Pekar found so important: the struggle of the day to day living in cleveland, and the story that hides behind the apparent dullness of everyday life. Honest almost to a fault, the movie adresses Pekar’s life the same way Pekar wrote about it. The narrative isn’t a quest, nor is it full of dangerous car chases; rather, it strives to maintain Pekar’s unfiltered stream of conscious and does so through filming techniques such as shooting cleveland through a camera with a tabaco filter on the lens, or having the actual Pekar narrate his own life.


2) The American Splendor comic series was created because of Pekar’s dismissal of the escapism that dominated comics at the time. Pekar saw comics as an art form, and not as a simple way to make a buck off of children and nerds. Thus Pekar decided to write a comic grounded in realism, and reflecting on the positives and negatives of life as a working stiff. Although famous for his complaining and pessimism, the comic series also contains a profounding humanism in its message, much like Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. If this man’s mundane, unhappy life can be celebrated by art, so can anyones.




– American Splendor is rated no. 8 out of the top 10 Sundance Film Festival hits in a recent compilation by Time magazine, although the brief description of the movie is a little simple.



– A link to Harvey Pekar’s obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his hometown newspaper.



– This is a link to the band The Crack Epidemic’s new LP, the name of which is “American Splendor”. A caption written by the artist’s about the LP reads as such: “American Splendor explores the frustrations of modern American life and takes you on a journey of unexpected turns and curveballs that ultimately bring us to a better place.” The group is an underground rap duo, showing the mainstream appeal of Harvey Pekar’s comics. The band gives a nod to the creator of the comic book whose name they borrowed, titling an instrumental sections “Harvey”.


4) Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter are all about ordinariness: we use them to record the mundane events of our lives. How would an American Splendor blog (or Facebook page, or Twitter feed) look like? How would it be different than his comic book?

– With the increasing availability and use of the internet, there has been an undeniable “rise of the individual”. Youtube web  stars are being featured on news programs; the show Tosh.0 deals solely with everyday people who have put up something ridiculous or funny on the popular video sharing site. Twitter and facebook allow individuals to narrate their own lives, broadcasting them to the whole world. While this increased visibility of the average persons day-to-day seems to be in the spirit of American Splendor, there is definitely something lost between the two. Pekar took time to craft his story, and he knew his words would be aided by a comic artist’s interpretation. A twitter or facebook version of American Splendor seems like Pekar’s life would be reduced to a bunch of one-liners held together only by their succession, not by the feeling of a complete story. A  Splendor blog would suffer less from this, but it would sound more like rants, such as Maddox’s BestPageInTheUniverse.com. The dual-medium of a comic allows their to be a full story that leaves room for individual imagination between the panels.

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.


1) In this particular film version of Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice returns to Wonderland (retitled Underland) 13 years after her initial adventure, this time as a young woman about to be married. The film’s themes are of average fare. Good versus evil is represented through the feud between the white and red queens. The red queen’s evilness permeates her kingdom, with the forests and landscapes looking diseased and burnt. Another theme includes the traditional “nothing is impossible” mantra, as characters often come out and say just that. The evil jaberwocky is conquered by Alice’s affirmation of this belief.


2) The original book, Alice In Wonderland, is much less preachy than its movie iterations might suggest. It is more Dr. Seuss than it is Aesop Fables. Furthermore, the book’s charm is found in its clever writing. These techniques, such as playing on words, using a common saying in a backwards way, or logic puzzles, don’t translate well to film for two reasons. First, film relies heavily on visuals, whereas books rely on literary techniques – the two mediums have difficulties trading these techniques. Second, the modern audience doesn’t want to work for their payoffs. Instant gratification has become the norm for mainstream film, where audiences are held by the directors hand and walked through any difficulty they may encounter. Thus, the focus has been on the Carroll’s characters, whose translation to visual representation is more easily accomplished.




– A blog post, one of many, featuring screenshots prior to Alice in Wonderland’s release, as well as comments from users, mostly positive.



– A website featuring the concept art Burton drew for Alice in Wonderland.



This link is a synthesis of the first two. The web article features both Carroll’s and Burton’s conceptual drawings of Alice and her Wonderland. From bouncing around the web one gets the impression that Burton’s reboot is highly stylized, and that many were excited to see Alice in Wonderland through the dark director’s mind. This article is important for understanding the movie because it shows how important the visual arrangement is to the story; the costumes and characters aren’t simply whimsical and pretty pictures to look at, but actually serve a role in defining and advancing the story.


4) Quite a few critics and reviewers have called Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland a feminist fable. How is Burton’s film feminist? How is it not?:

When reading various reviews of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, the one thing they all share in common, aside from a generally unenthused reception, is at least a mention of the feminist undertones Tim Burton’s reboot apparently contains. Sure, Alice’s (second) fall into Wonderland is set up at an arranged engagement ceremony for the heroine. Sure, she fights the “tyranny” of a predetermined fate, and rebels against any instance where someone decides for her. Yet, if one looks at the historical setting of the book, these “feminist” themes are unavoidable. The heroine is a woman, something predetermined by Carroll’s writing. Having decided to revisit the tale in Alice’s 20s, and being set in Victorian England, Burton’s choice of believable occupations for a young woman in these times are fairly scarce. Furthermore, throughout the body of the story, the main theme is overcoming boundaries, ones often set by society or one’s self. The jaberwocky is defeated by doing the impossible. Some reviewers seemed to think that “nothing is impossible” served to highlight the feminist struggle, but I believe Burton wanted it to be the other way around. After all, this is a children’s story, and Carroll’s books sought to show that preconceived notions are often baseless and arbitrary. Some feminist themes might be present, but if they are, they serve as one example of many to show that the impossible is often very possible.