Film version of Tristram Shandy not what the novel is

According to the Internet Movie Database ( the UK title of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is simply A Cock and Bull Story. Whether the American title differs because of licensing reasons, or because the distributor feared an American audience would be too dim to grasp the literary reference, the UK title seems much more appropriate, as the Tristram Shandy portion of the movie takes up a paltry half-hour of its one hour, 34 minute running time.

The remaining hour is an oft-funny but not terribly original Office-esque behind-the-scenes of the making of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, filled with all kinds of self-indulgent references to filmmaking, the history of cinema and the career and personal life of the movie’s star, Steve Coogan (Tristram/Walter Shandy).

Some of these references are genuinely funny (the opening make-up chair and end credits segments), while others fall flat from repetition (the Alan Partridge joke was only mildly funny the first time, and most Americans probably won’t get it anyway). Coogan is arguably funniest when he’s in character as the comical control-freak, Walter Shandy, and the pitiable Tristram, attempting to narrate his own life.

This and other tangents – a uterus built to fit a grown man and the Widow Wadham / battle scene subplot – make the film wholly worth watching and very funny.

However, it falls short as an adaptation of its source material. The film’s problem lies not in its attempt at meta-narrative, but in its approach to constructing that meta-narrative.

Laurence Sterne, in writing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, did not subject his readers to scenes of himself laboring at his desk trying to write the novel. Rather, the struggles of writing the novel are artfully woven into the novel itself, in the form of misplaced chapters, blank pages, squiggly-line plot diagrams and misplaced introductions.

The genius of the novel is that through all of this, Tristam, the narrator-autobiographer, genuinely wants his plot to progress from point A to point B. In fact, he has taken this desire to absurd lengths. In his attempt to write a chronologically ordered moment-by-moment account of his life, Tristram sets out to be Samuel Pepys and ends up being Billy Pilgrim.

The film almost completely eschews this approach. It is so conscious of itself as an adaptation of a nonlinear meta-narrative that it begins with Walter Shandy’s bull and Tristram’s unfortunate circumcision, foregoing the book’s actual opening – Tristram’s conception – until, as Coogan-as-Tristram confesses, we’d “gotten to know him better.”

Then it ditches the Tristram narrative altogether, focusing on the behind-the-scenes struggles of getting funding, maintaining historical accuracy and balancing Coogan’s recent fatherhood with his otherwise chaotic work and personal life. The parallels here are thin, and one begins to wonder if the movie is aiming anywhere near as high as Tristram or Walter.

Where the rest of the cast is concerned, Rob Brydon (Uncle Toby/Himself) is funny in and out of character and is honestly much more fun to watch than Coogan. Shirley Henderson (Susannah/Herself) would have benefited from a fuller adaptation of the source, as would Keeley Hawes (Elizabeth Shandy/Herself), who is woefully underused as the comically oblivious Mrs. Shandy and spends the greater portion of her screen-time in labor.

In the end, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story has a lot to offer, but it leaves the unfilmable novel by-and-large unfilmed.

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