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Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story not meant to be what the novel is

Recently, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while admiring Peter Paul Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, I overheard somebody comment, “It’s good, I guess. But the ancient Greek myth is better.”

Actually I didn’t hear that. And there’s a good reason for that; no one would say it. It’s immediately clear that the Promethean myth and Rubens’ painting are not at all the same thing. They are obviously distinct works produced in different media exhibiting different qualities. A side-by-side comparison for quality is worthless.

Yet I frequently hear people argue about whether a book is better than its movie. Literature and film are as different as, well, oral tradition and pictures. I’m not saying that there is no relation between the two. The Prometheus tale and painting both contain a similar narrative. That would be silly to ignore. But it would be as silly to denigrate one on the virtue of the other.

Accordingly, I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing with Rebecca Harwick on much of the content of her review of Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story while arriving at drastically different conclusions.

The headline of her review says it all: “Film version of Tristram Shandy not what the novel is.” That’s right. Even apart from the inconsistencies inherent in book-to-film adaptations, Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is not Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. But she is wrong that this signals the film’s failure.

Winterbottom’s film presents us with a cinematic version of the unreliable narrator, which is a standard convention in literature. Only the narration is not explicit, it’s implied within the action of the story itself. The unreliable narration consists not in a person telling you what is happening as in literature. Instead you must judge the reliability of events as you see them unfold. It’s this waltz between Sterne’s source text, film-within-the-film and reality that makes A Cock And Bull Story so much fun.

Saying that “the Tristram Shandy portion of the movie takes up a paltry half-hour” and that the film “ditches the Tristram narrative altogether, focusing on the behind-the-scenes struggles,” Harwick gives the impression that the movie would have done well to have left the non-Tristram part out. But then you are dismissing the bulk of the movie. It’s not “behind-the-scenes,” it is the scenes. When viewed this way, one may see that the parallels are not “thin,” as Ms. Harwick suggests. They are subtle.

Harwick concedes that there are some funny parts, but only in the external literary references that “most Americans probably won’t get.” But this is just snobbery-like The Simpsons, A Cock And Bull Story employs a wide range of comic devices so that it is still enjoyable even if you don’t get all the obscure references (I didn’t).

Harwick’s review addresses only the most superficial levels of the film and then pans it on the basis that it doesn’t tell the story it advertises (which is ironic because neither does the book). She concludes saying that A Cock and Bull Story “leaves the unfilmable novel by-and-large unfilmed.” Perhaps if she had come to terms with that fact, she might have come to see that Winterbottom’s film is an enormously clever and genuinely engaging story.

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