Still, I do intend to continue with Tristram Shandy–and for that matter Moll Flanders–once Gulliver’s finished his travels. I only made an effort to see Michael Winterbottom’s film adaptation of the former, titled A Cock and Bull Story, because, well… how in the hell do you film Tristram Shandy?
The answer is: you don’t.
And frankly that is the only way you could ever film a book like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The observation brings out a few interesting things, such as the difference between books and films–and how much books have come to resemble films since films became ascendant in our culture(s)–and how that limits both film and book alike. Sterne’s book seems to be about how all that is a doomed enterprise, if you’re an intelligent, thinking person and you’re being honest with yourself. Even at only fifty pages in, Sterne makes it obvious that he is deeply dubious about the idea that our lives indeed are coherent narrative structures; what he presents instead is a patchwork assemblage of small micro-narratives, most of them received piecemeal and second-hand, with the unspoken implication that this is how it works for all of us; the stories others tell us, and our unstable and unreliable recollections, are really more like a kind of popsicle-stick-and-Elmer’s-glue scaffolding onto which we dab more paste and affix whatever experiences we choose to admit and share publicly.
(If you doubt this, go and read your own Facebook wall or Twitter feed or blog for a little while, or go look at your own Instagram posts, or Pinterest, or whatever… but as you do, pretend that you’re someone else looking into your life. Or, go and see your friends’ Facebook walls, and think of them not as your friends, but as strangers, and try to imagine the deliberate self-representation going on there.)
So if the book is about the impossibility of telling a life story–and, indeed, telling a coherent story of the kind that we all take for granted, chronologically arranged and thematically coherent–how does on adapt this to film, where these expectations are even more predominant? Well: it abandons the idea of telling the story of the novel, in favor of being an adaptation of the novel, immediately. The film does include a few scenes from the life of “Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,” but is mostly a film about a group of people attempting to adapt Tristram Shandy to the screen. Yes, yes, that’s the same play-within-a-play gambit familiar from so much English drama, all the way back to Shakespeare, but what I think is interesting and intelligent about it is this: it’s a film adaptation of a notoriously unfilmable book… a book that ultimately seems to be about the impossibility of writing one’s life as a coherent story… just as Stephen Fry’s character explains in the trailer:
In doing so, of course, Winterbottom cheats: the book is really all about the strange-if-you-pause-and-think-about-it disembodied, extra-temporal presence of the narrator, upon whom we are dependent for all the information we get in books; it is an authorial, narrating voice unfixed from time and space, and unfixed from experience somehow, as well. But Winterbottom’s film, has a coherent, chronologically arranged narrative: yes, the scenes from the book we see (either post-filming, or in the process of filming) are all jumbled and out of order and intercut with commentary and so on, just as the scenes in a “normal” film are often shot out of order and them assembled to “make sense.” But we also see the meta-story–the offscreen tensions and theatrics and so on, progress chronologically through the middle of shooting toward the end. However, and this is the brilliant bit, the pseudo-mockumentary style of that narrative effectively presents the story of the people in a way that feels like Sterne’s method, because there is no story–no conventional narrative of motivation, conflict, resolution, and character-growth, that is: like in real life, there’s just the interaction of people from which irrupts sudden latent tensions which then come to the fore; there’s just sudden glimpses of the hangups that then disappear and return, and disappear and return; there’s the unwittingly-revealed the secrets and personality tics that emerge and then cause us to reevaluate what we’ve already seen. If Stern is trying to tell us about the fantasticality of all narrative fiction as any sort of representation of a life, Winterbottom cuts to the chase and simply shows us the raw chaos that Sterne was pointing at. It’s extremely clever, too, because in the end it nonetheless feels like a story, but also feels like the kind of shattered assemblage that the original novel itself seems (as much as I’ve read so far) to be.
In other words, like in a film adaptation, the process by which we arrive at what goes into our own life stories, and what gets left out, is a kind of interesting backroom theatrics–which is what makes your own Facebook Wall or Twitter feed or blog or whatever rather a strange thing to look at, when you pretend not to be you for a momen, but instead someone else looking in. That seems to be one of Sterne’s points in the book, and it certainly happens in every film, of course–there are always tensions, disagreements, roadblocks, personal clashes, backroom theatrics, and hilarious antics… but here, they take center stage: how to deal with a lonely PA? What do you do when your leading man is a profligate asshole with a diva complex? How to balance off the egos of different actors, and endure the horror of having to appease them. (One woman adjusts Coogan’s shoes all through the night, only to be told to undo and forget the adjustment.) It’s also wonderful, and very typical, when Steve Coogan’s character (Steve Coogan) seems to be the only person on set not to have actually read Tristram Shandy, and his onscreen wife has to explain to him who the Widow Wadman is, and in what parts of the book, and so on.
And of course, there’s also all the difficulty of figuring out how to assemble the story itself. Do we need a battle scene? Shall we have the Widow Wadman included? Who’s the Widow Wadman? Can we get Gillian Anderson for the part? Near the end, Anderson walks out of the screening room, after the final cut is assembled, baffled at how so little of her contribution made it in, after two weeks’ filming. She seems to have a tiny role in the film–not that we see the whole thing, but she seems to have ended up playing scarcely more than a cameo, and, at that, mostly playing herself, and not the Widow Wadman–and it’s perfect and brilliant as it is. So, too, is Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth, who ends up spending most of her time onscreen screaming as she gives fake-birth to a baby Tristram Shandy, while receiving the unenviable ministrations of Dylan Moran’s Dr. Slop… and I have to say, Shirley Henderson is very memorable as poor Susannah–her midwife-fetching (and the accidental circumcision scene) are top-notch. There’s also the inimitable Stephen Fry as Yorick… and some Sterne scholar, and he is outstanding as usual.
(And yes, they included the accidental circumcision scene. How can you not see the film now?)
For all that, the majority of the screen time in this film is taken up with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and the tension between Coogan-as-fictionalized-asshole-actor-Coogan, and Brydon-as-insecure-but-nice-actor-Brydon, is very entertaining. Apparently the two men are known for working together now, though I wasn’t aware of that… but it makes sense. They have a great rapport, and manage to present their characters (ie. their fictional selves) as, well… slightly annoying, and especially in Coogan’s case, fairly horrible, but in ways that make them very entertaining to spend time around. (Well, as long as you don’t actually have to be around them, that is.)
In sum, this film is oddball, and brilliant as an adaptation of such a bizarre and nutty book, and in capturing some of the ideas brought to life, and played out, in the original novel–which, I think, more than a lot of books, is truly a novel of ideas. That said, I think some familiarity with the book helps, even just a little bit; I for one found the film very entertaining in ways that Mrs. Jiwaku didn’t–she bailed on the movie about halfway through–but at the same time, it’s more of a conceptual tribute or play on the sorts of things that Stern was up to… more in the spirit of what Sterne was up to in Tristram Shandy than any sort of “faithful” adaptation of a novel that would be, ultimately, unfilmable. You probably need to be in the mood for it, but if you are, well: it’s the very thing.