Tristram Shandy

1. Analysis of the book

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, is an experimental book, from its release in installments over an eight year period to the narrative of the book, which is disjointed and focuses on a story about writing a book. The narrative, which includes passages in Greek, Latin and French at times, deals with fracturing the sequence of stories and adding between them ideas, memories and anecdotes, giving the novel a sense of thematic significance. According to lecture, Tristram Shandy has been said to anticipate modernism and postmodernism in literature. Perhaps this is why it’s considered an unreadable book, because of everything about it—while this might seem broad, it’s true—and that today’s audience can’t relate to the book because it was written in the mid 18th century.

2. Analysis of the film

Michael Winterbottom’s film adaptation of Tristram Shandy, titled, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, follows in the same footsteps of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Believed to be an unfilmable book, the movie even pokes fun at this when Steve Coogan’s character says, “Why Tristram Shandy? This is a book many people say is unfilmable. Well, I think that’s the attraction…” Winterbottom’s film operates like a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, capturing the essence of the original Tristram Shandy and taking it one step further with idiosyncratic actors in the movie that play themselves and actors in the movie within the movie. Without an understanding of Sterne’s book, however, it seems like it would be difficult to fully appreciate Winterbottom’s effort because its disjointed nature, the main feature of the film, can also be a confusing concept to grasp.

3. Analysis of the adaptation

The fact that Winterbottom was able to adapt Sterne’s book to film is incredible, because how can you make an adaptation of an unfilmable book? Winterbottom somehow pulled it off. Unlike Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy is as close of a real adaptation to the novel as you can get, which is a testament to his creative genius and ability to do more with a small budget, although in this case, the small budget actually helped the movie become more like the book. Winterbottom also compensates for some of the book’s unique features, such as the black page appearing after Parson Yorick dies, by putting the black page in the film, along with other quirks an intelligent and convoluted mess.

4. Online research on the film

This website talks about the mathematics involved in the original Tristram Shandy scenario, in particular the Cantorian principle of correspondence.

This tumblr on Tristram Shandy contains interesting tidbits people have shared, such as favorite quotes and pictures.

This essay, The Self-Conscious Narrator in Comic Fiction before Tristram Shandy by Wayne C. Booth, describes how a historian perceives the novel, as well as Sterne’s writing methods. Booth specifically talks about the effect of narrators, which furthers the reader’s understanding of Tristam Shandy, providing clarity about the narrative and Sterne’s writing. Overall, this is a very worthwhile source to read.

5. Critical analysis paragraph

After seeing Michael Winterbottom’s film version, would you agree that Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is unfilmable? Does Winterbottom’s film capture the essence of the book, or not?

After seeing Michael Winterbottom’s film version, I would agree that Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is unfilmable, not in the sense that it’s incapable of being reproduced, but that a film version of the book, like Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy, is too quirky and convoluted—only being able to be understood or appreciated by a select few—excluding myself. In other words, it doesn’t make a good movie. Winterbottom’s ability to reproduce the book and mix in some extra ingredients is quite amazing and a feat in itself. However, the narrative, humor and plot progression makes me believe that only a niche audience, who have either read and enjoyed the book or are into this type of movie, can appreciate the film. Therefore, yes, Sterne’s unfilmable book, Tristam Shandy, can be filmed, but its recognition will be capped.

2 responses to “Tristram Shandy

  1. I agree! Tristram Shandy is a very “meta” kind of book, where a lot of the novel’s charm and attractiveness only appeals to a small and select audience. In that respect, I think you’re right in that it can’t really expect to ever be much of a commercial success, but as an artistic venture it has a lot of promise. I think Winterbottom didn’t just reproduce the book with extra ingredients, but rather took the book and made what Sterne would have created, had he been a film director instead of an author. The “meta-novel” elements of the book are too much a part of the novel to be removed without ruining it, but by making a film with new “meta-film” elements, like the casting and sets that we saw in the film, makes a worthy successor, if not a true adaptation.

  2. Good analysis all around. I’m glad you’re looking for academic articles in your online research. Your argument paragraph is convincing. I’m in a very select group: not only have I read the book, I’ve presented academic papers on the book. It might be my favorite paper because I too tried to recreate the spirit of Sterne in my writing. 10/10. Joseph Byrne

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