Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is roughly one third straight adaptation and two thirds mockumentary of a film crew’s attempt to adapt Laurence Stern’s 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen. Although the novel is intended to be a biography, it never quite gets beyond Tristram’s birth, mostly digressing into side stories about his relatives and the servants in his household and spicing up the narrative with anecdotes about his parents that led up to his conception and his birth. Essentially, Stern’s novel is about someone writing a biography that doesn’t quite get there. Or very close, for that matter. In many ways, A Cock and Bull Story is about the making of a film that also doesn’t quite get there.
The mockumentary aspects of this film are meant to mirror the chaos and disorganization of Tristram’s own thoughts, the events surrounding his birth, and his own unfocused narration of the events. Much of the success of this is due to the brisk, quick British wit present in the film’s script. Neither the film within the film, nor the actual film itself, take themselves too seriously, a sentiment that echoes Stern’s writing of the novel.
After roughly thirty minutes of what appears to be straight adaptation of Stern’s novel, the camera moves back to reveal a film crew. Thus the film within a film truly comes into light. Unlike Adaptation, which did not give the spectator many glimpses into what an adaptation of The Orchid Thief would look like, A Cock and Bull Story does and it is in the scenes of strict adaptation, or at least what appears to be strict adaptation, where the film’s strengths truly lie.
One question that continued to pop into my mind while I watched the movie was: How would the film have been different if the structure remained the same as the first 30 minutes (minus the first scene of the two actors verbally sparring with one another)? To what extent does the mockumentary section aid or hinder what the film is trying to accomplish – that is, what Stephen Fry tells us two thirds into the film: “life is chaotic, it’s amorphous, no matter how hard you try you can’t actually make it fit any shape.”
I’m divided on this question myself. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the film overall but part of me kept wondering when we would go back to the enjoyable, highly comedic period piece adaptation of the first thirty minutes.