What It Might Have Been…

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.

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2 Responses to What It Might Have Been…

  1. Sara Tener says:

    I have very little knowledge of the book on which this film is supposed to be based. However, given that you say that the book “mostly” digresses “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,” I would say that the mockumentary aspect aids what the film is attempting to accomplish in its adaptation. Just as the book focuses on other characters that lead to the creation of Tristram, this film centers on those characters that lead to the creation of this film adaptation.
    I felt that this film was quite comparable to Adaptation. I am not sure how much of the novel we are actually seeing, but I believe that as Adaptation shows us the process of a screenwriter adapting what he considers impossible, this film illustrates the process of all of the collaborators attempting to adapt a possibly non-transferrable source text.

  2. Laura Callei says:

    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)?

    I think that the film would have been completely different. The film would have strictly been an adaptation piece, or an attempt at a non-translatable adaptation in this example. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the film as much if it stayed the way it was for the first 30 minutes. I found it kind of boring to be honest. I enjoyed the struggle to make the film so much more than the initial scenes. To be honest, I was hoping it wasn’t going to stay the way it did in the beginning because I do not think I could have sat through it otherwise.

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