"It was a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about."
--Steve Coogan as Steve Coogan
Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy exploded the conventions of the novel when they'd scarcely been around long enough to be identified. The novel of Sterne's day began with the hero's origin; he begins his great work with the hero’s parents having sex. The titular narrator digresses constantly, and thus has barely described any of his life before he dies. Many events concern his Uncle Toby, years earlier. Toby's corporal, Trim, attempts to tell the tale of "The King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles" and, after five short chapters, ends without ever having started. Tristram's father Walter interrupts another section with the story of a man with a large nose; the first few pages appear both in English and the "original" Latin. Pages are left blank. Another has been blackened to mark the passing of Parson Yorick. The dedication appears towards the book's conclusion. Its narrative entangles with the lives of the adult Tristram and the real-life author. Sterne published the novel over many years. His fictional character learns he is ill and likely to die because Sterne received the same news.
Filming the book should have been an impossibility.
In 2005, a British production appeared in the theatres. It stars Steve Coogan as Tristram, his father Walter, and Steve Coogan himself. If the film does not capture the original’s 600+ pages, it conveys a fair sense of its chaotic spirit.
The actors play their roles in Sterne's tale and fictitious versions of themselves, actors making a movie adaptation of a famous work. The movie digresses nearly as often as its source, wandering between film and metafilm. Their lives become part of the story they’re telling, just as Tristram’s and Sterne’s became part of the novel's.
Coogan presents himself as a self-absorbed actor made uncomfortable by challenges to his star billing. He cheats on his girlfriend, the mother of his recently-born child, though it’s clear he does so with some regret. At one point, he claims that the audience would forgive Walter Shandy his faults if, just once in the film, we saw the character behaving with tenderness towards his infant son. Shortly thereafter, we see Coogan change his own child’s diaper.
It's strangely affecting.
The movie could not contain the entire book, but it includes several key scenes, including the farcical birth of its hero, and the fates that befall his nose and his penis. It also includes memorable moments that only tenuously connect to Tristram’s life.
For example, the novel contains a very funny scene with a very simple premise: a hot chestnut falls into a man’s open codpiece. In the novel, the man is a minor character, a pretentious intellectual with dubious views, and Sterne describes his reaction with hilariously elevated diction. The clash between the man’s self-importance and his basic human nature make this scene work as more than just slapstick.
In the movie, we learn that the Shandy film received its funding in part because Coogan improvised this scene for studio executives. The problem, of course, is that he does not play the character whose privates the wanton chestnut burns. That character does not even appear in the movie. Star and director debate the problem and Coogan suggests that he could find a way to work it into the film. Then he practices with an actual hot chestnut, and we get a cinematic version of the scene. It’s not deep, but it works as both physical comedy and satiric commentary.
In the novel, Sterne leaves his readers to describe the woman who captures his uncle’s heart, the Widow Wadman:
To conceive this right,--call for pen and ink--here's paper ready to your hand.--Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind--as like your mistress as you can--as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you--'tis all one to me--please but your own fancy in it.
--Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet!--so exquisite!
--Then, dear Sir, how could my uncle Toby resist it?
In this film, Coogan and others discuss various actresses who might play the role, just as different readers might discuss their ideal Widow Wadman. Gillian Anderson is available. Rob Bryden who plays Toby, reveals that he is a huge fan of The X-Files and has a long-standing crush on the actress. Given Sterne’s directions, he would have drawn her.
The pacing begins to drag in the second half, but it remains an engaging film, of special interest to those who know the source material. It features a number of strong performances, and provides some insight into the process of movie-making.
It’s not Sterne’s novel, but I can imagine that the playful author would have taken great delight in the adaptation.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Writers: Frank Cottrell Boyce, from the novel by Laurence Sterne
Steve Coogan...Tristram Shandy/Walter Shandy/Steve Coogan
Rob Brydon...Toby Shandy/Rob Brydon
Raymond Waring...Corporal Trim
Dylan Moran...Dr. Slop/Dylan Moran
Keeley Hawes...Elizabeth Shandy/Keeley Hawes
Gillian Anderson...Widow Wadman/Gillian Anderson
Kelly Macdonald...Steve Coogan's Girlfriend
Shirley Henderson...Susannah/Shirley Henderson
Stephen Fry...Parson Yorick