'Tristram Shandy': Filming the Unfilmable

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Steve Coogan

Steve Coogan in Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story Revolution Films/Picturehouse hide caption

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Coming soon: the movie version of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne's extravagantly long 18th-century novel. Like Ulysses, Naked Lunch and other books, it represents a daunting list of challenges to those who would turn it into a movie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The 18th century British novel, Tristram Shandy, occupies an odd place among the masterpieces of world literature. It's long, it's digressive and it's raunchy. A new movie based on the book describes it as a postmodern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about. The film, Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story, opens this week in New York.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on the challenges of filming a novel, thought impossible to bring to the screen.

NEDA ULABY, reporting:

So, what obligations did you feel to the novel?

Mr. MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM (Director, A Cock and Bull Story): None whatsoever.

NEDA ULABY: Director Michael Winterbottom is exaggerating, sort of. He says his intent was to capture the spirit of Laurence Sterne's novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Mr. WINTERBOTTOM: It's a book which is about messing around with the readers, a book which is about not telling the story that it purports to tell. I mean, on the face of it Tristram Shandy's writing his autobiography, but in reality, he tells you almost nothing about his life.

ULABY: Instead, Tristram Shandy endlessly complains, over the course of multiple volumes, he doesn't have enough time to tell his story, while rambling into confusing tangents.

Mr. WINTERBOTTOM: So, that was kind of why it seemed like a great idea to then, instead of dealing with the problems of writing that Laurence Sterne dealt with, to then deal with the problems with the problems of making the film.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVE COOGAN: (As Tristram Shandy) [in a movie clip] I'm Tristram Shandy, the main character in the story, the leading role.

ULABY: The film's star is a popular British sitcom actor named Steve Coogan

Mr. COOGAN: (As Tristram Shandy) [in a movie clip] Steve Coogan, why Tristram Shandy? This is the book that many people say is unfilmable.

ULABY: Coogan plays a fatuous version of himself playing Tristram Shandy within the film, behind the scenes, and even shooting an interview for the film's DVD.

Unidentified Man #1: This is way ahead of it's time and, in fact, for those of you who haven't heard of it, it was actually listed as number eight on the Observer's top 100 books of all time.

Mr. COOGAN: That was a chronological list.

Unidentified Man #1: Right.

ULABY: The movie, Tristram Shandy, creates a filmic parallel to the book's literary tricks and it works, says J.D. Conner, who teaches film and literature at Harvard.

Professor J.D. CONNER (Asst. Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies, English and American Literature and Language, Harvard University): So we get all the payoff which is that that is an important and sort of essential moment in the history of the novel, but we don't have to sit through all of the attempts to transcribe or film exactly what's on the page.

ULABY: Conner sees two categories of books one might consider unfilmable. The first are so ineffably literary they seem impossible to translate to the screen. The second, have depictions of sex and violence too dark even for Hollywood. And some books fall in both categories.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Take Naked Lunch, the infamously feted experimental novel by William S. Burroughs.

Unidentified Man #2: [in a movie clip] They woke up in bed to find themselves in bed between the Dutch transvestite and the caveman.

ULABY: David Cronenberg's movie alludes to Burroughs' real life escapades as much as to his book. J.D. Conner:

Professor CONNER: Burroughs poses unique problems because the parts of Burroughs that make the most sense are the most obscene and the parts of Burroughs that seem to be fairly banal, don't make much sense because of the way he produced his text by taking snippets, cutting them up and rearranging them. That doesn't make for a solid narrative through-line.

ULABY: But supposedly unfilmable books are catnip to a certain type of filmmaker. Stanley Kubrik spent years fighting to adapt Lolita, a literary scandal in 1955 for its portrait of an obsessive pedophile.

Unidentified Man #3: [in a movie clip] What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet, of every nymphet perhaps. This mixture in my Lolita of tender, dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity.

ULABY: The novel, Lolita, is so densely illusive, an annotated version required 900 notes, but few of the quicksilver references materialized on screen. Instead, Kubrik cast a quicksilver actor, Peter Sellers.

Mr. PETER SELLERS (Actor): [in a movie clip] Do-do, do, do-do, do, do, do-do, do, do-do, do-do.

ULABY: Sellers performance as the hero's rival, Quilty, was excessive, and perhaps in that way, honored the excessive spirit of the book.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SELLERS: (As Quilty) [in a movie clip] Didn't you have a daughter with a lovely name? Yeah, a lovely - what was it now? A lovely, lyrical, lilting name like, ah, ah --

Unidentified Woman #1: [in a movie clip] Lolita.

Mr. SELLERS: Lolita! That's right. Lolita (unintelligible).

ULABY: The challenges of adapting extraordinary language have resulted in more questionable directorial decisions.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Molly Bloom) [in a movie clip] Yes, because he never (unintelligible) a thing like that before.

ULABY: Filmmaker Sean Walsh started his recent adaptation of Ulysses by James Joyce with something that happens at the end, Molly Bloom's famed soliloquy. He explains why.

Mr. SEAN WALSH (Producer and Director): If we were to leave Molly to the very end of the film, from a cinema point of view, cinema audience, they're going, who's she?

ULABY: Crafting a screenplay from a novel can be a prosaic project, says Anthony Minghella, and he won Oscars for directing and adapting the self-consciously literary The English Patient.

Mr. ANTHONY MINGHELLA (Oscar winner, The English Patient): It's fragmented, it's mosaic-like, it's sort of (unintelligible) spoke and it resides in a lyrical imagist treasure trove.

ULABY: Minghella said what made The English Patient so adaptable was the richness of those images and its exotic Italian and North African locales. Professor J. D. Conner says modern and postmodern novels may actually be easier to adapt to film's modern medium than books by earlier authors long beloved by Hollywood.

Professor CONNER: Henry James' paragraphs with their long to-ing and fro-ing between possibilities and the consideration of alternatives, that's unfilmable.

ULABY: So, Conner says, successfully adapting such psychological novels can depend on an actor's ability to convey interiority, an actor like Montgomery Clift in the 1949 movie adaptation of James' Washington Square.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFT (Actor): [in a movie clip] I am not a glib man, Miss Sloper.

Ms. OLIVIA de HAVILLAND (As Miss Sloper): [in a movie clip] I think you talk very well.

Mr. CLIFT: [in a movie clip] Not when I need it most. Oh, with Mrs. Penniman or in my room at home I can think of the most delightful things to say.

Professor CONNER: You can sense the possibilities going through his mind racing around and because of just our trust in the depth of his psyche, we feel like he's run through something as complicated as, say, a Henry James paragraph, even though he may not have said much.

ULABY: Conner says those slavishly faithful filmmakers tend to be the least successful. It's hard to surpass the novels filmed inside readers' heads. That's why director, Michael Winterbottom says with Tristram Shandy, he has a distinct advantage.

Mr. WINTERBOTTOM: No one's read this book. I mean, even when we sent the book to the actors playing the parts, we knew they would never, ever get beyond the first five pages. So, the good thing in a way is we work on the basis no one's ever read it.

ULABY: Which may be, in part, why critical response to the film has been, so far, extremely positive.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Want more movie news? Go to the movies page at NPR.org. And this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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