Tristram Shandy

1. Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman offers a hard-to-understand, yet humorous account (as well as some other random tidbits) of several characters and their awkward struggles in life; most of these characters share some sort of direct connection with the narrator, Tristram. Throughout, a major theme of the text is the manipulation of writing and its “conventions” – the narrative has no distinct structure and it contains grammatical oddities, as well as other distortions of the traditional novel. In this way, it is hard to classify Tristram’s life as cohesive, but this lack of cohesiveness also serves to develop an overall parody of the “traditional” novel, which typically details the lives of several characters in a linear and “logical” manner.

2. Like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story provides its audience with an unconventional story – only the medium for this story is not literature, but film. Throughout the film, Winterbottom utilizes a self-aware storyline to emulate the breakdown of conventions found in Laurence Sterne’s story. This “self-awareness” comes through the film’s reflexivity, where the camera brings attention to the film’s own construction by exposing other camera operators and crew-members; furthermore, the narrative itself features several layers. A “traditional layer” following some of the basic events in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a self-aware layer, where the lead actor Steve Coogan (playing the role of Tristram within the film’s movie within a movie), narrates his experiences with and thoughts on the role, and another “dramatic” layer, where the life of Steve Coogan himself, as an actor is explored. Just as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was an unconventional story for its time, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is an unconventional film. Through its reflexive layers, the film also manages to satirize the movie-making industry itself, in the same way that the original story satirizes the traditional novel.

3. One of the primary struggles in adapting Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to film is the fact that what makes the story unique is its distortion of literary conventions. The conventions of literature and film are not entirely the same, so rather than try and replicate as many events from the story as possible, the adaptation, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, distorts the conventions of the film medium. In this process, the film stays true to the spirit of the story, all while including some of the scenes of the original. Although it is not possible to copy some of the grammatical and narrative manipulations directly, Winterbottom does his best to distort the audience’s expectation of film, and sometimes, mock these expectations.


Review by Stephanie Zacharek:

Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, explores the film’s effectiveness as an adaptation. She claims that the film is a “failure”, at least in replicating Sterne’s story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. However, despite, this failure as an adaptation, she goes on to describe how the film is successful in replicating the un-structured nature of the story, and in this way, she asserts that the film is a success. Her review is valuable for studying the film because it establishes how it is and is not an adaptation.

Review by Lewis Beale:

Writing for, Lewis Beale offers a brief review of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; his most interesting insights are in how the film emulates the Tristram Shandy story itself, but ventures further into an exposé of the film-making industry.

Interview by Rebecca Murray

Rebecca Murray interviews Steve Coogan on his thoughts on being a part of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; throughout, Coogan explains his experience with the reflexive elements of the film (struggles with the real film crew and the fake film crew), as well as how the film reflects the experiences of actors.


The intern Jenny is a budding auteur (or film professor!) who cites renowned auteurs Bresson and Fassbinder. Is the viewer meant to admire her or find her pretentious? What evidence from the film leads you to your conclusion?

The character Jenny, a part of the film crew of the film within a film from Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, constantly expresses her intense passion for films as art, but her words always go unheard: this element of the film functions to enhance the audience’s admiration for her character, all while developing an additional level of irony to the film’s story. Throughout the film, Jenny is the only character who expresses her passion for film as an art form (she cites various works by auteurs and explains their cinematic significance); she is also the only character to express her awareness of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – she is the only member of the “fake” film crew who has actually read the story. Through her random outbursts of cinema-related passion, it becomes clear to the audience that she genuinely cares about the film that is being made. When compared to her co-worker, Coogan, she is not blinded by her own ego when thinking of the film. This develops her “likeablity”.  Furthermore, by lacking the egotism of those who surround her, and expressing awareness (that no one else has), Jenny’s character exposes the “business” side of the film-making industry: the actors, have no true understanding of the story they are trying to adapt – they simply know that it is “important”. In this way, Winterbottom develops irony, as well as humor in his adaptation.


2 thoughts on “Tristram Shandy

  1. All very good, but I wonder what you would come up with if you did a search for academic articles (I imagine you’d do a good job separating the wheat from the chaff). See page linked below on that subject. Glad you wrote on Jenny the intern. I wonder if we’re meant to compare her to the other Jenny (Coogan’s girl-friend), and what that could mean.

    10/10. JB.

  2. If you’re at all entertained by the antics of Coogan and Brydon, check out Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (originally a TV show). C and B recreate their oneupmanship in the film, though here the context is not eighteenth-century sensibility but rather early nineteenth century romanticism (the trip of the title is a foodie pilgrimage through the Lake District).

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