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'Tristram Shandy': Filming the Unfilmable


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

NEDA ULABY: So, what obligations did you feel to the novel?


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.

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.

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.


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

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.

MONTAGNE: 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.

COOGAN: 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.

CONNER: 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.


ULABY: 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:

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: 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.

PETER SELLERS: [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.


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

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

ULABY: 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.

SEAN WALSH: 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.

ANTHONY MINGHELLA: 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.

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.


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

OLIVIA: [in a movie clip] I think you talk very well.

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.

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.

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: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.