"Why do we want to spend a year of our lives making this film?"
" 'cause it's funny."
"Is that all?"
"Is that not enough?"
Sterne would have undoubtedly said "Yes" as that exchange captures the spirit of his book.
The reviews at IMDB and at Amazon.com are mixed, but I think that is the result of differing expectations. Anyone wanting a coherent film with a linear plot must not be familiar with the book. Someone expecting a faithful adaptation of the book is going to be disappointed by the "making of a movie" aspect within the movie. Turning the book into a movie wasn't the central focus. There were two themes in the film that I thought were done extremely well:
1) The impossibility of adapting Tristram Shandy to the screen: while that point is made several times, the parts they shot played extremely well. One part that benefited from filming was the interminable birth scene, which opens and closes the movie and is shown many times during it. Even when not totally faithful to the book, they capture its spirit perfectly. One example is showing the conception scene later and explicitly adding the 'association of ideas' theme during that moment. Having Tristram explain that he was waiting until we (the viewer and Tristram) got to know each other better before talking about the conception adapts Sterne's conversational manner. Adding the discussion on Pavlov's dog added double entendres Sterne would have been proud of.
There are several discussions about what parts of the book to include or exclude in the film. Worrying if the movie is a romance or a comedy or whatever genre highlights the width and breadth of the novel…if can be what you want it to be. The reaction of the “actors” to a screening of the movie mimics the characters’ plaintive cries against Fortune and Fate. Where Sterne’s only limitation on the novel is death, the limits on the movie are runtime and funding.
2) The universality of the book: having the actors as characters (or “themselves”) in the movie highlights the shrewd observations made by Sterne. Whether laying out Freudian concerns or pardoying obsessive behavior, the “real life” characters echo the humanity within the book. The hobby horses, for example, come in just as many forms as in the book: film geekdom, battle realism, and comparative height (for just a few examples) are laughingly presented again and again. The "actors" already embrace many of their roles’ characteristics—Steve Coogan as “Steve Coogan” is a delicious blend of Tristram and Walter Shandy. While he wants to imbue his role with his personal characteristics (and is constantly told that wasn’t how things were done in the book or at that time), for the most part he already is Walter and Tristram. Even where things differ on details—Tristram flees death while Steve flees intimacy—the similarity remains.
I was disappointed in the special feature of “A Tour of Shandy Hall” because you barely get to see the place. In the special there is a nice discussion on Sterne and his books, the artwork that Tristram Shandy inspired (some of which hangs on the walls), the journey of Sterne’s remains, and the profoundness of Trim’s hat, but you barely get to see the house other than as a set piece for these discussions. Maybe like those disappointed in the movie, my dissatisfaction comes from what I expected (silly me, expecting "tour" to mean a tour...I can hear Sterne "tsk"ing me now).
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and highly recommend it. While intimate knowledge of the book is not necessary for enjoying it, I think the viewer would benefit from a recent reading.
Note: the BBC Films link