'Office Space' Was Inspired By ... The Dude Who Wrote 'Moby Dick?'
Mike Judge's Office Space, the cult-favorite 1999 comedy about a guy who keeps showing up at the office but refusing to work, shares a good amount of similarities with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Herman Melville's 1853 short story about ... a guy who keeps showing up at the office but refusing to work.
And the samesies don't stop there: "Bartleby" was satirizing the then-booming financial hub of Wall Street, an "energetic and nervous" sector of business that was changing and growing in importance as the world industrialized. Swap out finance for tech, Wall Street for Silicon Valley, and "industrialized" for "moved online" and hey, look at that! (And, okay, yes, Office Space was filmed in Texas, home of the Silicon Prairie, but it was based on Mike Judge's time in California, so shut up.)
Both the story and movie revel in mind-numbing repetition and dullness, dreary office environs, a palpable disconnection between employers and employees, and both feature a pair of eccentric sidekicks working alongside the main characters. Bartleby's unnamed boss in on his ass about "the copies, the copies" the same way Lumbergh et al. are always going on about TPS reports.
Bartleby, like Ron Livingston's Peter, stares off into space, refuses work without any actual consequences – and, in fact, inadvertently ingratiates himself into the boss's good graces with his slackerdom – and ends up in jail at the end. At one point, Bartleby's boss actually relocates the office rather than confronting Bartleby, just kind of hoping he'll go away. The Bobs take a similar approach to Milton in Office Space.
And last but not least, cubicle walls are also prominent in both, despite cubicles not actually being invented in 1853. Melville writes about Bartleby's boss putting up glass partitions to keep the working-class rabble out of his eyeline and even getting a secondary screen to keep Bartleby extra boxed in at his desk.
Judge claims not to have read "Bartleby, the Scrivener," but he did go to high school, so there's a non-zero chance the story snuck in there somewhere. Because I mean, what's the alternative? That office jobs have always and will always suck forever? That cubicles are literally soul-destroying constructions? That there's no escaping the crushing tedium of busywork, and employees are doomed to a life of drudgery until they finally just give up?
Okay, actually, we might need to retitle this thing ...
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s also on Twitter a bunch.