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Say what you like about Tommy Wiseau’s directorial chops, but the man certainly knows his references. Wiseau’s deathless 2003 cult classic The Room may seem bafflingly incoherent on the surface, but the central plot contains multiple allusions to classic literature, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen. It might be a stretch to place Wiseau in the pantheon of the great authors, but lest we forget The Room started life as an unpublished 500 page novel. A close inspection of the various ways in which he references and subverts established literary tropes makes a strong argument that Wiseau’s movie exhibits a level of intellect and cultural awareness for which it hasn’t entirely received its due…
Take Wiseau’s tragic lead character Johnny, a Christ-like figure ultimately doomed to be betrayed by the people he loves most. In addition to the biblical overtones, Johnny’s story also draws clear parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A tormented character driven to apparent madness by the machinations of his supposed friends and family, Johnny’s unravelling takes place almost exclusively in and around the titular Room, just as Hamlet is trapped physically and psychologically in his family’s royal castle of Elsinore. In the movie’s final scene, the weeping Denny becomes a stand-in for Hamlet’s last true friend Horatio. Good night, sweet Johnny, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…
The much-maligned Lisa may come across as the villain of the piece, but could she also be read as a frustrated heroine in the Jane Austen mould? Like Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet, Lisa is torn throughout the movie between true love and loyalty. Her family – represented by the remarkably stoic Claudette – urges her towards a marriage of convenience with Johnny to secure her future, but Lisa yearns for the true love she feels for Mark. Relentlessly belittled and patronised by the other characters, it’s little wonder that Lisa ultimately resorts to deceptive means to escape her situation. Lying, faking a pregnancy and accusing Johnny of domestic abuse may not be the most honourable methods, but with her cries for help falling on deaf ears, perhaps she’s simply using the only weapons she has at her disposal to escape an unsatisfying situation.
Then there’s Denny, a loyal and gentle soul who appears to have the mind (and body) of a child and a tendency to misread important social cues. If not as a Horatio figure, perhaps he’s best understood as a riff on Lenny from Of Mice And Men. Wiseau has in fact claimed that Denny was written as mentally ill, and the fact that the other performances in The Room dilute the impact of Philip Haldiman’s interpretation of the character is perhaps the movie’s greatest tragedy.
If anything, The Room might have been more widely recognised for its literary merits had it dug even deeper into the canon. The fact that Johnny is the sole topic of conversation in almost every scene he isn’t in suggests that the movie might have worked if Wiseau had never appeared onscreen at all – instead allowing the film to play as a postmodern riff on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We’ll probably never know how that version of the film would have been received, but given the astonishing performance we were left with instead, it’s hard to shed too many tears for the arthouse classic that might have been…
Intimidating as it is to attempt to improve on perfection, here are this week’s pitches for our fantasy The Room sequels, featuring a special guest submission from Tommy Wiseau super fan Sebastian Clark. You can hear these ideas explained in full in this week’s episode of the Beyond The Box Set podcast, alongside more in-depth discussion of this remarkable, multi-faceted achievement in cinema.
John’s Pitch | The Room With a View
Guest Pitch | The Room 2: Flowers for Denny
Harry’s Pitch | WestRoom
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