The original short story first – for the 2013 film, see below.


‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a short story written by James Thurber. It was first published in 1939 in The New Yorker. Mitty, the protagonist, is a hen-pecked husband clearly seeking escape from his humdrum and tedious life. During the story, he has five daydreams in which he stars as a doctor, a defendant, a pilot and so on. The story is magnificent for many reasons.

Mitty is clearly an everyman figure. We’re all Mitty to some extent. Our lives don’t live up to the promises that media representations make. A good deal of popular books and films centre on the heroic, the manly, the inspirational, and – arguably – the majority of humanity doesn’t get the opportunity to manifest itself in such ways. Mitty’s dilemma is ours, to a certain extent.

It’s also very funny, in a mildly upsetting kind of way. Mitty, piloting a hydroplane through the ice refers to himself as the Old Man, whom the other men idolise:

“The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” . . .

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”

The bathos is funny, as is the automatic equating of Mrs Mitty with hell and the subtle implication that Mitty is, indeed, afraid of her. In the courtroom, Mitty calls the district attorney a ‘miserable cur’, and the reference to dogs makes him think of ‘puppy biscuit’, which he then says out loud as he’s walking in town, much to the derision of ladies passing him. The humour is wry and observational, but certainly effective.

It’s the sadness, though, which is the story’s real strength. Mitty finds escape in being something he cannot, and will never, be – and not just because he’s not in the right situation. He’s not a brave man with special knowledge or extreme charisma. He’s a little man subdued further by the world around him.

“I want some biscuit for small, young dogs,” he said to the clerk. “Any special brand, sir?” The greatest pistol shot in the world thought a moment. “It says ‘Puppies Bark for It’ on the box,” said Walter Mitty.

The fact that Mitty can’t even remember the brand of biscuits his wife wants him to buy is upsetting, and Thurber makes the point more firmly by referring to the previous daydream in which Mitty was ‘the greatest pistol shot in the world’. Heartbreaking, really. The story’s conclusion, when Mitty has to wait for his wife to return with something she forgot from the drugstore, is masterful. Mitty imagines himself waiting for a firing squad but is defiant about it. Mrs Mitty hasn’t returned when the story ends, leaving Mitty himself ‘erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last’ – and yet still stuck in the daydream. The only place he can be the man he imagines himself to be is in his mind, and it is better to leave him there than in reality.

It’s a fine, fine piece of writing.

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is also two films, the first made in 1946 with Danny Kaye, about which I know nothing. The second was made in 2013 and stars Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty. He also directs it. The screen story and screen play are by Steve Conrad. It also stars Kristen Wiig as Cheryl Melhoff and Shirley MacLaine as Mitty’s mother.

The film shares two similarities with the book. Firstly, they have the same name. They also include a character called Walter Mitty who is prone to daydreaming. That’s it. It’s not really enough to claim that the film is ‘based on’ the short story. Especially as it obviously isn’t. Is it fair to criticize harshly a film which isn’t based on a story on which it claims to be based? Probably not. Films have to stand on their own. It is fair, however, to criticize a film which isn’t very good and borrows a famous short story’s name to give itself kudos.

Daydreaming Mitty works for ‘Life’ magazine, he manages the negatives in the picture archive, and fancies the new girl. He is sent a film from a famous photographer, one of the negatives of which is going to be used for the final hardcopy edition of the magazine, which is being downsized. The negative isn’t in the roll, though, and – actually – doesn’t appear to be anywhere. Mitty, then, tries to contact the photographer, who is famously reclusive. His search takes him half way across the world. He is dropped by a helicopter into the sea, nearly bitten by a shark, skateboards down an erupting volcano and so on. Eventually, of course, he finds the photographer, realizes that he had the negative all along (I’m smoothing over a detail or two, here, but not many) and gets the girl.

I know what you’re thinking. The twist is that he’s daydreaming. But no – the twist is that there is no twist. It’s all true. He ends up on the final cover (don’t ask) and all is good. He daydreamed for about half an hour into the film, and then stopped completely. Presumably there’s a moral in there about grabbing life being much more vital and energizing than merely thinking about it: the journey is better than the destination. If there is, it’s much less than half-baked and relies on spectacular scenery that could be found in a travel brochure.

So – isn’t it just a mediocre film hitching a ride on a famous story’s name? Well, yes and no. In allying itself with Thurber’s masterpiece it shows itself to be threadbare pap. Thurber tells us that we’re all little people in a dissatisfying and disappointing world with only fiction and imagination to make us feel better and that that is sad and fantastic at the same time. We’re all our own heroes until reality kicks in and reminds us that we’re nothing of the sort. And it suggests that a retreat into fiction is the best form of escape. Stiller’s pedals bumper-sticker wisdom: journeys are more important than destinations and we can all be the hero we want to be if we only embrace the idea.

It’s an act of cheek to call this film ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. Calling it something else entirely would have made it a much better film because it wouldn’t have had to live up to the genius of its namesake.


Film facts are from

Extracts from ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ are from

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