The original short story first – for the 2013 film, see
‘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
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
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
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
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 www.imdb.com
Extracts from ‘The Secret
Life of Walter Mitty’ are from www.newyorker.com