Recently I saw a film that came out late last year, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Directed by comedian Ben Stiller, the movie is the second film adaptation of James Thurber’s classic short story of the same name. The original story was published in The New Yorker in March 1939, and the first film adaptation, starring Danny Kaye, came out in 1947. Neither the 2013 nor the 1947 versions are very faithful adaptations of the original story, but taken as a movie standing alone, I found The Secret Life of Walter Mitty an absolutely delightful experience. I expected it to be thoroughly mediocre and forgettable. Actually it was a fascinating collision of imagination and adventure, which I believe was at least the spirit of Thurber’s original story.
Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) works a mid-level job at Life Magazine in New York. He’s also an incurable daydreamer, often distracted from his mundane existence by wild flights of fancy (such as engaging in an action-movie style fight with his unctuous new boss among the skyscrapers of Manhattan). One day a reclusive award-winning photographer, O’Connell (Sean Penn), tells the magazine he’s sent Walter a new roll of film and that image number 25 is the most important picture he’s ever taken. Life Magazine is shutting down and the unctuous boss (Adam Scott) decides, sight-unseen, that image 25 must be on the cover of the final issue. The problem: Walter can’t find image 25. He tries to track down O’Connell, who is somewhere in an exotic part of the world. As he chases O’Connell, first to Greenland and eventually to Afghanistan, his real-life adventures begin to resemble his lavish daydreams, such that no one, including the audience, is entirely sure what’s real and what’s not.
I read Thurber’s story many years ago but honestly remembered virtually nothing about it. When the movie started I assumed it would be played up as a conflict between Walter Mitty’s fantasy world and his real life, and in trite Hollywood fashion, at the end he would choose the “real world” and put away all that silly daydreaming. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie didn’t follow this trajectory. As the film goes on Walter is involved in what appears to be a real-life adventure, involving ships to Greenland, a harrowing helicopter ride and a high-speed skateboard pursuit across the stunning landscapes of Iceland. Eventually I stopped caring whether Walter’s adventures were real or imagined–I was absorbed in them just the same. Quite suddenly I realized this was why the movie worked. Whether I was inside Walter Mitty’s head or outside of it, it was a wonderful ride, filled not only with thrills but with human drama. Walter’s relationships with the woman he has a crush on (Kristin Wiig) and his mother (Shirley MacLaine, always a fine performance), as well as his troubled relationship with his own past, give emotional resonance to a story that could easily have just been a chain of flashy set-piece mini-climaxes.
Stories about imagination are difficult to pull off. It’s tough to portray a character who spends a lot of time in a dream world as anything other than someone who is profoundly withdrawn from real life. Consequently, stories involving fantasies and dream worlds usually end up emphasizing the dreamer’s detachment from the “real” world, and this detachment is universally treated as dangerous or abnormal. An example would be an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Hollow Pursuits,” made in 1990, where a Starfleet crewman (played by Dwight Schultz) spends so much time inhabiting fantasy worlds on the Holodeck that he’s slow to react to a genuine threat from the outside world. Another is Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Beautiful Creatures, which is based on the true story of two teenage girls in New Zealand who killed one of their mothers in the 1950s. Much of the movie centers around the dream world the girls built together, with the obvious implication that its detachment from reality contributed to their crime.
The strength of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it avoids this narrative trap. Yes, Walter’s imagination sometimes does distract him from the real world, but the movie is totally comfortable in showing us the ways in which imagination enhances his life as opposed to detracting from it. Never in the film is Walter given the choice that so often faces daydreamers in fiction, the inevitable “Real world or fantasy world?” ultimatum. In real life, imagination is vitally important. We all daydream. Most of us are just afraid to admit it, except those few of us, like writers, who occasionally (far too rarely, in fact) get paid for it. That this value is underscored in a fun and diverting adventure movie with good performances and lavish cinematography makes it an impressive win, in my view.
This film has received a mixed response from critics and audiences. Critical response is pretty much evenly split, with as many good reviews as bad. The movie, which was obviously very expensive to make, seems to have made back its cost, but it was by no means a runaway hit. Thus it’s clear my opinion of it isn’t universally shared. Nevertheless, I found it a wonderfully absorbing, engaging and positive film. I’ve never really been that impressed with Ben Stiller, but he does an excellent job here both acting and directing. If you value the power of imagination and enjoy a rollicking adventure story, I recommend this film to you.