Last week Jeremy and I saw Ben Stiller's new adaptation of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," at a 10 PM screening on Christmas day. I haven't seen the 1947 film version of the story, but now I want to. For the 2013 version Jeremy and I had the theater to ourselves.
The film deserved a wider audience than that, even if it does not achieve the austere wisdom of James Thurber's classic story. (Fun facts: Thurber's story appeared in the New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and I was born that same day 38 years later. And Thurber and I were both born in Columbus, Ohio.) Stiller plays a Mitty who is in charge of photo management at Life magazine. He loses a negative that is intended for the cover, and embarks on a series of amazing adventures (complete with drinking beer from a giant shoe in Greenland and climbing a mountain in a dangerous part of Afghanistan) to find it.
In the film these adventures actually happen, not just in Walter Mitty's mind. Before they occur we do see Stiller's Mitty engaged in several internal reveries, during which he is lost to the world. But the heart of the film invoves Mitty in vibrant manly adventure--getting his mojo back, not just lost in his own thoughts.
Thurber's Mitty is a New York suburbanite who is on a weekly shopping trip to town with his wife. (Stiller's Mitty isn't married, but he is on eHarmony.) We don't know what he does for a living. The marriage is frosty, filled with shortness and misunderstandings on both sides. Mitty's never-named wife wants him to buy overshoes to protect his aging feet, Mitty says he doesn't them. Mrs. Mitty sends him on shopping trips where he is always bound to buy one thing that is not correct. Mrs. Mitty wants him to wait for her in the hotel lobby after her hair is done, he wishes he didn't have to be in the lobby first. These are the little things that add up to big things over time.
We learn all of this over the course of a few hours on a single afternoon. Thurber's Mitty doesn't have time to drive to the next town, much less hop on a plane to Greenland. He does have time for several internal reveries, which take him away from the present world and make Mrs. Mitty think he should see a psychiatrist.
In a relatively short story, Mitty fancies himself to be a fighter pilot, an emergency room physician, and a ruthless assasin who ultimately faces rough justice of his own. In real time he is just whiling away the day in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Thurber's tale is about the chasm between fantasy and reality, how our interior lives can be much more rich than what we present to the wider world. This gap is something we have all experienced, even if we do not take it to Walter Mitty's lengths. But it's a hard concept to show in a film, without resorting to excessive narration and voiceover. So Stiller's fanciful adaptation makes sense. But to really understand Walter Mitty you need to read his story.