The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A short story, a 1947 film and a 2013 film adaptation

I’m not sure that it’s common knowledge that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is adapted from a short story, but the current film is actually the second attempt to tell Walter’s story on film. The original short story was written by James Thurber in 1942, a film adaptation starring the comedic and musically-inclined Danny Kaye was made in 1947 and the recently released film has Ben Stiller both directing and starring in the title role. So, last week I made a day of it, reading the story and watching both films. And for your informative pleasure, I am now going to review all three, sans spoilers.

walter-mitty-cover.225x225-75The Short Story by James Thurber

To call Thurber’s work a short story borders on being an understatement as it’s just barely four pages long, but that doesn’t make it less worth a read through, unless of course you’re one of those squirrelly types that needs a firm resolution to things.

In Thurber’s original work, Walter Mitty and his wife drive into town so that she can get her hair done while he picks up a few things that she needs. More than that, it tells the story of a repetitive day in Walter’s repetitive life that he doesn’t seem overly thrilled to be living. This unhappy boredom translates to him constantly escaping into a fantasy world where he is always in the middle of the excitement: a Naval Commander, a life-saving doctor, a defendant on trial for murder, and perhaps the most telling, a man facing a firing squad.

What stands out most about the work is the change in tone between reality and daydreams. In the first, Thurber describes a banal day with the nagging Mrs. Mitty and Walter’s meek replies to her aspersions. In the later however, there is a flurry of action and and at the center of it is an audacious Walter Mitty who is the best in his field, and the only one capable of completing the mission at hand.

As I said, the story is worth a read, and not just because it will take you about ten minutes to get through. Despite it’s brevity, or maybe because of it, this is the type of story I love the powers-that-be to turn into feature films. Although now that I’m on that track, I’m thinking that an animated short would work for this as well…

walter mitty 1947The 1947 Film by Norman Z McLeod

Written by Ken Englund and Everett Freeman

Starring Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Boris Karloff

If you are a fan of 1940s cinema or Danny Kaye (and who isn’t?) then this is definitely a film that you should check out. However, if you see the 2013 Walter Mitty first, like I did, then make sure you go in with different expectations, because the tones are very different.

In Mcleod’s adaptation, Walter’s unpleasant wife is replaced with an unpleasant mother, fiancé and future mother-in-law and his daydreams, while remarkably similar to the original, adjust to include an endlessly grateful woman who, in each incarnation thanks him for his excessive bravery. When he encounters the woman in reality, she entrusts him with a book that contains information that dangerous people are willing to kill for, leading the plot into a twist-filled, yet humorous suspense film.

The biggest gem in this film is undoubtedly Danny Kaye as he portrays the bumbling Walter in his classic physical comedy fashion along with the addition of musical numbers to Walter’s daydreams. I’ll admit that the songs do feel forced at times, but it doesn’t take away from the performance, so it’s a small price to pay.

And while I’m admitting things, I should add that the dream girl, Rosalind played by Virginia Mayo, did give me some hesitation. She does her fair share of damseling in the film, but there is also a marked difference in her character in Walter’s dreams and in reality where she is slightly more well-rounded. I still wouldn’t  call her a feminist role-model, but this film is from the 1940s, so I think I can give it a pass.

All-in-all, I’m recommending this film for a good time, don’t want to think too much night. And for the Boris Karloff cameo.

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster3The 2013 Film by Ben Stiller

Written by Steve Conrad

Starring Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott

Before seeing this film, most of what I read about it was people going, “OMG THE SCENERY!” which in my mind doesn’t usually bode well for a film’s actual plot. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed its balance of life lessons and humor.

In this rendition, Walter Mitty works in LIFE’s photo department and is close friends with the magazine’s most renowned photographer even though they have never met. When the photographer, Sean O’Connell played by Sean Penn, sends the film for LIFE’s final edition cover the most important slide is missing and because of O’Connell’s off the grid lifestyle, Walter’s only choice is to go find him in person.

I will hand it to everyone who said so, the scenery was phenomenal, almost to the point where if there was nothing else redeeming about the film, I’d still recommend seeing it. Luckily, the plot and characters are also worth getting to know. Stiller and Wiig have an endearingly awkward romantic subplot.  Walter’s loving, occasionally silly family gives insight into his wanderlust and why it has gone unquenched. And Stiller’s self-directed performance smoothly develops the character from accommodating and unassuming to bold and adventurous.

There were a few moments of humor that didn’t land as well as they could have and I think the mystery of the missing slide was a little obvious but the ultimate payoff was well worth it. And Walter’s daydreams were handled perfectly so that they are more than just escapist, but add additional nuance  to the story as a whole.

In short, definitely see it. And if possible, do it while it’s in theaters because OMG THE SCENERY!

Let’s Compare!

If I had to choose my favorite version of Walter’s story, I would have to go with the 2013 film. It is so layered with messages about really living your life and being present in the moment without being too in your face about it. While I think the short story has a message, it’s less complete. Maybe I’m one of those people that like resolutions. And arguably, the 1947 film could be a lesson in not being too adventurous considering there’s attempted murder in the plot. But I will say it again, each of them is worth a try if you have the desire.

If you’ve read or seen any of these renditions of Walter Mitty, please let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!

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