The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based on the short story by James Thurber, gives Ben Stiller a chance to bring an audience to its feet and cheer. Thurber’s story doesn’t do that—it was never meant to—but that doesn’t stop Stiller from trying.
I sometimes lurk in a forum called Arts and Faith where my favorite movie reviewer hangs out. Steven Greydanus wrote that, “Thurber might find Stiller’s film so at odds with his story as to be essentially irrelevant to it.” I think that’s true. Stiller’s film bears almost no resemblance to Thurber’s story. So, since they are mutually irrelevant, I’ll let other, much more capable writers hash out the significance of the differences.
Before I do, though, there is something to be said for basing a film on a piece of literature, and expecting the film to at least retain the essence of what made the source material tick. Sometimes, that’s not the case, and the resulting film still turns out okay. Case in point: Children of Men—very different from the book, yet satisfying.
Stiller’s Walter Mitty doesn’t quite get there.
Walter Mitty works in the lower levels of Life Magazine, a lonely, forgotten man, caretaker of the publication’s photography. As he meanders through his day, he escapes into daydreams of fantastic, absurd adventures. His shy aloofness hasn’t earned him any respect, self- or otherwise. He longs to woo a lovely woman at work, and despite his desire, it’s still so much easier to daydream than actually make the effort.
In the final days of the magazine’s time in print, their top photographer (who still shoots on film) has delivered what he believes to be the quintessential photograph of the magazine’s distinguished history. But there’s a problem: Mitty can’t find the photo.
Here at last, opportunity for adventure intersects with his daydreams. Mitty summons his courage and takes a risk to hunt down the photo by tracking the whereabouts of the nomadic photographer all across the globe. As he starts down the first real stages of the quest, real life attains the splendor of his imagination. He summons his courage, fails, and gets back up, despite mounting obstacles.
And for a while, it works. A moment of miscommunication prompts Mitty to leap from a helicopter to the deck of a nearby ship and lands in the freezing ocean, instead of the rubber dinghy intended for his rescue. It’s a moment fraught with danger, daring and laughs. It further stacks an already formidable deck.
Moments like this are how a character earns the initial goodwill that carries the audience through the journey. We admire characters more for making the effort than for their success. We know Mitty will fail—the principles of story demand it. The success of any story rests in how it applies that failure.
About halfway through the film, I started to doubt everything was really happening. What grew from his newfound courage became so epic that I figured he had to have retreated into his head at some point. I imagined the film’s final reveal would take us back to the moment he had to jump off that helicopter, only this time he’d make it into the dinghy. Cut to black.
That didn’t happen. And on some levels, that would probably be a lousy way to end the movie.
Instead, Walter Mitty emerges bit by little bit from his cocoon. He’s a beautiful butterfly after all. He wins the girl. He wins the movie. So why didn’t I cheer?
Two reasons: because I already believed he was beautiful, and because stories don’t usually resolve that well even in fairy tales. At least not the ones I remember best.
I love underdogs. Mitty earns my goodwill simply by watching him summon his courage; through how his imagination changes from a portal used for escape to a tool used to overcome adversity. Mitty doesn’t need to deliver a narrative knockout blow to win my heart. To see him win so thoroughly overstepped what he needed, and all he needed to do was try.
Indiana Jones fails repeatedly in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take him out of the picture and everything that happens still happens. Yet of all Indy’s adventures, it’s the one we admire most. Somewhere along the way, I stopped admiring Walter Mitty.
Loveable losers don’t win the movie by winning the girl. They win the movie by winning the power of self-respect (thank you, Scott Pilgrim). That’s the one achievement I’m not sure Mitty earned.
At the very least, I can admire Stiller. He tried.