I first read James Thurber in high school. Even at that age, I enjoyed the dry wit on display in his stories, especially in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." And I was prepared for the changes that Hollywood would make in adapting that story to the big screen, especially since the first version hadn't been all that successful. I was surprised, however, at how much I did like Ben Stiller's movie. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Most people who live rich interior lives tend to relate to James Thurber’s most famous character, Water Mitty. In his 1939 short story titled “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber has his diffident character – while driving his overbearing wife to the beauty parlor – engage in a series of fantasies. One involves his piloting a plane through a hurricane.
Another has him stepping into a delicate operation and not only fixing the anesthesia machine with a fountain pen – so that it purrs back to life with a sound of ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa – and then taking over the whole procedure. Meanwhile, in real life, Mitty has trouble parking his car and even remembering what kind of dog food to buy.
In barely 2,000 words, Thurber creates a masterpiece of restraint. In clear, concise prose, he tells us everything we need to know – Mitty’s frustrations, his longings, the details of his escapist fantasies.
Now we have the second movie version of Thurber’s story – the first, starring Danny Kaye, was released in 1947 – which carries both good and bad news. The bad news shouldn’t surprise anyone who compares written works and the movies made from them: This new “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” as directed by and starring Ben Stiller, has little about it that is restrained.
But then comes the good news: Though screenwriter Steve Conrad employs only the bare outlines of Thurber’s story, he opts to associate his script with another icon of the 20th century: Life magazine.
Conrad’s Mitty – played by Stiller – works for Life, which embodied the perfection that weekly magazines held for several decades before, during and after World War II. He’s a nice enough guy, good at his job in the magazine’s negative assets department, collecting and collating negatives of the historically important photographs the magazine has published over time.
Behind his buttoned-down exterior, though, Mitty is someone else. At least in his mind, he’s the kind of guy who will charge into a burning building, step off an ice floe, confront a bully boss and, in general, be the man of action we all admire. Of course, this happens only in fantasy, during periods in which Mitty – as his sister terms it – “zones out.” In real life, he is no more capable of standing up to the jerk – convincingly played by Adam Scott – who has been tasked with publishing the magazine’s final print edition than he can summon up the courage to talk to the woman he admires (played by Kristen Wiig).
Then comes his chance: When Mitty misplaces a negative by one of the magazine’s most famous photographers, he decides to go in search of it – flying to Greenland and Iceland, and engaging in activities he’d, until then, only dreamed about.
And give credit to Stiller’s production team: They manage to capture the beauty of nature every bit as well as anything you’ve seen on BBC, HBO or the Discovery Channel.
In the end, Stiller’s Walter Mitty has little more than a name and concept in common with Thurber’s original creation. But buoyed by some magnificent cinematography, it plugs along with a creative energy that bears a familiar echo: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.