- Area: Humanities
- Program: English
- Type of Writing: Critique/Evaluation
- Course Level: 2000
- Paper ID: H.E.C.2.4
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Behind Closed Doors
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty captured the world’s attention as a tangible encapsulation of how it feels to be lost in a daydream. The plot involves the life of an older man who prefers to spend his time in daydreams rather than reality, a tendency many can relate to if not to the same extent as the protagonist Walter Mitty. Originally published as a short story by James Thurber in 1939, it has since been presented to the public in a number of adaptations. Most recently, a film adaptation directed by Ben Stiller was released in 2013. In this reader-response criticism, I will present how both versions of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty exhibit the escapism found in mental preoccupation, how they utilize the strengths of mediums used, and how the interaction of text/reader and film/viewer created meaning for me and allowed me to compare the two.
Escapism is a theme heavily emphasized in both versions. We do not get backstory on Walter Mitty in the short story, but in the film he is presented as a man who has long suppressed his dreams and restricted creativity to his dream life. In the short story, Walter Mitty experiences daydreams that range from a drive with his wife turning into an imagined turbulent flight through a storm, with Mitty as the Navy Commander in charge. It ends with Mitty standing up against a wall, imagining himself being put to death by firing squad. The film has Mitty in a coffee room, when he suddenly conceptualizes himself as a daring mountain climber; a ride in the elevator with his boss becomes a dangerous, high-action street fight. All these instances display escapism in that Walter Mitty is stuck in life doing mundane things, and he imagines more for himself.
Each of Walter Mitty’s daydreams display a sense of heroism. The short story deals with this in a very comical manner, with Mitty’s daydreams involving him saving the day in over-the-top scenarios. The film deals with this similarly, but with perhaps a touch of earnest fervency in its tone. This difference in tone became apparent to me because it showed that James Thurber meant for his protagonist to look slightly ridiculous, for the short story Walter Mitty is never meant to be more than an old man with a wild imagination. In contrast, Ben Stiller meant for his protagonist to be slightly ridiculous, but not to have that distract from his ability to be a hero in reality. For, though the film Walter Mitty is wanting, he is never meant to stay that way. In slightly altering the tone of his escapisms, the film creates a believable hero.
The short story uses its advantage as an written medium to effectively employ the limited omniscient view and delve more deeply into the mind of the protagonist. The playful treatment of the story by no means underplays Walter Mitty; the way it was written lends a certain humor and sense of untamed inventiveness to the story. Thurber does not mock Walter Mitty; however, he is not afraid to play around with the situations and the style. The writing style very much reflects Walter Mitty’s vivid yet limited fancies, and while reading it I got the sense that of being in a daydream. The limited yet illustrative vocabulary, the brief yet graphic depictions of the characters, and the way Thurber depends on descriptive commentary all made me feel as if I were there with Walter Mitty or hearing his side of the story, though it is not told in first-person.
One phrase that particularly stands out to me is in Walter Mitty’s second daydream, where he is in the emergency room. In describing the predicament in an imaginary emergency room, the narrator points out “A huge, complicated machine.” (Thurber, 1939) This phrase highlights the limited omniscient point of view perfectly, because it shows the limit of Mitty’s imagination and his knowledge of the emergency room. In using the limited omniscient point of view in this manner at this point in the story, the author creates subtext in the idea that–suddenly–the machine seems that much more intimidating, that much more difficult, because even the narrator himself seems to be unable to describe this crashing, unfamiliar machinery that is crucial to saving this man’s life. It makes the task considerably more daunting, as opposed to if the narrator had simply named the machine explicitly.
The film uses its advantage as a visual medium to express its ideas in brilliant imagery and capitalizes on its longer time-frame to create a fleshed-out story arc. The movie was similar to the short story in that it was easy to feel as if you were living Walter Mitty’s daydream, because the movie feels like one long, adventurous chimera. There is a moment where Walter Mitty touches the face of a man on the boat to assure himself that the adventure was real, and in that moment you feel as though you have to do the same, because the style of the film creates a fantastical, almost unreal atmosphere for his adventure–the breathtaking sites, the strange coincidences, the danger, the excitement. It employs heavy but well-used amounts of CGI, which lend the film an imaginative and unreal feel and makes even the real adventures seem surreal. In his daydreams, the imagery is depicted perfectly to align with Walter’s wild fantasies, such as using CGI to create exploding buildings or having a picture of Sean O’Connell motion to him to come find him. In his reality, panoramic shots of the different places he travels to–from the volcano eruption, to when he meets O’Connell in the Himalayas–excellently translates the feeling of his dreams coming to fruition.
There are very significant distinctions as a reader/viewer taken away from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in terms of relatable ideals, specifically in characterization. In romantic characters, we are presented with Mrs. Mitty from the short story and Cheryl from the film. Mrs. Mitty is overbearing and domineering, while Cheryl is kind and pleasant. When I was exposed to both versions, I subconsciously found myself relating to Walter Mitty’s situation with both Mrs. Mitty and Cheryl, and discovered that I was distancing myself from relating to the short story and engaging more thoroughly in relating with the film. The reason for that is this: in the short story, he is daydreaming to get away from a woman. In the movie, he is daydreaming to be closer to her. In short, as human beings who seek out love, it is more appealing to relate to a happy romantic crush than an unfortunate, unromantic match. In Walter Mitty himself, we are presented with only a slight aberration: he is a lost man in the short story, and a searching one in the film. As I began to self-identify with his character, I realized that–though the two ideas were similar–I did not mind admitting to being someone who was lost but searching, but I did not want to admit to being someone who was simply lost. Though all characterizations served the tone of both stories, it was more effortless to want to engross myself in the film when it contained characters that were more admirable and pleasing in a societal sense.
The thing that stood out most to me about the film was the use of subtext. An example of this can be presented in the scene when Walter Mitty meets Sean O’Connell, who states:“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” (Goldwyn, 2013) This line stood out to me because it represented in a single line a huge part of the film’s ideology. Walter Mitty lapses into moments of mental preoccupation, where he imagines great and dangerous adventures that take him to places he has never seen and moments he has never lived. However, because he is unwilling to go after them, those places remain unseen and the moments remain un-lived. When Sean O’Connell states: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” he brings to light the idea that Walter Mitty–in his previously routine-driven, unadventurous life–had never found his “beautiful things” because he had never given them the attention needed to be found. In other words, thrilling experiences are not calling out for you to experience them–rather, they are waiting for you to find them and experience them for yourself. If Walter Mitty had not decided to find Sean O’Connell and had instead resigned himself to living life as he always had, he would have never lived the daydreams he preoccupied himself with. He only found his moment because he gave it the attention it needed to be found, and through it he finally was able to fill out his “Been there, done that” section on his eHarmony profile.
Artistically, I thought they were both intriguing and well done, but while the short story is about a man who lives life in day dreams, the film is about a man who once lived life in day dream and is now accomplishing his dreams. They both had interesting examples of escapism, utilized their mediums aptly, and lent personal meaning to me as a reader and viewer, but I related more to the film adaptation. As someone who is prone to daydreaming and ambitious fantasies, it is easy to identify and find more personal meaning with the film Walter Mitty. It is effortless to engross myself in the hope that my dreams are more than fiction, but are, instead, beautiful things waiting for attention.
Thurber, James. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1939. Harcourt. Print.
Goldwyn, Samuel, Ben Stiller, Norman Z. McLeod, Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo, Boris Karloff, Fay Bainter, Ann Rutherford, Lee Garmes, David Raksin, Emil Newman, and James Thurber. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. , 2013.