The first half of this review will talk briefly about the concept behind the short story, and the second half will focus more on the 2013 film.
I first came across the Secret Life of Walter Mitty in its original, short story form. Back in my last (and I do mean last) corporate job, Where They Thought I Worked (emphasis past tense), I consumed podcasts and audiobooks regularly.
Pardon the repetition. Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile likely know this already.
At any rate, among those stories consumed was the titular character’s secret life, and the story itself is delightful, albeit capped off with a less-than-happy ending. Written by James Thurber, a renowned short story writer who – much to the chagrin of everyone, I’m sure – I knew nothing about until having come across this short, which is considered to be his most famous story. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was first published in the New Yorker in 1939, and has since been adapted into two films – one in 1947, starring Danny Kaye and the other in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the titular role.
Both movies are very different from the original story, but that comes as no surprise. They don’t call it an adaptation for nothing, and besides, while the general premise is retained, I rather like the 2013 film more than the short story. Perhaps this is in part to the Hollywood-ized insertions of familiar tropes – such as a love interest, the loyal sidekick, a cast of completely new, original characters, and of course modern dialog and environment. It’s been reshaped to fit modern storytelling a bit more.
And in spite of these differences, I still thoroughly enjoyed the short story – having heard it as a Selected Short on the American National Public Radio (NPR) while sitting in my depressing cubicle a year ago. After hearing the story, a few months later I learned about the movie coming out, but did not get to see it until fairly recently.
In fact it was aboard my plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, China in July of 2014 that I saw this movie, and by the gods, it felt so apropos to my own life that the other movies I watched during that nineteen-hour flight simply paled in comparison.
At least as far as emotional impact is concerned.
I recently watched it a second time, having long since gotten hold of the movie’s soundtrack and (rest assured) listened to it thoroughly. Much like A Tale Of Two Sisters and a variety of other movies I’ve seen only a few times but listened to dozens of times, the soundtrack serves to emphasize certain plot elements – sometimes even paint a new picture of the story’s events as I hear parts of music that I did not pick up while watching.
There must be a term for this. The concept of isolating music (or other sounds) from its media source, resulting in discovering new sections of tracks that were either drowned out by character dialog or sound effects, or simply cut out of the movie altogether.
I loved the movie, even more than I loved the short story. This is not only a result of its modernization through the rather well-executed direction and acting of Ben Stiller, but the underlying message. The premise of “a man who daydreams because his life involves nothing particularly mentionable nor noteworthy,” and taking it to another level, left a strong impression with me.
Let me tell you why.
[I suppose this is the part where I mention
moderate Spoiler Alert. I’ll be talking as though
you’ve seen it already.]
First, let’s go over some of the undertones. A strong aspect of this plot is that Walter Mitty’s company – Life Magazine – is being downsized and converted to an online operation, something that is a very real concern for anyone paying attention to the economy (you know, in real life). Our Villain in this story is a comically bearded individual representing the modern changes happening to the American economy. Young, business-minded individuals in suits who arrive on the scene to change things; out with the old, in with the new. “Beard-Guy” is a humorous stereotype of the new age of Millennials.
To make an omelet, one must first crack an egg. And of course in this case (as with many real-world cases), the egg-shell is usually former employees as more and more companies are converted to online operations, which means they’re increasingly automated and in need of a smaller staff.
Meanwhile, we have Walter Mitty (who is single in this film, which is noticeable difference from the source material, where he was married to a nagging woman), meets the Love Interest, a fellow employee at Life named Cheryl Melhoff. Bits and pieces of each character are revealed throughout the movie, and the more we learn, the more the characters interact, the more they seem to be a good match for each other in the eyes of the audience.
This movie is not a Rom-Com, but it has some threads in common. I’m not sure exactly how to classify this story; one would sooner be inclined to label it Adventure. At any rate, in an effort to complete his last task for Life – developing the Slide No. 25, the chosen cover-photo by Sean Connelly, Life Magazine’s most experienced (only?) freelance photographer. However, the slide is apparently missing, so Walter sets out to recover it by tracking down Sean himself – this takes him on an adventure from New York to Iceland, then Greenland, back to New York, and eventually to bloody ungoverned Afghanistan and the Himalayas.
Throughout the film, we learn that Walter is a hard worker; a good man who had set aside any real personal aspirations for simply working his ass off to keep his family (sister and mother) out of poverty.
It is difficult to dislike such a character, and at first I remember thinking that it was some sort of messiah-ism, or an expertly crafted “How can we make this character easily likable by everyone?” ploy, but in fact it’s integral to the plot. A few spoken sessions of exposition reveal this, but we as an audience also piece it together ourselves in small ways.
A deceptively powerful scene depicts Walter balancing his checkbook – this is extremely revealing of his character, and it made me realize that almost never have I actually seen characters do this in movies. More often they just go places and do things, and the film never takes into account the financial costs of their adventure.
Not to mention Walter, in his younger years, aspired to backpacking throughout Europe, among other things, and this opportunity – some thirty or forty years later – for traveling the world is nothing short of an adventure of a lifetime.
That is the major theme that struck me. The emphasis on travel.
Few stories out there will actually maintain a message of
“Travel is bad. You shouldn’t actually go anywhere.”
But few stories play on that theme as powerfully, or execute it as well, as this movie. Much like in Gravity with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan, it isn’t necessarily about the events (or bad science…) that happen around the character, but how the events affect and change the character. During the Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, we witness Mitty’s growth.
That is what really makes a story.
Now, I obviously linger on this point for personal reasons. Choosing to travel – let alone the place itself I ended up deciding to hang my proverbial hat – remains one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. Watching this movie while aboard a plane toward my destination felt like a complete affirmation of my choices.
And, like Walter Mitty, I am quite the daydreamer. I zone out a lot. This is Another Head Full Of Fantasy, after all. I still do from time to time, but, by the muses, it is not for want of adventure, that’s for sure. Also like Walter Mitty, I’ve changed, and grown.
Frequent readers of this blog would recognize my usual soapbox-styled rant on the emphasis of experience, so I won’t get into that so much. Suffice to say, simply (and not for the last time), that travel is good. It’s healthy. Not nearly enough Americans do (almost none of my friends back in my hometown did), and I thoroughly believe America’s isolation will leave a lasting impact in a less-than-positive way.
So we have ourselves a movie that not-so-subtly brings some awareness to our changing, increasingly digital world; that not-so-subtly underlines the benefits of traveling to other countries; and not-so-subtly brings us a well-written story that – while it includes some strong “only in the movies” coincidences – it all ties together quite nicely and satisfactorily.
I give this movie 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Go bloody see it.
Today’s track is from the movie, taking place right after the opening scenes. Composed by Theodore Shapiro, a composer the likes of whom did not know before, but am pleased to credit where credit’s due. The soundtrack is fitting – as most soundtracks tend to be – and it brings me joy to not only listen this piece, but share it with you folks.