Page to Screen: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Although most film adaptations of literature use novels, memoirs, or biographies as their source material, these forms are not the only ones that can result in a great movie. Last year, director Ben Stiller placed James Thurber’s classic story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty onto the big screen. The adaptation is loose, as the original story is very short, and the film feels more as if it was inspired by a simple idea that it took and greatly expanded upon. The result is a wonderful, family friendly film about the power of the imagination that ends on a much more positive note than the work that inspired it.
James Thurber wrote his beloved short story in 1939 for The New Yorker, and it quickly became his most popular tale. The piece relates a few hours in the life of Walter Mitty, a man who escapes his nagging wife and dull, routine life by retreating into his fantastic imagination. The story is written so that reality slides effortlessly into fantasy, and it often takes a reader a few lines to realize that they are inside of one of Walter’s daydreams as opposed to a scene from his real life. This short story is now frequently studied in American literature and short story classes, and a read through quickly reveals why: it is, indeed, a masterpiece of the form.
Although several directors, notably Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, looked into making the film version of the story, it was ultimately the unlikely actor turned director Ben Stiller who finally created the adaptation, also starring as the titular character. Like Thurber’s original, Stiller’s film version also tells the tale of Walter, a man who often escapes into his fantasies, but offers a greatly expanded story that makes some crucial alterations as well. The film presents a unique plot wherein Walter, a negative assets manager at Life magazine, finds himself responsible for losing the negative that is supposed to be the cover of the publication’s final issue. In order to remedy the situation, Walter embarks on an incredible journey to track down the famous photojournalist who took the shot that goes far beyond anything his active imagination could have drawn up.
In order to turn Thurber’s short story into a feature length film, Stiller had no choice but to augment the plot. Taking the original notion of a man who seamlessly transitions from reality into fantasy and building upon it, he created an entire story that demonstrates this idea. The film also transitions from real life into dream world without any indication that it has done so, and it often takes a few moments before a viewer realizes what has occurred. Once we have, it is amusing trying to guess just how far back the daydream went, and when the transition occurred; often, we realize that a lot less has actually happened then we initially thought. When Walter does start having real adventures, the viewer has become trained to watch events with a skeptical eye, and although we wait for the expected jolt back to reality, there is a certain satisfaction in the realization that it is not about to come.
Another change Stiller made was removing the annoying wife from the original story and replacing her with a sweet coworker on which Walter has an innocent crush. Although Stiller’s Walter is single, there is hope that he will end up with a kind individual, unlike Thurber’s who appears destined to remain with this unsympathetic character for the rest of his life. Thurber’s story may end with Walter finally taking a stand, but Stiller’s allows this wholly likeable individual to finally live one of his adventures, a much greater feat and one better suited to the spectacle of the big screen. The incredibly talented Sean Penn has been added as the elusive photographer, and his captivating presence alone makes the invented storyline worth a watch, although there is much to be gained herein. Both Walter’s daydreams and his actual journeys are catalogued with stunning cinematography that place a viewer right inside the action and allow us to feel as though we are living Walter’s life right along with him, furthering the connection between character and spectator.
The short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty plays with a strategy that simply begged to be put up on the big screen. The uninterrupted transition from reality into fantasy is impressive in literature, but become wholly arresting when presented in film. Although director Ben Stiller had to invent the majority of the plot for his film, he still has author James Thurber’s masterpiece to thank for this original idea and the character he explores. Here is an example of a film that significantly altered the story on which it was based, but created a wonderfully unique work perfectly suited to the new form and proved that it is indeed possible to create a feature film from a very good, but very short, piece of literature.