Here we are at the beginning of a new year, hooray and all that. My first cinematic foray of the year was Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, out at Christmas. People have complained that it isn't really "true" to the iconic story by James Thurber, but I will suggest the possibly-heretical idea that this movie does well what most adaptations don't. Isn't that provocative?
The story centers around Walter (Stiller), a lonely man whose life is only filled with the excitement his imagination creates for him. He makes up for in fantasy what his real life lacks. And, truly, this is the only commonality shared between the film and the story. The rest is totally fabricated. But I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing.
At first, though, this vexed me. The story is considerably more despairing than the film, with Walter's final flight of fancy taking him stoically before a firing squad. It seems a disappointing life will always be there. The movie, though, always optimistic if sometimes cute, never gets that grim. Its premise is certainly sugar-coated, but also pretty valid. A man is not what he does, but really just what he is.
An early scene sees Walter trying to send a "wink" to somebody on an online dating service. The site, though, doesn't let him, because his profile is found wanting. Simply because his life hasn't been glamorous and successful enough means he is disqualified from participation in it. We have created a society built on this, particularly with social media. Remember last month when Facebook kept wanting to show you your biggest moments from the year? Those were the things other people thought were important by "liking" them, and may not have really mattered at all.
This is what Walter Mitty made me think about, and actually led to my enjoyment of it. There is despair in Stiller's Walter, but resolve also, and dedication. These are things he always had: his journey doesn't bring them out in him, but rather helps him respect and like who he already is.
Now, it is a pretty soft-cornered movie that doesn't ask or really give much in the end, or (more frustratingly) fully deliver on a promising premise, but after sleeping on it I think it is a fair adaptation, in the truer sense of that word. Indeed, it is often better than many "truer" adaptations, choosing to be a movie of its own and expressing itself in that medium. It is a fun watch, and certainly better than most of what gets thrown at the comfortably PG adult.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty features Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Adam Scott and Jon Daly, and is rated PG for daydreaming adventures and name-calling.
Writer: Steve Conrad
Director: Ben Stiller
PS: There is another film about Walter, made in 1947 and featuring Danny Kaye as well as dream-dazzling Technicolor that looks slightly (and only slightly) more based in the text, if that is your thing.
by Chase Harrison