Walter Mitty: Enough Just to Be an Everyman


In my last post, I wrote about the missionary life from the perspective of Walter, a character fashioned after Walter Mitty. Created by Jame’s Thurber, Mitty is a daydreamer who imagines himself acting out heroic and larger-than-life scenarios while living out a much more mundane and seemingly smaller-than-life existence.

Mitty is likable because he’s an everyman. There’s a little Mitty in us all.

In 1947, Danny Kaye starred in a film based on Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In it, Mitty isn’t left just to dream about adventure, but he actually joins it in real life as he helps a mysterious woman with a little black book escape a sinister gang of jewel thieves.

The 2013 movie version, this time with Ben Stiller playing the lead, takes a similar approach to the story, with Mitty gathering the courage to travel the world in search of his hero, the globetrotting Sean O’Connell, a photographer for Life, who makes The Most Interesting Man in the World seem rather bland.

I do enjoy the beginning of the newer movie, where Mitty travels back and forth between his real life and his fantasy life—as it plays out the theme of Thurber’s short story. I’m not so fond of the later part, where the author’s work is left behind and Mitty trades in his dreams for more exotic travel—jumping out of a helicopter into the ocean, longboarding in Iceland, and playing soccer in the Himalayas, among other things. The film holds a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which, as it sounds, is only so-so, so I’m not alone in my less-than-ecstatic view of the film.

It’s not that I’m not happy for Mitty. It’s just that for the true everyman, turning fantasy into reality isn’t so easily done. It seems as if he’s living out the much quoted words of author William Arthur Ward:

If you can imagine it, you can possess it.
If you can dream it, you can become it.
If you can envision it, you can attain it.
If you can picture it, you can achieve it.

. . . words that are more inspirational than they are true.

I agree with A. O. Scott in his review of the 2013 Secret Life of Walter Mitty for The New York Times:

There is a contradiction here: An ordinary fellow should not have to be quite so special to win our admiration. And this version of Walter Mitty undermines some of the democratic whimsy that has made his story such an appealing and durable modern myth. He used to be one of us: a self-deluded dreamer charmed by his unruly creative powers, a willing prisoner of his appetite for escapism. But now our identification gives way to envy, and he is another one of those enchanted people the rest of us can only dream of becoming.

In the six-minute trailer below, you can see the film’s story play out, beginning with a timid Mitty unable to send an eHarmony “wink” to his coworker. The help-desk rep on the phone says he needs to fill out his “Been There Done That” section and asks, “Have you done anything noteworthy . . . mentionable?” Walter, hearing a dog’s faint barking, responds by diving off an outdoor subway platform and  through the window of an adjacent building that promptly explodes—saving the dog.

Cue Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality

This second video is a remake of the modern trailer using clips from the 1947 film.

(Barry Popik, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it,” The Big Apple, Oct. 13, 2015; A. O. Scott,”  “He Can Balance His Checkbook, but Not His Imagination,” The New York Times, Dec. 24, 2013)

[photo: Untitled of Ben Stiller, by Steve Rhodes, used under a Creative Commons license]


Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.