In the 2013 film adaptation of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Ben Stiller plays a regular employee who, seeing his life fly past him, often retreats to the fantastic world of his imagination. Unbeknownst to him, this would lead him to a real adventure of his own.
The film—loosely based on James Thurber’s classic short story of the same name that appeared in the New Yorker on March 19, 1939—tells the story of Walter who works at Life magazine handling negatives sent in by photojournalists around the world. The magazine is going on a transition from print to digital, and for its final print issue, photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends a package that includes the negative to be used as cover photo. However, the negative is missing. This prompts Walter to unimaginable derring-dos to locate O’Connel and retrieve the photo before the magazine completely goes online.
The short story inspired the beloved 1940s screen comedy, numerous theater works, and sealed the phrase “he’s a Walter Mitty” or “Mittyesque” in the popular lexicon, referring to anyone who throws more energy into diverting daydreams than into real life.
Directed by Stiller, the film uses modern cinema techniques to open the story visually in a way that could not have otherwise been imagined in Thurber’s day. The script is written by Steve Conrad.
Stiller had seen many of the short story’s adaptations, but none he felt had hit home.
“Steve’s script wasn’t trying to revisit the 1940s Danny Kaye classic, which was so wonderfully unique to its time,” Stiller says. “He found a different way of telling the story, one that was smart and compelling, but that created a modern context for this character that audiences can relate to. I loved that the script honored the idea of an ordinary guy as hero in a way that’s lyrical, soulful and funny.”
Conrad was exhilarated by the challenge of taking on Thurber’s literary hallmark from the point of view of a very different generation. He says he wanted to “re-conceptualize the classic idea of Walter Mitty as a guy with all the kaleidoscopic colors of modern life.”
The real Life magazine went through several incarnations since its founding in 1883, reaching its heyday when it was turned into the nation’s preeminent photojournalism weekly by Henry Luce, and finally folding into life.time.com in 2009. Conrad’s Life mag, however, is fictionalized but very much based on the breathtaking photographic legacy of the real thing.
Conrad said he liked the “idea of Walter working at Life in the photo-negative room, because it makes him a sort of human repository for the most significant photographs that have been taken in the last 70 years.”
“He’s surrounded by images of the most essential moments of our times,” says Conrad. “In a sense, he has seen everything that’s out there, yet nobody really sees him. It seemed like a good place from which you could really root for Walter, because all of our jobs can begin to feel like that. You can feel lost in them, or like they don’t afford you the chance to really live.”
For Stiller, Walter’s job at Life was a beautiful way of tapping into themes that feel very resonant right now: “Steve’s idea that the iconic Life magazine is basically becoming an online photo archive is a great metaphor for the transition we’re all making from the analog world into the digital world and how it can make a guy like Walter, who has done his job meticulously for years, obsolete. It’s really a transformative moment in Walter’s life, and yet he finds the courage to go out into the world rather than retreat.”
Walter as a bachelor
While Thurber’s Walter Mitty was a henpecked husband whose fantasies carried him away from his marriage, Conrad took another route. His Walter is a typical modern bachelor who starts out more likely to dream of romance—or play around it on the Internet—than to wholeheartedly go after it. But one thing the screenwriter avoided was to make Walter ineffectual, and showed that his dreams reflect not only his hopes, but also the inner strength he has yet to prove.
“It was really important to us that he not be passive or weak,” Conrad says. “This Walter Mitty has a keen mind and constitution. He’s ready to go if events would just unfold and let him out. Our job was to take him to that place where he could release his soul.”
From 20th Century Fox, and distributed by Warner Bros, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opens Jan. 22 in cinemas nationwide.