Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Trailer and Story

Seeing the trailer for Ben Stiller's upcoming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty set me thinking about the original short story again (you can read it here), and the ways in which that film diverges from it.

Such a divergence was perhaps inevitable, the original tale not lending itself well to a two-hour movie. A mere two thousand words in length, it is essentially a slice-of-life vignette about a hapless and "henpecked" older man who drives into town with his wife to run a few errands and is constantly distracted from his tasks by his tendency to daydream, much to the inconvenience and irritation of everyone else involved. This is sufficient material for a sitcom episode, not a feature film.

Additionally, a day in the life of this particular couple is not exactly the stuff of high-concept comedy--and so even before "high-concept" was a phrase, the film made the protagonist younger, made him single, transferred the overbearing behavior of the wife to other characters (mother, boss). They also tossed in a real-life adventure to provide a plot that leads to a happy ending when the man who only daydreamed himself a hero actually becomes one.

The trailer for the upcoming version, of course, is rather thin on detail (the absence of dialogue has been repeatedly noted in the entertainment press), and so even as trailers go it offers little basis for judging the film. Still, it follows the previous film in many of these respects, down to Mitty's job in publishing (big shock, that)--while hinting at some significant differences, which set it that much further apart from the original.

One is the way in which the film will handle the daydream sequences. In Thurber's story, Daydream Mitty, in stark contrast with Real Mitty, was in command of every situation that presented itself and always recognized for it, everyone about him a fawning admirer of his exceptional courage and skill--and manly self-assertion--as they cringe before the same challenges. Those situations were typically martial (Navy "hydroplane" captain, bomber pilot) or at least involved weapons and violence (Mitty as gunman, Mitty before a firing squad).1 In the trailer for the new film we do see Daydream Mitty in archetypally heroic situations--as Arctic explorer, as astronaut--but the emphasis on war, weaponry and violence has been left out. Indeed, the old-fashioned machismo--both Mitty's anxiety about his real-life lack of it, and his conspicuous display of it in his daydreams--seem unlikely to be a part of the big-screen version. (If anything, to go by Mitty's longing look at Cheryl, I expect the accent will be on Mitty as Sensitive Man rather than merely timid.)

More significant still is the likelihood that we will see Mitty less put upon (especially by overbearing women, another concept Hollywood has become less comfortable with treating in a critical fashion), while the extent to which he has contributed to his unhappy situation seems likely to be played up. Indeed, it all looks rather "Walter Mitty, Self-Help Book Hero," and I expect that how one feels about that will depend in large part on how one feels about self-help culture.

Love it or hate it, though, there is no denying that that culture tends to play up individual autonomy, and play down the practical and other constraints on one's freedom of choice; that it tends toward a simplistic, complacent solipsism. As I saw it, Thurber's story was about the distance between the man Mitty would have liked to be (the kind of man he has been told he should be), and the kind of man he actually was, or even could be--and the ways in which the external world he had to deal with kept reminding him of the fact, making him retreat inside his own head (as arguably, we all do to varying degrees). A "Self-Help"-themed version of the story seems prone to deny the importance, or even existence, of the external world altogether, a fundamentally different way of approaching the same subject than Thurber offered, and a rather more conventional one contrary to the spirit of Thurber's work.

But all this will likely stand Stiller's film in good stead at Oscar time.

1. Only the scene where "Dr." Mitty performs surgery on a high-profile patient is an exception to that pattern.

Up From Development Hell: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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