I saw Ben Stiller’s adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with my girlfriend and liked it so much that I took my kids to check it out too. I’m definitely not one of those people who see a movie based on literature and irritably assess its merits based on its allegiance to the text. If I was, then Stiller’s Mitty would’ve been a big thumbs down, because it makes no attempt to tell James Thurber’s classic short story. There’s no Mrs. Mitty nagging aloof Walter about being “tensed up.” There’s no eight-engined Navy hydroplane, no Walter Mitty as brilliant surgeon, murder trial defendant, heroic war maverick, or proud rogue facing the firing squad. The movie was nothing like the story.
Except in the most important way.
In the way that all of us, each in our own secret worlds, are Walter Mitty. How all of us, to some extent, and some more vividly than others, live in and with our imagination. And how — seriously, think about it; investigate the phenomenon of your own daily experience — the division between what’s real and what’s imagined is as clear as mud. In fact, if we pursue the attempt to articulate the distinction with vigor, we could very easily find ourselves in a muddle where “reality” appears to itself be a production of the imagination.
Did either Thurber or Stiller intend to instigate the latter insight? I can’t be certain. But what I love about Thurber’s short story and even more so in Stiller’s film adaptation is the seamless transition between Mitty’s real and imaginal life as neither mode is permitted a claim to a higher value; both are real and valid forms of experiencing. A hesitant Thurber, however, uses the textual ellipses to at least signify the switch while Stiller thrills by weaving reality and fantasy together with such nonchalance that what’s what is always questionable. Fantasies are real; reality is fantastic. Plus the movie’s hip and moody soundtrack coupled with its breathtaking depth of field work together to intensify the overall dreamy effect.
During a scene where Walter Mitty fights a shark in the ocean with a metal brief case, I noticed a rich white guy reach into his jacket to retrieve a box of Junior Mints. But that’s not all. Dude was strapped with a Glock 19, an arrogant position of unquestioned privilege and a bad attitude. So I whispered “Hey bro. You can’t just waltz into a movie theater with a gun. There’s little kids here.” And he whispered, “No, tough guy? But I love to waltz.” He pointed the pistol at my temple and scowled, “Let’s dance.” I threw popcorn in his face, grabbed his pistol, and fractured his wrist in 9 places. As he squealed, I covered his mouth and hissed through gritted teeth, “It’s not polite to cry like a child during the movie. Please exit the theater quietly to the lobby where you can weep freely and seek medical attention. Is that clear, Tiny Dancer?” He nodded, gasped, and left.
There was a 10 minute scene toward the end with Sean Penn in the Himalayas that made me cry both times. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly why. I mean, it was the substance of the whole scene, but there was also one line that Penn said that just killed me dead. I’m not going to tell you about it because the scene is situated, and created, so wonderfully in the context of the whole movie that you owe it to yourself to go see the whole thing.
Seriously. Go see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. And, better yet, imagine things. Let yourself imagine the wildest things and encourage your kids to indulge in the powers of imagination too. Don’t be duped by the more super serious problems in the real world that need our attention. The imagination needs our attention. Dream. Fly. Revivify. Because it’s only AFTER we become reacclimated to the power of our dreams that we can truly grapple with those super serious problems in the real world. Before potential solutions to the big problems that plague us can even consider their destiny of becoming solutions, they must first be imagined. And so the seeds of our future lie in the vitality of our secret lives, in our bold willingness to blur the lines, and in both the true and false adventures of zany dreamers like Walter Mitty.
Read more from me at Black Hockey Jesus.
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