Stiller v. Thurber: The Feeling of Real

Technique tracked:
plot arc–short story v. film

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Film adaptations of fiction can provide interesting insight into plot structure. What scenes have been added, left out, or reordered, and why? But Ben Stiller’s 2013 adaptation of James Thurber’s 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the most divergent “adaptations” of a work I think I’ve ever seen. Stiller was inspired by the short story to create a character who escapes real life through occasional fantasies of heroism; that and the character’s name are pretty much the only similarities.

In the original, we do not even know Walter Mitty’s occupation. The entire story takes place over the course of one day that he’s running errands with his nagging wife, and is composed in almost equal parts of his fantasies and real life. In the sections of “real” life interspersed, he is being belittled, having memories of being belittled, or struggling to remember the mundane details life has called him to, like the fact that his wife asked him to pick up puppy biscuits. In the literal world of the story, Mitty and their wife are on their way to running errands, then they diverge for separate ones, briefly reunite and then separate again. We both enter and leave the story, though, through Walter’s fantasies. The story opens with “‘We’re going through!’ The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking.”), a fantasy of Walter in war, and then end with him facing the firing squad for execution, “inscrutable to the last.” The war offers an astute entry point that makes the reader’s subsequent entrance into the “real” world as jarring as Mitty’s, while the firing-squad fantasy provides a sense of closure despite the fact that the fantasies have no coherent throughline, only the common theme of his heroism and/or participation in action.

The fantasies are often connected to physical gestures from Mitty’s real life: when his wife orders him to don a pair of driving gloves, the next fantasy begins with him removing gloves as a famous surgeon. We see how the fantasies are a direct product of his interactions with “real” life, reinforcing how they are, in the larger sense, an indirect product of tedious circumstance. The climax is a declaration to his wife, again nagging him about something he hasn’t done: “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She continues to dominate him, however, telling him to wait for her while she runs into a store for just “a minute,” at which point he returns to fantasy, letting us know that this state of affairs will continue. But we’ve learned that the only time Mitty will really defend himself, the circumstance under which he will come closest to resembling his fantastical doppelganger, is when the fantasies themselves are threatened.

While Mitty’s psychological landscape is plenty rich enough to propel this compact story, the subdued narrative—this glimpse of a day in the life of—does not, on first glance, seem like it would make the most riveting movie. The plot is there is no plot, this non-plot revealing precisely why Walter Mitty needs to depend on fantasy, which becomes a kind of plot. But, someone trying to make a full-length feature might need to add some more material. The story was written several decades ago, so it makes sense that a retelling would be modernized. But Stiller’s version I would venture to call corrupted, as he spins an elaborate plotline barely anchored to the kernel he took from the original.

First major difference: we do not enter the movie in a fantasy of Walter’s. We see him in “real” life, tentatively checking out a dating site on his computer. Second difference: he does not have a wife, but is on the prowl (though he might be too timid for such a phrase, and Stiller’s acting as such is enjoyable enough to watch if you like that sort of thing). The first fantasy doesn’t occur until he’s waiting for a train, on the phone with an eHarmony rep about an issue with his dating account. Walter can’t send someone a “wink.” Instead of helping him with the problem, however, the technician starts to try to help him fill out his profile’s empty fields, forcing Walter to admit that he’s never been anywhere or done anything interesting—at which point, a fantasy finally intercedes. The problem for me is that this world feels utterly false before we break from it for the fantasy. The world became Hollywood false the second the eHarmony rep started talking to Ben Stiller like he was an actual person instead of a customer. The “real” world of the movie is itself a feel-good Hollywood fantasy. So the fantasies are left to assert themselves as any good Hollywood blockbuster should, through a big special-effects budget. Narratives in whatever medium require a suspension of disbelief and all that, but this film is not asking me to believe this is a separate world with its own parameters, where people can fly or whatever it is—for this story it’s especially important that it’s our world, that spinning bowl of drudgery from which Walter Mitty so needs his escape.

Third big difference: we know Walter’s job. He works in “negative assets” for Life magazine, “negative” referring to photos. (Having him work for Life is admittedly a clever touch.) As soon as Walter gets to work this day he’s got a problem: they’re shutting down the print issues of the magazine, and the negative of the image they want to put on the final cover—Walter’s department—is missing. The photographer has traveled all over capturing extreme images, and this missing one is supposed to be the quintessence of life itself. Walter, bursting into random fantasy here and there, usually around his office love interest (Kristen Wiig), must eventually go track down the photographer out in Iceland to try to get another copy of the image. Now Walter’s “real” life begins to resemble the fantasies, as he navigates rugged obstacles to track the photographer, always on his heels but never catching him. He gets fired from Life for being unable to recover the negative and in frustration throws away the wallet the photographer sent him as a birthday present, engraved with inspirational life-living messages about “looking inside.” Eventually Walter finds out the negative was in the wallet, that the photographer meant “look inside” literally. Luckily his mother rescued the wallet from the garbage. The cover image is Walter himself, sitting outside a building, examining negatives: this is the “quintessence of life.”

Full disclosure: I only watched the first twenty minutes, and then I read the Wikipedia summary, because I could already tell what the problem was: in this version Walter Mitty gets the opportunity to live his fantasies. It seems a logical enough leap, that such fantasies might eventually galvanize the person having them into being the person he or she fantasizes he or she is. But it’s pure Hollywood fantasy—even though Walter doesn’t catch the photographer and gets fired, this is just a momentary setback—while Thurber’s remains true to the human condition. Thurber’s story is about the fact that the fantasies are all Walter Mitty has. They’re not about helping him engage with the “real” world, but about helping him escape it. He is offered no opportunity to better the circumstances that drive him to fantasize. They allow him just enough freedom to be able to continue fantasizing. Stiller’s narrative sugar coats the love story by resetting it to the character’s pursuit of a love interest: things might not look so rosy for Wiig and Stiller after twenty years. Thurber’s Mitty probably loved his wife when he first met her too, but things have gone downhill, as things will do. Except in Hollywood, unless it’s the initial part of the character’s arc before the upswing. The ending, with the photo of pre-real-adventure Mitty symbolizing life’s quintessence, is true to Thurber’s concept, but Thurber actually depicts this quintessence while Stiller violates it, then pays it lip-service.

The people who live and work in Hollywood might be under the impression that dreams come true, but for the rest of us, this is just a carrot stick Hollywood’s dangling for the rest of us to chase through another day.

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