The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): The Love Hate Gap

This new adaptation loosely based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story was a highly anticipated year-end movie, possibly aiming for a spot in the coming awards season. It was released on Christmas Day, 2013, only to meet with disappointing critical reviews.


Any movie version derived from James Thurber’s short story first published in the March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker is allowed plenty of room for reinvention, since the original story is only about 2,000 words in length. If you’re interested to read or reread it, here’s the link. The story saw its first movie adaptation in 1947, starring Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty.

In Thurber’s story, Walter Mitty is a man living with an overbearing wife. He intersperses his meagre existence with heroic daydreaming. Behind the wheel of his car driving his wife to the hair salon, he would zone-out and imagine himself a fighter pilot piercing through a storm. At another time he would cast himself as a world-renowned surgeon saving a dying patient on the operation table, or as an expert shooter, or a war hero.

Over the years, Thurber’s Walter Mitty seems to have turned from a fictional character into a concept. The daydreamer has gathered mass appeal. Walter Mitty the character unleashes the escapist in us. It takes us out of our mundane, ordinary life and catapults us to brave, new worlds. It empowers and makes a hero out of Everyman.

This recent movie version has taken up such a challenge with fine colours. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works for LIFE magazine which has just been acquired, and a major downsizing ensues. The upcoming issue will be the last of its print edition. As the ‘Negative Assets Manager’, Walter Mitty is responsible for the cover. ‘Negative assets’ means, literally, the negatives of photo collection. And here’s the rub, the slide that is meant for this last cover is missing. Feeling responsible, Walter Mitty takes up the challenge to seek out its reclusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who leaves his tracks in the remotest parts of the world.

Not quite a dramatic story arc, not quite a believable motive either, considering the digital age of the setting, seems an unrealistic task to conduct a real-life globetrotting search for a missing slide. But out of curiosity, I let the story lead and enjoy what comes next.

The arduous journey to find the mystical photographer offers me an array of visually stunning and surreal Walter Mitty-esques sequences. The initiation is when Walter Mitty jumps onto a moving helicopter in Greenland, upon imagining his love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, urging him to take flight. Other breathtaking scenes that follow include longboarding by an erupting volcano in Iceland (my favourite), scaling the mountains in Afghanistan, and playing soccer with Himalayan dwellers against the setting sun.

Soccer match in the setting sun

In the office, Walter Mitty is the target of bullying from the hatchet man of the acquisition Ted (Adam Scott). Walter is also the secret admirer of coworker Cheryl. Too timid to declare his love, he hides behind eHarmony to hopefully connect with her anonymously. After Walter’s adventurous journey to find the mystic photographer, he is transformed into a braver man; ultimately, his true colours shine through, fantasy fulfilled.

Shirley MacLaine plays Walter Mitty’s supportive mother, an endearing role. Together with Kathryn Hahn as Walter’s sister, they bring some normality into our protagonist’s life. The three offer a few heart-warming moments.

Now, mind the gap. From the reviews and audience feedbacks, it looks like this is one of those ‘love-it’ or hate-it’ movies. Here are the stats of approval on Rotten Tomatoes: critics 48%, audience:76% On Metacritics it is similar: critics 54% and viewers 76%.

Why the discrepancy? I must stress that there are critics who love it, and, audience who don’t. Not that this is purely a ‘critics vs. viewers’ kind of showdown. But we do see the obvious gap between the two groups. What accounts for the gap? Here’s my analysis and speculation:

Those who hate the movie, see Ben Stiller. They see this as a self-serving project of the A-list Hollywood star directing himself in a role that sends him to all the improbable heroic scenarios. They see the production as a self-absorbed ego trip. Unrealistic storyline, much ado about nothing.

Those who love the movie, or find it entertaining and enjoyable, see Walter Mitty. They see the daydreamer, the self-defeating underdog going on a series of life-transforming adventures. They see the Wlater Mitty of today, a tiny screw in the humungous economic machine, dispensable, unappreciated, the tireless worker saving the day. They see love requited; they see dreams fulfilled.

What if… What if this whole production is Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty fantasy realized? Why should we mind? Anyone too high on the A-list to have no need for a Walter Mitty moment?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Related Links: 

CLICK HERE To read the short story by James Thurber, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in The New Yorker, March 18, 1939.

CLICK HERE to read an article detailing the LIFE magazine covers in the movie: “Walter Mitty and the Life Magazine Covers that Never Were”.