Favorite Fictional Characters, #245: Walter Mitty
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a short story by James Thurber published in 1939, and was sufficiently seminal that the titular character became eponymous for timid daydreamers. The 1947 Danny Kaye film version is considered a classic by some, though Thurber himself despised it, referring to it scathingly as The Secret Life of Danny Kaye. I find that the 2013 Ben Stiller version, while departing significantly from the original Thurber content, is closer in tone and spirit to that original than the upbeat Kaye treatment.
Stiller ably captures the downtrodden, never-been-tested frustration of Mitty. This is a quiet man in a quiet time, sleepwalking through a life devoid of adventure and excitement. He longs to see and do and experience, to be a heroic swashbuckler. There's something inside him that aches for something other than his basement office at LIFE magazine, culling the vivid and evocative photography of brawnier souls. His daydreams are the escape of an underutilized heart, the sad sense of loss that accompanies each day wasted in drudgery. It's getting late for Walter Mitty, and yet he remains, like so many of us, unable to launch himself into a life of meaning, terrified by losing what little stability he's carved out for himself. And so he rots, and grows older, and dreams.
In the Stiller movie, Mitty breaks free, with the help of a scavenger hunt of sorts laid for him by the eccentric globetrotting photog played with casual grittiness by Sean Penn. Mitty makes a series of small choices, breaking free from lifelong habits of financial prudence and personal deference, setting himself on a path to fulfillment. It's a sort of call to action for an aging generation (ours) that there is still time, always time, to shed the scaly skin of habit and seek the selves we dreamed of when we were young.
It helps that the film is gorgeously shot, with breathtaking Scandinavian scenery and the poet's eye for beauty. It makes you want to trade your slippers for hiking boots and your briefcase for a backpack. It makes you want to be eighteen, and free, and alive.