The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Our Understated Habit of Daydreaming

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Ben Stiller

By Abe Timler

In 2008 holiday audiences were delivered David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Five Christmases later, the Secret Life of Walter Mitty parodies a key scene from Benjamin Button’s reverse aging. Without that scene, it’s unlikely these two title characters would be compared. On the surface, both films are adaptations of short stories (by F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Thurber, respectively); and both stories are highly modernized and relocated from smaller town settings to big cities (New Orleans and New York, respectively). Details are freely rewritten, and hosts of characters from the source materials have been stripped away.

But the two films share a thematic similarity. Benjamin Button, no matter how the details are reworked, is an exploration of how the inevitabilities of life – self-discovery, love, and work – proceed even when a key attribute of existence is reversed, Mitty is the likewise exploration of another reversal – that of reality taking the backseat to compulsive imagination.

Over the opening credits two parallel conflicts are set in motion: Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is seeking romance and facing impending unemployment from Life magazine. We first see the long-unmarried and career-disinterested Walter cautiously making passes via internet dating sites for his new work interest, Cheryl Melhoff, played by Kristen Wiig. Unsuccessful over the internet and hesitant when face to face with Cheryl at work, Mitty’s perception of these conflicts is thrust through the hoops of his escapist imagination. An assortment of fantasies ensue, starring Walter as virile mountain climber and heroic rescuer of her dog from a burning building.

In the face of Walter’s potential layoff from Life Magazine’s photographic publishing department, he imagines himself retaliating in an elevator brawl against the crass acquisition manager, played by Adam Scott. With every elaborate fantasy, Walter’s entertainment value remains high, though his relatability to general audience decreases: unlike most of us who, I’ll wager, live out more active fantasy lives than we’d like to admit, Walter’s don’t remain hidden. Every important character notices and comments “Walter, where do you go?” or “what do you call it when you go off to your faraway places?”

It isn’t until the acquisition manager demands that someone find a famed photographer’s lost negative that Walter snaps into reality, taking off for Greenland, Iceland, and Afghanistan in search of the photographer. And as typical of romantic subplots, his quest draws in the interest and needed practical assistance from Cheryl, setting the two of them up for more. The lockstep conflicts of romance and adventure remain in satisfying balance until the end.

Audiences and critics will miss the point if they are looking for a profound message. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is rather an invitation to savor the overlapping of daydreams with the colorless routine of daily life. And the movie reverses the convention of dreams fueling success (see last summer’s Turbo – a snail winning the Indy 500 – for the latest stale rendition of “if you can dream it, you can do it”):  for Mitty, dreams are depicted more realistically as coping mechanisms against failure. Walter’s employment with Life has confined him to a darkroom amidst years’ worth of film, forcing him to witness, in his isolation, the adventurous lives of the photographers. It’s no wonder Walter so easily passes his days through imagination, giving us an uncommon look at dreams as inward reaction rather than stimulation of outward action.

Most of us can relate to this dynamic of daydreaming more than we’d admit. As Walter’s fortunes increase, daydreams decrease until peaking again when difficulties strike. The most subtle take away from Walter’s imagination is the very human need to justify and live out the deep emotions that overtake the commonest of lives. Walter’s travels through space, his impossible adventures, and his glamorizing of equally routine-fatigued female colleagues cannot simply be dismissed as merely private entertainment; like Walter, our mostly ordinary days do not scale down our emotional lives that in intensity we share, though falling short in reality, with history’s greatest visionaries, explorers, and conquerors.

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