Walter Mitty was a man who liked to daydream in 1947, and it’s a habit that has stuck with him well into the 21st century.
As of the recent Christmas holiday, Mitty’s story has now been told twice, with both versions inspired by (but not steadfast adaptations of) James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name. Norman Z. McLeod directs Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in the 1947 version, while Ben Stiller directs himself and Kristen Wiig as Mitty and the lady of his affection in the remake.
The Walter Mitty of 1947 works at a publisher of pulpy fiction and magazines, as an editor. Though the stories he edits provide inspiration for some of his exciting journeys into dreamland, the job is repetitive* and somewhat dull, and Mitty never gets due credit from his boss.
(*I would know, as an avid reader of vintage mags like True Confessions and True Story. Ideas were recycled across months and years.)
In the fictional corners of his mind, ’47 Mitty always thinks of himself as the hero of the story, and he always gets the girl. Things get a little complicated in the real world when he meets a woman named Rosalind who exactly resembles the girl he’s been seeing (and winning over) in all of his daydreams.
The 1947 version of the film is very enjoyable to watch. It’s full of music and crazy scenarios. Mitty’s real world turns into quite the adventure when Rosalind draws him into a very real, but unbelievable conspiracy plot.
Danny Kaye’s lead performance as Mitty is quite good. The fantasy sequences are fun to watch, and their outlandishness is downplayed a bit by the fact that Kaye doesn’t quite go full-on fantasy action hero in them. Qualities of the real-world Mitty are recognizable in dream-world Mitty, which makes his fantasies seem a tiny (very tiny) bit more plausible, no matter how crazy they sound on paper.
The 2013 “remake” shouldn’t be called a remake at all, for it takes a completely different angle on the story than the earlier film. It’s an alternate adaptation of the original story, and fans who go in hoping for an update of the ’47 film will be disappointed.
Mitty still works in publishing, but he manages negatives in LIFE magazine’s photo archives rather than editing pulp all day. His work is valued by the magazine, but it’s going out of print and struggling to transition to the digital world, so like his 1947 predecessor, this Mitty’s job isn’t exactly stress-free. He’s also got a Rosalind of his very own: Cheryl Melhoff, a recent hire at LIFE who he’s afraid to talk to and would rather break the ice with by “winking” at her on eHarmony.
Rather than getting wrapped up in a jewel conspiracy, 2013 Mitty has a greater mystery on his hands: he can’t find the negative that’s supposed to become the cover of the final edition of LIFE, and the issue is set to go to print in two weeks.
To track down the negative he must step outside his comfort zone and go on a real-life adventure to find the world-wandering, modern-technology-rejecting photographer (Sean Penn) who shot the film.
I found Stiller’s Mitty to be much more likable and authentic than Kaye’s. His daydreams are motivated by the true loss of direction in his life, and by the fact that he does what he needs to do to get by and support his mother and sister, rather than following his dreams of traveling the world. Stiller also does a very good job of showing Mitty’s anxieties and insecurities. While watching the older film, the dream sequences came across to me as simply “Danny Kaye is bored, let’s give him something to do” whereas 2013 Mitty is more than bored: he’s lost his sense of self.
The story is also well-updated to suit the modern world. I can overlook the fact that LIFE actually ceased publication decades ago, because the story of the wandering, adventurous photographer who Mitty is trying to track down works so well as a driving force of his journey. (I’m a photography nerd, too, so a hunt for a lost negative is my kind of mystery.) Walter’s daydreams are outlandish, so it’s okay for the plot of a film about him to require some suspense of belief, too!
Stiller, in addition to delivering one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him, does a solid job as director. Credit must also be given to director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, Bridget Jones’s Diary) for making the film look so damn pretty. With the exception of one drawn-out, CGI-ed dream sequence involving a Stretch Armstrong doll, there’s a ton of photographic eye candy to be had here. If nothing else, you’ll enjoy it for the photography, especially during Walter’s travels to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan.
The 1947 version of this film is fun to watch, but I truly love the 2013 version. I seem to be in the minority considering the film has received a fair bit of critical bashing, but as a socially awkward and highly anxious gal at the start of a “new chapter” in my life, I was really able to connect with the story and Stiller’s characterization of Mitty. I left the theater feeling inspired, and feeling a little less anxious about starting graduate school on Monday. If Mitty can jump out of a helicopter and climb a mountain range, surely I can handle two more years of school on the path to follow my own dreams.
It’s rare for a remake or re-telling to eclipse the original in my estimation, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) one has a much more well-established and effective message than the earlier film (even if it does go for very obvious, somewhat heavy-handed symbolism), and I enjoyed every minute of watching it.