The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fantastical action-comedy about an ordinary man with an extremely active imagination.
This well-known and beloved tale, published in 1939, has launched its famous protagonist into the cultural lexicon, warranting his inclusion in English-language dictionaries and countless anthologies…
Stiller’s imaginative performance as Mitty is the perfect re-introduction to James Thurber’s classic creation, a tribute to the sometimes unsettling power of the human imagination. He wanted to make more than either a faithful rendition of Thurber’s original or a remake of Danny Kaye’s classic comedy. He and scriptwriter Steven Conrad, realised that the story lends itself to the timeless anxieties of life.
“At the heart of the story is a character with whom everyone can connect to, someone who appears to be just going through the motions of modern life, but is living a whole different life inside his head”, Stiller said recently. “To me, he embodies all those things we imagine about ourselves and the world, but that we never do or say”. The modern Mitty is a ‘Negative Assets Manager’ in the photo archive of LIFE magazine, still publishing, thanks to the magic of the movies, four decades after it really ceased publication in 1972 . Much of the film is set in the meticulously recreated offices of LIFE. In those offices, we see poster-sized versions of LIFE magazine covers through the years.
When reality gets too stressful for anonymous, timid Walter, he retreats into the safety of his daydreams. Here, he imagines himself as a fearless hero fighting the elements during epic quests and impressing his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) who he secretly adores. Until one day, unexpectedly, he talks to her, and the realms of reality and fantasy begin to overlap. Walter soon finds himself on a real-life global adventure, more extraordinary than anything he ever imagined.
“Steve’s script created a modern context for the character that audiences can relate to. The story we wanted to tell honoured the idea of an ordinary guy as hero in a way that’s lyrical, soulful and funny… I wanted the film to have that kind of respect for all the things ordinary people go through and how challenging life is for all of us”, said Stiller. Where Thurber’s Mitty was a hen-pecked husband, and Kaye’s Mitty was a magazine editor with a nagging fiancée, Stiller plays a bachelor, living with mom (Shirley MacLaine), and a new antagonist in the form of boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott).
Here is a taste of what Walter is up against: “Never fun, this stage, but we do have ahead of us the privilege of publishing what will be the very last issue of Life magazine. We just received a telegram from Sean O’Connell, who has never been willing, I’m told, to speak with the executives here. Well, he broke his long silence and shared his thoughts with us… “I expect full consideration of negative 25 for cover. My most grand. The quintessence of life”…
So our cover will probably be the most famous ever because it will have the big quintessence of all time…” More than a little of Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character from The Office.
Returning to those iconic photo-covers, the majority we see in Walter Mitty were never covers at all. The pictures on the covers, for example, the launch of Apollo 11, Jayne Mansfield luxuriating in a swimming pool, a theatre audience watching the first-ever 3-D feature-length film — are, indisputably, classic LIFE images. But none of them ever graced the cover of LIFE. LIFE magazine was an American photojournalism magazine published from 1936 to 2007. It was published weekly from 1936 to 1972, as an intermittent special 1972-1978 and monthly 1978 to 2000. From 2004/2007 it became a weekly newspaper supplement published by Time Inc. The magazine’s prestige lasted for two generations (in its heyday, it occupied five floors of the Time & Life Building in mid Manhattan), before declining due to changes in taste, falling advertising revenues and the internet boom.
“When we were selecting photos for the LIFE covers in Walter Mitty,” says Jeff Mann, the production designer on the film, “we focused on pictures that would serve the story we were telling, but that would also capture the diversity of what LIFE covered in its prime. We worked really, really hard to select photos that were novel, naïve — in the best possible way — and that featured significant twentieth-century people, places and events.” Or, the ‘Quintessence’, you could say.
In the end, Mann says, he and his team — and Stiller, who is a photography aficionado himself — felt that the images they choose to use as covers, from the literally millions of pictures in LIFE’s archive, had to somehow “convey the influence of LIFE magazine, while at the same time helping to move our story along. It was a fabulous problem, and one we had a lot of fun working to solve.”
I found the film to be very enjoyable, fantastic settings, music and feel-good factor, well worth watching. I reluctantly say in criticism that the product placement/sponsorship I know we have to get used to today was over the top at times, to the detriment of continuity, and available time to develop the other characters, or even much of the slowly, slowly growing relationship between Walter and Cheryl. Perhaps because the film cries out for greater substance, or that I may be a bit of a Walter Mitty myself, I have already worked out a sequel in my own imagination…
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”. (Motto of Life magazine as quoted by Walter, one of the numberless people that made it happen.)
Directed by and starring Ben Stiller, ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty’ also features Sean Penn. (Released 26/12/13)