The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: 1947 and 2013

 James Thurber's short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty follows a milquetoast husband who escapes his nagging wife and dull life through day dreams.

In 1947, The Samuel Goldwyn Company brought Thurber's story to the screen with Danny Kaye as the title character. Kaye's classic twitches and tongue twisters draw you in to his make believe world of heroes of many kinds: cowboys, RAF pilots, sea captains and surgeons who save lives with a knitting needle and sock stretcher. Mitty makes himself the star of each dream. In real life, Mitty is a vital part of a novel publishing company, but is seldom given recognition for his ideas. Everyone belittles him: his boss, his mother, his fiancée and his fiancée’s poodle.

 The 2013 Mitty is an archivist and film negatives processor for Life Magazine. He's an analog man in a digital world and the new boss is there to transition the magazine into an online phase. The first half of the film feels like the movie Desk Set with Katharine Hepburn, where everyone fears being replaced by computers. Mitty might be able to keep his job if he can locate a missing negative of an image taken by the roving star photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). This could mean crisscrossing all over the planet, something Mitty has only done in his extensive day dreams.

 Wives and Mothers

Mitty comes to the screen without a wife so that Kaye can pursue popular Goldwyn Girl, Virginia Mayo, with whom he made more than one successful film.  Mayo plays a lady whose life may be in danger from a few crooks left over from WWII. Encountering her means Mitty is forced to deal with buckets of blood, sudden death and real villains. It's almost straight out of the novels his company produces.

Fast forward to 2013. Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. and his son co-produce another version of the story with Ben Stiller as fellow producer, director and star. Mitty is still wife-less, but this time, his would-be girlfriend and his mother are caring people played, respectively, by Kristin Wiig and Shirley MacLaine (who does not get nearly enough face-time). The only one haranguing him is a new boss (Adam Scott).

Day Dreams

The Danny Kaye version allows the dream sequences to be tiny, separate capsules of entertainment.  When Kaye's Mitty dreams, there is sometimes an endless void in the background and all the action occurs in the foreground where Mitty and the woman of his dreams share an adventure. He's always hilariously nonchalant in the dreams (e.g. "It's nothing. Just a broken arm. I set the bone myself.").

In the Stiller version, the dream sequences are seamless with reality. You don't always know you are in a dream until someone does or says something odd. For example, Mitty is on the phone and someone asks whether he's ever done anything noteworthy. Mitty then casually jumps off a bridge and dives into the window of a burning building to save a dog. On the way out of the building, he has time to fashion a prosthetic leg for the animal and place it safely into the arms of its owner. I laughed heartily several times with both films.

Impact of Mitty's imagination on his real life

Both Mittys are seen as odd balls because they do not function at all during these extended dreams, causing lots of irritation for those around them. However,  Mitty's wild imagination in Kaye's version helps his work. The novels he promotes fuel his imagination which in turn fuels his promotion ideas; it's a symbiotic relationship. His creativity is presented as something to be moderated.

The Stiller version of Mitty sees this vivid imagination as something to be eradicated, something to shed like a second skin. There is a symbolic shedding. During his quest to find Sean and the missing film negative, Mitty must change out of his ruined office suit and borrow clothing from someone who lives a more adventuresome life.  As his reality gradually becomes as epic as his day dreams, Mitty dreams less frequently.

Another major difference in the storylines is that Kaye’s Mitty apparently has always possessed an active imagination. This is part of what makes him unique. This is part of what makes him highly qualified for the job he enjoys. Mitty and a keen imagination are inextricably linked.

Stiller’s Mitty is adventuresome as a child, has a crisis which causes him to play it safe for the rest of his life and to escape boredom or fear through day dreams. In his darkened archival office, Mitty's windows to the outside world are photos that Sean sends. This makes Mitty's new adventures cathartic as an adult. As he begins to shape his life around his true self, the day dreams are no longer needed to survive.

Color plays a part 

In Kaye’s version, Technicolor is used to get those of us in the audience to buy tickets to see the movie. From Mayo’s stylish costumes to Danny Kaye’s rich, auburn hair, this film has a bright and varied color palette throughout. Whether in a dream or not, the imagery is straight off the bold cover of a paperback novel.


Stiller’s version uses color to show progression in the character. During Mitty’s introduction, there are plenty of frosted neutrals – grey, black, white- on his person, in the buildings, all around him. This is to showcase the idea that he thinks his life is mediocre. (Though how he thinks working at LIFE Magazine on some of the most iconic images in the world is average, I don’t know.) As Mitty’s real adventure unfolds, you’ll see lots of saturated colors on him and all around, starting with the maroon cable knit sweater he borrows from a fisherman. It’s as if Dorothy comes back to reality but the colors from the land of Oz are still with her. (One of the characters remarks how surprised he is with Mitty’s appearance, “I pictured you as a little grey piece of paper.”  This is how the filmmakers view Mitty as well.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a great story for the entire family to watch together. I recommend watching both in a marathon and comparing the two. You’ll enjoy both versions for different reasons.

Have  you seen these films? What did you think?


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