‘Walter Mitty’ And The Fantasy of Surrender

I really prefer reasoned argument and wit to getting shouty about things, but the news that, after the sacrilege that is a Jim Carrey-starring Mr. Popper’s Penguins, I cannot restrain myself about the news that Ben Stiller is going to direct himself in a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. STOP IT. WHAT IS THIS NONSENSE? WHY ARE THE SOUREST, MOST CRABBED ACTORS OF THEIR GENERATION PUTTING THEIR HANDS ALL OVER THE THINGS THAT I LOVE?

James Thurber’s original short story is really wonderfully dark, and might actually be the basis for a terrific, unsettling recession movie. The main character is henpecked to death, emasculated by cabbies and cops alike, and gets through a day by imagining himself as more competent and powerful than he actually is. And at the end, it turns out that instead of using his fantasies as the basis to motivate himself to improve his life, Mitty instead uses his fantasies to accomodate himself to the unhappiness of his existence, envisioning himself bravely facing a firing squad. Of course, in the Danny Kaye movie adaptation, Mitty’s ends up having real-life adventures that rebuild his confidence and help him be assertive.

And I guarantee a Ben Stiller movie will have the same message. Stiller’s characters generally get away with treating other people badly, often for irrational reasons, and still get rewarded at the end of the movie. His Mitty interpretation seems likely to miss all the wistfulness of the original, and to pair Mitty’s fantasies with a strong sense of entitlement. In the hands of an actor with greater range, this gap between fantasy and reality could be a powerful reflection of our disappointed aspirations — and the gap between our pop culture and our reality.