What’s wrong with ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

mittyI recently watched Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘. After I read on IMDB that it’s a re-make of an old movie with the same title, I managed to see the old one as well.

Well, to call it a remake is unfair. Except the name of the protagonist and his habit of daydreaming, nothing is common between these two movies. However, what I wish to talk about is the underlying message that Ben Stiller’s movie gives and my problem with that message.

(Spoiler ahead ****) The basic difference between the original 1947 movie and Ben Stiller’s movie is the conceptual treatment of daydreaming and hallucinations. In Stiller’s movie Walter Mitty is a a ‘negative asset manager’ at Life magazine. Life magazine gets sold and its new owners decide to close it. Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) has to provide the negative for the photograph to be used as cover for the final print issue of the magazine. He needs to use a particular negative sent by a famous freelance journalist Sean O’Conell (played by Sean Penn) but somehow he isn’t able to locate it. To save his job Walter has to get the negative. In order to achieve that he embarks on an amazing journey to catch the eccentric photographer himself. The journey takes him to places as different and exotic as Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. However when his life takes this unexpected turn and becomes extremely exciting and adventurous, his hallucinations and daydreams take a backseat. In fact they disappear after a while.

In the older version (which was based directly on the short story wmitty oldritten by James Thurber) the daydreams stay very much a part of the protagonist’s life. In fact the whole idea of the story was that when life of Walter Mitty takes a mysterious turn he himself gets confused whether all that’s happening to him is real or a mere hallucination! Needless to say, till the end, the viewer is also intrigued whether all that’s going on the screen is real or is just another hallucination of the protagonist.

This is not the case with Stiller’s movie. Ben Stiller’s movie has over-philosophized the simple story-line and hence committed a serious mistake. The underlying message of the movie is that if you daydream a lot maybe your life lacks excitement, and so by making your life more exciting you can cure yourself of daydreaming. However there are two basic problems here. First, not everyone who does a mundane monotonous job (and that’s about several billion men and women on this planet) necessarily feels devoid of excitement in life. Second, not every daydreamer needs to be ‘cured’. In fact some daydreaming is rather good for creative thoughts. Research in psychology has suggested that ‘Positive Constructive Daydreaming’ plays an essential role in a healthy and fulfilling mental life. Here is a link to an excellent piece on Mind-Wandering by Maria Popova. Anyway, that’s a different issue altogether!

What promises to be a funny story about a daydreamer turns out to be a story of discovery of self. That’s the problem with the movie. The story and it’s treatment are not bad, in fact some sequences are truly breathtaking in visual sense. However, the script doesn’t remain loyal to it’s original premise and that’s where the movie falters.

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