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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It isn’t often I anticipate a movie, but if the 2013 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is as good as its trailer, I can’t wait to see it!

From what I can tell, this version is loosely based on both James Thurber’s short story and the 1947 movie, starring Danny Kaye, both of which are classics in their own right.

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I grew up on the film version of Walter Mitty. But I’d never read the short story until last year, when I bought a book called The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose (which is, as its title states, a huge collection of humorous prose from the last 500 years, focusing mainly on the last two centuries) which included The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Since it was only a few pages long, I decided to read it then and there. It was a quick read, and I enjoyed it, but I was constantly comparing it to the movie and felt slightly let down because it seemed to be “missing” over half the plot.

So after seeing the 2013 trailer last week, I decided to give the short story another shot. And this time, I really enjoyed it. I was glad it was such a short read, that it didn’t have half the plot of the movie, and, especially, that there was no psycho psychiatrist. 🙂 But what impressed me the most, was James Thurber’s brilliance in being able to say and convey so much using only about 2000 words. Along that line, I found this interesting:

It has been said that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty earned its author more money per word than any other story in the history of literature. –Frank Muir, The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose

With this new version of Walter Mitty coming out, I think a lot of people will be comparing it to the Danny Kaye film. I was interested to know what James Thurber thought of the 1947 film (since it was so different from his short story), so I did some reading up on it and wasn’t too surprised to find that he was entirely unhappy with the film.

“I read the entire script, of course, and I was horror and struck.” –James Thurber

The writing of the screen play and story line were done by others and he was brought on for collaboration right before shooting was to start. He hated it. It was far too melodramatic for his tastes, but there was nothing he could do about it.

I was confronted by a set story line appallingly melodramatic for poor Walter. An absolutely new and different story line was called for, but the shooting schedule the budget, and the few days allotted to me would not permit of this.” –James Thurber

For him the main issue was this:

“[O]ne of my strongest convictions about this whole picture is that the dream scenes should be kept in a high romantic key, and should never descend to anything of a slapstick nature purely for the sake of laughs. If this picture has any one special value, it is that it represents the kind of daydreams the average man dreams up, and I believe that every person in the movie audiences all over the country will recognize himself in these dreams, if we keep them true and right. The daydreamer—that is, you and me and everybody else—always imagines himself engaged in high and fine exploits and adventures, and he never dreams of himself as a comic or foolish character. The dreams will be funny simply and only because they are the true representations of the average man’s secret notions of his own great capabilities.”–James Thurber

He allegedly went so far as to offer Samuel Goldwin 10,000$ to NOT make the film and referred to the film as “The Public Life of Danny Kaye.”

I’m not usually one to side with the movie makers over the author, but in this case, I’m glad James Thurber didn’t get his way. If he had, this scene, for example, would only be the first twenty-five seconds and we would’ve missed out on, what James Thurber referred to as “Danny Kaye’s git-gat-gittle and appalling songs in gibberish,” but what I see as Danny Kaye in all his glory giving us a hilarious and brilliant performance only he could pull off.

The genius of Walter Mitty is that you can give him a new plot or put him in a different universe or time frame and he will still essentially be Walter Mitty. The original short story and the 1947 film each gave us something different, but to me, they’re both perfect in their own way.

I’m curious to see what this new version brings us; I wonder if James Thurber would approve. 🙂

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