Humorist James Thurber’s most famous short story is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Like most of Thurber’s male characters, he was a milktoast, shy, repressed, and hen-pecked. On a shopping expedition with his wife, he daydreamed of adventure and triumph, picturing himself as a brilliant surgeon, a military officer on a dangerous mission, and a marksman on trial for murder, being cross-examined by the district attorney.
“You are a crack shot with any sort of firearms, I believe?” said the District Attorney, insinuatingly. “Objection!” shouted Mitty’s attorney. “We have shown that the defendant could not have fired the shot. We have shown that he wore his right arm in a sling on the night of the fourteenth of July.” Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. “With any known make of gun,” he said evenly, “I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.”
In 1949 it was filmed with Danny Kaye in the title role.
And this week there is a new version starring Ben Stiller and Kristin Wiig. It is less like the original story than it is like the play and movie “Dream Girl,” a romantic comedy rather than a bittersweet meditation on a constricted life with no opportunity for change. Like J. Alfred Prufock, Walter has not dared to disturb the universe. He has no answer to the “been there, done that” question on a dating website because he hasn’t been anywhere or done anything worth noting. When that changes, it makes for a very enjoyable film.
This classic cartoon is based on another Thurber story, on a similar theme, “The Unicorn in the Garden.”