James, Danny, Ben, and Waldo: the many lives of Walter Mitty
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to discuss a bit about different incarnations of Walter Mitty in this post. If you have not read or seen the works and want to have the joy of pure discovery, I would do that before reading this. I won’t get into a lot of detail
Geeks understand imagination.
We get the joy of picturing ourselves in different circumstances. Some of us go to considerable lengths to recreate the fantasy, notably with cosplay (“costume play”), and LARPing (“Live Action Role Playing”).
However, what we do is quite different from how Walter Mitty was portrayed in the original short story by James Thurber in a 1939 issue of The New Yorker.
One of the key things is that it was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (emphasis added). Walter Mitty doesn’t share his imagination with others…they don’t know what he is thinking.
In today’s society, it might be quite different. Walter Mitty might be part of one (or several) online communities (even anonymously), playing out those situations with others.
Is Walter Mitty a geek?
Certainly, he is intelligent, well-informed, socially inept, and with a vision beyond those of the “mundane” folks in his life…I think that would fit a lot of people’s definition. 😉
He has a geek’s knowledge of detail…and he has fun in his mind, even if his real life is…less than thrilling.
The 1947 movie with Danny Kaye considerably changed the message of the character. Now, Mitty becomes involved in a real-life adventure. What he imagined in the past is valuable to him, but it is clearly suggested that being in the real world is a better idea…coming out of your shell.
That’s a very different feel. Walter Mitty in the short story might like to come out of his shell (maybe), but there is no suggestion that will happen, or even endorsement of the idea. In the short story, these ideas are a defense to a humdrum existence…not something that will give him real world power.
To be clear, I’m a big Danny Kaye fan, and like the 1947 movie very much…but it isn’t the same as the story at its heart.
There were radio adaptations (including one with Danny Kaye), and stage productions (it was part of A Thurber Carnival), but geeks may fondly (?) remember the 1975 live action/cartoon combo, The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty.
I enjoyed this odd 1975 Filmation production. There were live action pet cats and dogs, and one of them, Waldo Kitty, would have pop culture parody daydreams, which were done in animation. Waldo might become “Catzan” (Tarzan), or Captain Herc of the starship Second-Prize (a Star Trek parody), or several others. Like the 1947 movie, these fantasies actually helped Waldo deal with real world challenges.
Reportedly, it was challenged by the Thurber estate, and became a one-season wonder.
Now (releasing on December 25 2013 in the USA), Ben Stiller is doing a new version (starring and directing). While I haven’t seen it yet, it appears to be taking more of the approach of the 1947 movie than the story.
Certainly, it’s reasonable that you would have more character development in a movie than in a short story. I’ll be interested to see how this is…I’ve been hearing some good things about it.
One other thing: there was a TV series called My World and Welcome to It, based on Thurber’s writings, and starring geek-friendly William Windom. It wasn’t specifically Walter Mitty, though, although a fantasy life was certainly a part of this show (which many remember fondly).
- Update: here is a link to the original story
- James Thurber: Writings & Drawings (including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) (The Library of America) (at AmazonSmile…benefit a non-profit by shopping*)
- 1947 Danny Kaye version (at AmazonSmile)
- A Thurber Carnival (original cast recording) (at AmazonSmile)
- The Secret Lives of Waldo Kitty (VHS: currently not available) (at AmazonSmile)
- 2013 version at IMDb
- 2013 version official site
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