"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939) is a short story by James Thurber. The most famous of Thurber's stories, it first appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and was first collected in his book My World and Welcome to It (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942). It has since been reprinted in James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1), is available on-line on the New Yorker website, and is one of the most anthologized short stories in American literature. The story is considered one of Thurber's "acknowledged masterpieces". It was made into a 1947 movie of the same name, with Danny Kaye in the title role, though the movie is very different from the original story. It was also adapted into a 2013 film, which is again very different from the original.
The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word "Mittyesque" have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.
The story had an influence on other humorists, notably Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman (who borrowed the story's sound effects), playwright George Axelrod (who employed Mitty-like fantasies in The Seven Year Itch) and animation director Chuck Jones (who created a Mitty-like child character for Warner Bros. cartoons).
When referencing actor Errol Flynn, Warner Brothers studio head Jack L. Warner noted in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, "To the Walter Mittys of the world he [Flynn] was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package".
The short story deals with a vague and mild-mannered man who drives into Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife for their regular weekly shopping and his wife's visit to the beauty parlor. During this time he has five heroic daydream episodes. The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, then as a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb an ammunition dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself facing a firing squad, "inscrutable to the last." Each of the fantasies is inspired by some detail of Mitty's mundane surroundings:The powering up of the "Navy hydroplane" in the opening scene is followed by Mrs. Mitty's complaint that Mitty is "driving too fast", which suggests that his driving is an action of the daydreaming and he has lost touch with the actual world.
Mitty's turn as a brilliant surgeon immediately follows his taking off and putting on his gloves (as a surgeon dons surgical gloves) and driving past a hospital.
The courtroom drama cliché "Perhaps this will refresh your memory," which begins the third fantasy, follows Mitty's attempt to remember what his wife told him to buy, when he hears a newsboy shouting about "the Waterbury Trial" ("You miserable cur" are the last words mentioned in the fantasy. Mitty was supposed to buy puppy biscuits.)
Mitty's fourth daydream comes as he waits for his wife and picks up an old copy of Liberty, reading "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?", and envisions himself fighting Germany while volunteering to pilot a plane normally piloted by two people.
The closing firing-squad scene comes when Mitty is standing against a wall, smoking.
Mitty is very much a Thurber protagonist, so much so that he has been called "the archetype for dreamy, hapless, Thurber Man". Like many of his male characters, such as the husband in "The Unicorn in the Garden" and the physically unimposing men Thurber often paired with larger women in his cartoons, Mitty is dominated and put upon by his wife. Like the man who saw the unicorn, he escapes via fantasies. A similar dynamic is found in the Thurber story "The Curb in the Sky", in which a man starts recounting his own dreams as anecdotes as an attempt to stop his wife from constantly correcting him on the details.
In his 2001 book The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber (ISBN 0-930751-13-2), author Thomas Fensch suggests that the character was largely based on Thurber himself. This is consistent with Thurber's self-described imaginative interpretations of shapes seen with his "two-fifths vision" in his essay "The Admiral on the Wheel". Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that Thurber may have had Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition that causes vivid and bizarre hallucinations even in blind patients.
Thurber's love of wordplay can be seen in his coining of several nonsense terms in the story, including the pseudo-medical jargon "obstreosis of the ductal tract", "streptothricosis", and the recurring onomatopoeia of "ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa." The medical nonsense that "coreopsis has set in" uses the name of a flower which sounds vaguely like a horrible medical condition.
The story was made into a 1947 movie starring Danny Kaye as a young daydreaming editor of pulp magazines. The film was adapted for the screen by Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and Philip Rapp, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod. It was filmed in Technicolor.
Thurber was repeatedly consulted about the film's script, but his suggestions were largely ignored by producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had the writers alter the original story to showcase Kaye's talents. In a letter to Life magazine, Thurber expressed his considerable dissatisfaction with the script, even as Goldwyn insisted in another letter that Thurber approved of it.
A 1947 radio adaptation of the movie, with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo reprising their roles, was performed on The Screen Guild Theater. Because the show was a half hour, including commercials, Kaye's extraneous routines are minimized, making it more like the original story. Even closer to the original story is a 1944 radio adaptation from This Is My Best, with Robert Benchley as the daydreaming Mitty.
20th Century Fox produced and Ben Stiller directed an adaptation of the book in 2013, with Stiller starring as Mitty. Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Sean Penn also appear in the film. Filming took place in Manhattan and the Bronx in May 2012 and in Iceland from July to September 2012. The film was released on December 25, 2013 in the US and in other countries. The film had a production budget of $90 million.
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was adapted for the stage by Thurber as part of the 1960 Broadway theater revue A Thurber Carnival. The sketch, which closed the show except for "Word Dance Part II", was nearly identical to the short story, except that at the end he cleverly avoids being shot. The original cast for the sketch was as follows:Peggy Cass as Mrs. Mitty
Tom Ewell as Walter Mitty
Paul Ford as Mr. Pritchard-Mitford and The Leader
John McGiver as Dr. Renshaw
Wynne Miller as Nurse
Peter Turgeon as Narrator, Lt. Berg, and Dr. Remington
Charles Braswell as Dr. Benbow
The story was again adapted for the stage in 1964, this time by Joe Manchester. This musical version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty depicts Mitty at age 40, tempted by "would-be chanteuse" Willa De Wisp to leave his wife Agnes and really live "the Secret Life". It features 17 songs, with lyrics by Earl Shuman and music by Leon Carr. The musical opened off-Broadway at the Players Theatre on October 26, 1964, and ran for 96 performances. Time magazine referred to the musical's plot as having been "boldly extrapolated" from the short story, and called the result "a thoroughly pleasant musical evening". Columbia Records issued an original cast recording on LP, also dated 1964.