Unravelling “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from a daydreamer’s perspective

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is often referred to as the classic depiction of immersive/maladaptive daydreaming. Originally a short story by James Thurber, it was published in The New Yorker in 1939. It has since been the inspiration for two films of the same name: one in 1947 and the other in 2013. I haven’t seen the 1947 film, but I have to admit to being disappointed with the 2013 version.

In the 2013 film, Walter Mitty’s daydreams revolve around his crush on a work colleague. The film starts promisingly enough – the first daydream we see involves Mitty rescuing his crush’s dog from her apartment building seconds before it explodes. But if this was intended to be a film about immersive daydreaming, going for a daydreaming-about-impressing-my-crush plot felt a bit tame. For sure, that’s a common theme for many of us, but I’d have loved the film to capture some of the more outlandish things we daydream about. In the film, Mitty’s daydreams seemed a little bit too firmly rooted in an idealised version of his real life; although he doesn’t initially have the courage to talk to his crush, she’s never really out of reach. The other thing that annoyed me is that eventually Mitty and his crush do get together, and then his daydreaming magically fades away. It felt like the film was saying that the way to stop daydreaming is to make your daydreams a reality. And we all know it isn’t that simple.

But for anyone who has been disappointed by the film, I would definitely recommend reading the original short story (which is freely available here).

The original short story covers a single day in the life of Walter Mitty – an ordinary day, where all he does in reality is accompany his wife on a shopping trip. But in his head, he’s a Navy Commander, a world-renowned doctor, the defendant in a court case and an airforce pilot, before he ends up facing a firing squad. Thurber beautifully captures the disconnect between Mitty’s real life and his imaginary worlds, and more particularly the disconnect between who Mitty is in real life and who he is in his head. There are several aspects to the original short story that I can really identify with. For example, Mitty can apparently drive safely while being completely immersed in the daydream, yet isn’t present enough to have a sensible conversation with his wife. And after he has dropped her off at the hairdressers, he drives around aimlessly – either he’s forgotten that she asked him to go shopping, or he’s just trying to prolong his daydreaming time.

I like the way that Mitty drops into a daydream every time his mind is not otherwise engaged. All those little moments, while driving the car or while waiting for his wife, whenever his real life isn’t demanding his complete focus, he’s in one of his daydream worlds. The tiniest things trigger him – driving past the hospital triggers a daydream about being a doctor, seeing a trial mentioned on the front page of a newspaper triggers a daydream about a court room. I also like the clear distinction between the real-life Mitty – who constantly forgets what he’s supposed to be doing and lets his wife boss him around – and the daydream Mitty – who is the hero of whatever scenario he chooses to put himself in. I get the feeling that Mitty identifies more with his daydream self than his real-life self, and his daydreams give him the sense of adventure that his real-life is clearly lacking.

The one thing that I didn’t relate to in the story is the way each of Mitty’s daydreams is unrelated to each of the others. He doesn’t seem to have plot lines that continue through multiple episodes of daydreaming. Whereas I think many of us have a consistent plot line that runs for months or years and that we return to time and time again.

Overall, though, I found the original short story to be an engaging and accurate portrayal of immersive/maladaptive daydreaming. I think James Thurber must have been an immersive daydreamer himself, or knew someone who was. I’m not sure I can say the same about the people who adapted the original short story to make a film about how to live happily ever after with your daydream crush.

But I’m left wondering one thing: is Walter Mitty an immersive daydreamer or a maladaptive one? I think in both the short story and the film, that’s a matter of interpretation. In the story, Mitty’s wife is clearly exasperated by his failure to be fully present with her, so you could argue that his daydreaming is harming their relationship, but it also seems to give his life a sense of meaning that is lacking in his real world. In the film, I think Mitty saw his daydreaming as negative and wanted to stop, but in the end it was his daydreams that gave him the courage to go after what he wanted in real life.

If you’ve seen the film and read the story, I’d be interested to know what you think. Do you relate more to the short-story Mitty whose real and daydream worlds will never meet, or the film Mitty who eventually makes his dreams come true? Or is your own experience something different from both of them?

2 thoughts on “Unravelling “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from a daydreamer’s perspective”

  1. Ok, my opinion is going to be a little useless I’m afraid. I didn’t read the story and I watched pieces of the film. Reason A) I dislike Ben Stiller, reason B)I recognise daydreaming in it (either maladaptive or immersive) and get very defensive about it.
    Contrary aparently to every other Maladaptive daydreamer, I do NOT look forward to Hollywood taking notice. I can foresee hords of young kids affirming they have that thing that was in some movie. Never will I ever believe there is an actual concern in those movies. And even when there doesn’t ned to be one (like in a comedy such as this one), the Hollywood “looting” bothers me.
    As a member of a few MaDD Facebook groups, I’ve had to see, almost every day, kids mixing concepts all the time. Daydreaming comes in more than one form and they want to be part of the next hype. I get it, it’s not their fault. Influencers hype mental disorders. Kids are triggered.
    But the looting of the audiovisual moguls bothers me.

    All that aside, the portrayal of MaDD in Walter Mitty means very little to me. I don’t daydream like that. That kind of DDs I only see when I put on my headphones and let the music take over. But I rarely do that anymore. I used to do that when I was a kid, and I think I stopped doing it right after in my teens. After that, my DDing is more functional and acts like a surviving tool. The adventurous character that saves the day means absolutely nothing to me.
    But one of the things I’ve seen in the groups is variety. How we all DD in a different way. Groups have shown me that DDing about Anime characters saving the world is as valid as MY kind of DDing. And that my kind of DDing is shared by many people around the world. Many times has Walter Mitty been mentioned in the groups and, though I don’t care about it at all, I realise some DDers do.

    Like I said before, I stay away from movies that touch MaDD because it puts me in a bad mood. But when I watched Joker, there it was. MaDD as I know it. Well, almost as I know it. Arthur doesn’t spend his whole day in a daydream, like I do. But when he does, he does it like me.
    The MaDD isn’t discussed, it isn’t even seen by those who don’t know what it is. They will call those parts of the movie “imaginary”, and I see MaDD.
    So almost unintentionally, Joker touches me waaaaaay more than Ben Stiller swimming with sharks.

    1. Ah, that’s interesting. I haven’t seen Joker – but I have seen it mentioned as a possible portrayal of MaDD, so it’s interesting that you identify with it.

      I agree with you though about the danger of glorifying or trivialising MaDD. I’d love the condition to be more widely known, but you’re right that any portrayal has to be done sensitively. We have enough problems already with people claiming that “everybody daydreams” and “you could stop if you wanted to”. The trouble is that people like feel-good films with happy endings.

Comments are closed.