The lights in the theater darkened so that the glowing black of the screen was the only illumination. Multiple noises began to cease, rustling candy wrappers hushing, settling shoe soles snacking against dried soda, settling fabrics brushing seatbacks. The film critic dashed off notes on a reporter’s pad.
This passion project faces high expectations. How will Stiller stretch this short story out to feature length? I doubt it can retain the core of the original. I wonder how he pitched it.
The lavishly appointed Hollywood meeting room erupts in applause and cheerful congratulation. The executive had just explained the gist of the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about an office worker who feels ignored by his peers, but is secretly awesome, and eventually shares his secret awesomeness with the rest of the world. The chief, able to greenlight projects without checking with anyone, smiles with round shining cheeks. No champagne is popped, but the atmosphere in the room is one of champagne-popping.
A script reader standing against the wall at the far end of the room clears his throat. No one hears.
He stands more erect and declares, “Excuse me.”
People look at him with a question in their eyes: Who is this guy, and why is he at this meeting?
“But it seems to me it misses the point of the original. The story isn’t about secretly being awesome. It’s about secretly wishing you were awesome. The heroism, if that’s the word for it even, comes from enduring the distance between fantasy and reality. Feeling the pull of all the dreams we didn’t follow and all the successes we didn’t have, and then living through the day anyway.”
They scowl at him.
“After all, what’s so heroic if you actually are an acknowledged master of your profession? And I’ll be he even gets the girl! Walter Mitty is acknowledged by no one except strangers he vexes on his errands and his wife who barely tolerates him. That’s what’s great in it–it’s about carrying on in the presence of the way you wish things could be.”
“My god,” the chief intones. “We should make the movie…”
“The movie’s started! Put that thing away,” the film critic’s girlfriend whispered.
He whispered back, “My job,” and continued taking notes.
Ben Stiller as Mitty on a dating web site. Life looks pretty ordinary. Fantasy of saving a dog from a burning building, impressing the girl. So far so good. Adam Scott as the dick representative of the guys who bought the magazine where Mitty works. LIFE. Negative Asset Manager. The subtext is erupting through into the text pretty hard.
Oh, god. And now the great nature photographer is thanking Mitty for years of hard work and giving him a wallet with the movie’s motto on it? Who wrote this?
The Script Doctor, MFA in Screenwriting, leaves the meeting with the head of 20th Century Fox. Of course they would call him. He passes Carl Maas, internationally known for suggesting that Star Wars should include droids, who gulps and ducks into the men’s room rather than stand in the presence of the Doctor. (“Droids,” he’d said to Carl, “How pedestrian.”)
His version of the script is stripped down, just as it should be. No girl. No special negative. Just Mitty being laid off. Searching for jobs. Trying to make ends meet on a severance package threatening to run out after a week at most.
OPEN ON: Int. office floor. Day.
It burdens me to announce that after this issue, our magazine will cease production, and we will be eliminating all staff.
Ext. Sidewalk outside office building. Evening.
MITTY walks alone, heading for the train. We see his face suddenly light up with an idea. He turns and he is a UNION ORGANIZER, speaking to a crowd of distraught EMPLOYEES.
We don’t have to take this lying down.
But what can we do?
Organize! We can buy out the magazine ourselves and run it better than management.
Don’t you know who this is? This is Walter Mitty, the Agitator, the one who got lifetime tenure for baristas across the United States! With him we can do anything!”
The film critic’s girlfriend was staring at him.
He whispered, “What?”
“With your pen scratching I can’t hear anything.”
He nodded. He tried to write with less pressure. Movie is competently done, but I feel outside of it. Maybe I have unfair expectations. But real Mitty’s fantasies were detached from his life. Here they are firmly connected. Fantasies of impressing the real girl who he then meets. Fantasies of overpowering the real boss, who he eventually (I assume) will overpower.
The real Mitty’s fantasies were about having respect, about being composed and supremely competent. Oh no.
There was a park on the screen. Wiig stood in the foreground. Her son was letting Mitty try out his skateboard. While Wiig talked on her phone, Mitty was pulling off cool, difficult skateboard tricks.
Is this a fantasy? Mitty should not be cool. But it seems like this Mitty is a cool skateboarder now? And what’s this now, a Benjamin Button reference? The fantasies so far are all about things he wants for his life, or joke vehicles, or both. Now Sean Penn is beckoning from a photo, and I think I know where this leads. Away from the movie I hoped for.
The Director (his colleagues call him The Prime Director, because of the time in the 1960s when he saved the idea of Star Trek from obscurity) takes the golden statue of Oscar (his twelfth) with appreciative fingers. After the generous applause, he says: “A lot of people wanted me to make an ordinary typical film with an ordinary typical story. You know how it is–the constraints of what the studios think audiences will accept. When I suggested making a movie about the real experience of everyday life? They laughed. But I wanted to make a movie about a man suffering the ordinary–the real–setbacks of life today. Losing his job. Experiencing the scorn and mockery of those who consider themselves his betters. And, in the end, all he has to comfort himself with are fantasies of a different life. Some people got it, and the others, well. The others are all looking for jobs now, and I have this. I thank you for all your…”
“…all you’re going to do?”
The Film Critic shifted down a few seats. Mitty went through more and more adventurous scenarios. He boarded a helicopter to the lyrics of “Space Oddity.” Leapt forth into shark-infested waters in the pursuit of the mysterious nature photographer. “That really happened,” he said, touching the face of a man who rescued him from the shark.
What are we even doing now? How many movies are there already that say, leap out into the world, follow your dreams, and you can’t imagine what would happen. The original Mitty knows what really happens. You don’t follow your dreams. You fulfill your responsibilities. And then you arrive at a life where the only presence your dreams have is as temporary balms for a battered spirit.
It wasn’t a bad movie, really. The disappointment I felt was all in the gap between the story, which acknowledges that we live our regular lives with occasional glances at images of the lives we’ve dreamed of, and the movie, where Mitty crosses that boundary early on and lives the life he’s imagined. There’s a difference.
Maybe the movie is the fantasy. In the movie dreams come true. Then the lights come up and we collect ourselves. Our girlfriend is glancing at us, clearly having second thoughts. We’ve got to go now and get to work on a story almost no one will read. People jostle us as we make our way to the aisle. The red EXIT sign glows at the top of the ramp, above the shadowed hall. We plod up, defiant to the last, to face a squad of ordinary days.