Metaphor and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Feature Film starring and directed by Ben Stiller

October 20, 2015

Written by Philip Kemp

The ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a 2013 feature film starring and directed by Ben Stiller. The film is based loosely upon the famous short story by James Thurber of the same title, which was published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939 (and which is available to read free of charge on The New Yorker’s website).  

The scenes presented in the film are largely action-based and designed to cater to a broad audience, and the subtext of the film to some degree represents the sentiments of the short story. There are, however, substantial differences between the brilliant short story and this filmic attempt at profundity by Hollywood.

Tired of his monotonous job producing photos for publication, the title character of Walter Mitty in the film, played by Ben Stiller, daydreams of spectacular and exciting adventures. Downsizing executive, Ted Hendricks, is brought into the company to oversee the last print edition of the magazine before the publication is moved online.

The protagonist in the short story is possibly somewhat autobiographical and  Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998, pp. 85-87) have posited that Thurber may himself have suffered from Charles Bonnet Syndrome or ‘visual release hallucinations’ where people with partial or complete blindness are subject to detailed and involved hallucinations such as those described in the short story and represented in the film.


Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998) concede that Thurber was engaging metaphor in his story-telling. They also assert, however, that Thurber ‘really did experience all those haunting visions’ (p. 87) as a result of Charles Bonnet syndrome. Regardless of the medical diagnosis of the author, the boundless imaginings represented in the film can definitely be interpreted metaphorically through careful analysis. There are mythological echoes in the film which sound deep in the psyche of the viewer when the symbolic code is clearly discerned.

The daydreams of Walter Mitty can be reductively regarded in a simple, literal sense as the result of a hallucinatory condition or simply as mere daydreams. However, if interpreted metaphorically then a more resonant and intriguing meaning emerges.

The so-called ‘daydreams’ by the protagonist where he slips into electrifying action sequences (at one point the protagonist is fleeing a volcano erupting in Iceland at high speed on a longboard) can actually be interpreted as delusions resulting from a more elemental need to escape from a restrictive, monotonous and soul-destroying existence enchained in the milieu of a magazine company in corporate America.  Events reach a crescendo with the economic rationalist downsizing of staff at the company and we are exposed to an intense and protracted series of action sequences which can be read as a symbolic descent by the protagonist into total delusion. This state of acute delusion can be perceived as deep, soul-driven and emotional dissent of the greed-driven inhumanity of the corporate change managers who have invaded the protagonist’s workplace. ‘Life’ magazine (and life as Walter Mitty knows it) is about to end painfully unless the protagonist can ‘save the day’.

Unfortunately, this interesting metaphorical material could have been more deftly handled in the screenwriting and direction of the film. Ultimately, the film fails as a sophisticated and cohesive symbolic narrative due to some clumsy, blatant and overt referencing. In addition, the film amounts to little more than a diluted hybrid of the action-adventure romantic comedy genre. Ben Stiller’s film carries good intentions, however, and provides some satisfying moments of meaningful and deliberate social commentary. There are also a number of comedic and dramatic scenes which should entertain. A resounding lesson from this flawed but honourable film is that we as a society need to sustain our ability to approach texts with a symbolic, metaphorical and mythological focus. In doing so, we can properly value, respect and glean wisdom about life from our art as we humans have been doing since the beginning of time.  

Reference List

Ramachandran, V . & Blakeslee, S 1998, Phantoms in the brain: probing the mysteries of the human mind, William Morrow, NY.


Philip Kemp is a Lecturer in Literature at Trinity College and also has an interest in contemporary film. In 2006, he travelled to the Cannes Film Festival immediately after walking 800kms across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. His review of the Australian Indigenous feature film, Jindabyne, which premiered at the festival, was published nationally in Australia.

One Response to “Metaphor and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Feature Film starring and directed by Ben Stiller”

  1. […] volume continues with a series of critical film and TV series reviews: In his sharp criticism: Metaphor and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Feature Film starring and directed by Ben Stiller, Philip Kemp highlights the importance of approaching text “with a symbolic, metaphorical and […]

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