When Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi released last year, there were many a claim that Yann Martel’s novel by the same name was “unfilmable” and what the team had achieved was nothing short of extraordinary - for it is easy for a writer to write and for the reader to imagine a scenario where a youngster is stuck on a boat with a full grown tiger. But showing the viewer the same visual without leaving much to the viewer’s imagination, and making it look convincingly believable, now that’s some task. The CGI-generated Richard Parker was so meticulously detailed that one couldn’t tell him from a real tiger, but that is something very much “filmable”, as long as one can afford high-end technology and skilled technicians and the VFX artists are given enough time to work on every single fiber on the animal’s body.
James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (which you can read in its entirety here: http://bnrg.eecs.berkeley.edu/%7Erandy/mitty.html, no spoilers as far as Ben Stiller’s film is concerned), on the other hand, follows the following structure: Commander Walter Mitty leads the crew on a navy ship through a hurricane - an act of heroism; next paragraph abruptly cut to Mitty having to listen to his wife’s trite remarks; transition to the next scene where Dr.Mitty saves a millionaire by virtue of his presence of mind in a surgery and so on, each scene being allotted a separate paragraph except for the last one where, through the seamlessness of the transition from one scene to another, we realise that it’s him daydreaming through the banality of everyday life.
These literary match cuts, such as the one where he asks the crew on the ship to speed up cut to his wife complaining that he’s driving the car too fast, are easy to buy when read and imagined by the readers, and add intrigue to the narrative. There are endless scenes in the movie where Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) finds himself in tricky situations, dreams about himself owning it in a heroic fashion and then, the harsh reality strikes like a jolt. But unlike the textual version, when the same scene is shown to a viewer in visual form, the cuts seem gimmicky and hard to take seriously. Part of the disbelief arises from the fact that Stiller doesn’t go for a surrealistic tone, but that was never the point in the first place. The dream-reality conundrum from the short story is nothing but milked for cheap “shock” moments in the movie, with the structure neither adding thematic depth to the narrative nor serving as a way into the protagonist’s mind (a la Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking).
The movie uses the short story merely as a set-up to tell its own story, a coming-of-age adventure drama about an absent minded simpleton. It’s the same old fluff about living life to the fullest, making each day count, realizing the beauty of life – and it is as banal as the protagonist’s life. In those long and painful two hours, I certainly could have used a dream or two.