Life Magazine and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller is a 2013 adaptation of a short story by James Thurber, first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1939. Actually this is the second film adaptation of the story, the first, starring Danny Kaye was released in 1947. Both films deal with introverted editors with a penchant for fantasy and daydreaming, Kaye’s Mitty is employed by Pierce Publishing as an editor while Stiller’s Mitty character is employed by Life Magazine as a “Negative Assets Manager” which, in the film, is another title for a – sort of – photo editor.

Overall, I enjoyed both films, but I have a bit of an issue with the 2013 version, and, no, I don’t care how accurately it does or does not follow the original 1939 Thurber story, or the 1947 film.

Life Magazine was an inestimable cultural influence. Though the magazine was published continuously  from 1883-1972, its real “life” as a daily influencer (as we would probably call it now) was from 1936 onward when it was purchase by Time Inc. magnate Henry Luce. In fact during its heyday as a weekly publication the magazine sold some 13.5 million copies per month. In October 1978 the magazine was revived as a monthly, published until 2000

The original motto of Life Magazine published with its first issue in 1883 was;

“Where there’s Life, There’s hope”

Far from what we are told in the 2013 film version. In fact the film tries to portray the era in which Life was transitioning from being a Sunday supplement (think Parade Magazine or USA Weekend) with occasional special issues commemorating its past, to a strictly online presence. This 2004-2007 era is the time period for the 2013 film. During this period, Life’s motto actually was;

“America’s Weekend Magazine”

Certainly a far cry from what is purported in the film to be Life’s motto in the Stiller film;

Problematically, this motto has taken on a sort of “life” of its own. It seems that a lot of people are taking it as sort of a personal life mission statement attaching way more significance to it than it deserves. Sort of what happened with the 1993 novel The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. The internet is rife with innumerable trinkets and tchotchkes with the film’s motto variously etched, printed and engraved on them.

The truth of the matter is that during the planning of Life Magazine during its 1936 purchase, owner Henry Luce distributed an internal prospectus with the following statement;

“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed”.

Certainly more complex and evocative than the overly simplified lines than were given in the film and certainly stating the very essence of the “why” behind photography. 

Proof that simpler is not necessarily better.

So maybe the writers didn’t think the public could digest all of that? Maybe they oversimplified it to fit our modern attention span? I wholly prefer the real statement to the abbreviated one in the film as it is more than just a slogan, it has depth and meaning. Meaning enough to entice a sort of Hall of Fame of Photographers to shoot for the magazine over the years; Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, Gordon Parks were just a few of the photographers that were immortalized within the magazine’s pages practicing the “why” of photography.

Best quote from the movie?

Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t (take the picture). If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.

Stay safe and  see the world your own way.

Thanks for reading.