In James Thurber's wonderfully simple original story, meek Walter Mitty doesn't inherit the Earth. He drives into Waterbury, Conn., with his overbearing wife for her weekly visit to the beauty parlor (and the humdrum chores she assigns him), during which Walter has a series of heroic daydream episodes by way of escape.
In the first, he's piloting a U.S. Navy plane in a storm. In the second, and funniest, he's a great surgeon called upon to perform a rare operation on a VIP:
"We're having the devil's own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt," Dr. Mitty is told by a colleague. "Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you'd take a look at him."
He does so, and agrees to assist. Suddenly, "a huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table with many tubes and wires, began to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa ... 'The new anesthetizer is giving way!' shouted an intern. 'No one in the East knows how to fix it!' Mitty sprang to the machine ... 'Give me a fountain pen!' he snapped. Someone did. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. 'That will hold for 10 minutes,' he said ... A nurse hurried over and whispered to Dr. Renshaw, and Mitty saw him turn pale ... 'Coreopsis has set in ... If you would take over, Mitty?' "
There's no such thing as "obstreosis," of course, and "coreopsis" is a flower, not a medical crisis. But never mind.
Next, Walter Mitty is a cool assassin on the witness stand in court. Then he's an RAF pilot bravely volunteering for a suicide mission. The topical World War II situation lends bittersweet relevance to the comedy:
"Capt. Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic. 'It's 40 kilometers through hell, sir,' said the sergeant. The pounding of the cannon increased ... from somewhere came the menacing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of the flame-throwers ..."
Finally, he imagines a glorious demise:
" 'To hell with the handkerchief,' said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette. Then ... faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last."
The 1947 film version of the story starred Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo (they should've held the Mayo). Thurber's script suggestions were ignored by producer Samuel Goldwyn, who tailored the tale to Kaye's strengths -- most notably his "Anatole of Paris" patter number. In a subsequent letter to Life mag, Thurber expressed much dissatisfaction with the movie.
"Mitty" was adapted for the stage by Thurber himself as part of his 1960 Broadway revue, "A Thurber Carnival." A 1964 musical version has Mitty, at 40, tempted by a chanteuse named Willa De Wisp. It ran off-Broadway for 96 performances.
Ben Stiller's Walter is macro. Thurber's was micro -- escaping the banal, not the evil. "You're driving too fast!" Mrs. Mitty tells her husband, whom we imagine to look like Thurber's dumpy henpecked cartoon men in general.
One day in the '90s at the New Yorker, where I'd gone for the final proofing of a long article, editor Robert Gottlieb took me over to see a carefully preserved doodle drawing of one such Mitteyesque figure on the wall by Thurber's old desk.
We stood (everyone stands) before the sacred little shrine in whimsical silence.