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Oh, it was such a wonderful life

Today, one of the world's greatest fantasists takes flight again.

Ben Stiller plays the title role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the second film of James Thurber's classic short story about the hapless, hen-pecked suburban husband who escapes the humdrum chores of everyday life by immersing himself in a rich inner world in which he is cool, brave, handsome, intelligent, sophisticated and - "'Not so fast! You're driving too fast!' said Mrs Mitty".

Ah yes, such a simple idea, so deftly handled. Each set up and little denouement in the original story is a delight.

First published in the New Yorker in 1939 and reprinted in Reader's Digest in 1943, it is arguably one of the most commercially successful short stories ever written. It's only 2,097 words long, so the dollar rate per syllable over the years must be impressive. Thurber himself said it was his favourite piece and the New York Times republished it in full as his obituary when he died in 1961.

Mitty was first made into a film in 1967, starring Danny Kaye, and there was also a radio and stage adaptation, and briefly, an opera.

During the war, US servicemen took the story to their hearts, forming Walter Mitty clubs and societies. Bomber pilots in the South Pacific identified with Mitty who, in one of his fantasies, steered "the eight-engined Navy hydroplane through the worst storm in 20 years".

They even made "ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" (the glorious noise the engines made as Commander Mitty "revs her up to 8,500") their password.

Indeed, this sound itself is worth an aside. If you put "ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" into Google, it takes you straight to the story, surely a kind of onomatopoeiaic fame. Or at least, it would be if such a concept, or word, existed. But in the world of Mitty, you are allowed to get away with such things.

The story has been endlessly anthologised and read in English classes in schools, and today sits on the Penguin Modern Classic list (alongside that other fantasist, Morrissey).

Most famously of all, of course, the description Walter Mitty has entered the language to refer to "a person who fantasizes about a life much more exciting and glamorous than their own life".

The film may well be dire, but it doesn't matter. Walter Mitty will always live on because there's a little bit of him in all of us.

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