Rotten winter weather and a power out conspired to send me to the theater to see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It wasn’t a movie I’d planned to see. The premise didn’t inspire me. In the original Thurber short story, which I’d labored through in high school English, Walter Mitty daydreams, but to what point? Simply to escape his pedestrian life. To make a 21st century movie that provides a thrilling plot, emotional depth and satisfying character development out of Walter Mitty? Not possible.
Well, I was wrong. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty provides all three and it does it beautifully. It has little to do with the original short story beyond the premise that Mitty daydreams his way through life. In this version, Mitty is working at a dead end job in New York. Literally. He is responsible for acquiring the film negatives for print magazine. The movie opens with a crisis – the magazine is going digital, so Walter is now on the edge of redundancy. There is to be one last issue, using a specific negative for the cover. The negative is missing, so Walter must go on a quest. Yup, Walter Mitty the short story has evolved into Walter Mitty the hero’s journey.
When we think of movies using the hero’s journey structure, we usually think of young-hero-destroys-the-evil-empire-and-saves-the-world type stories. The beauty of Walter Mitty is that it’s an emotional quest. Because of the quest Walter the dreamer experiences real life adventures and proves to himself that he can cope with anything that comes his way. He learns to act instead of thinking and succeeds because he looks deep inside himself to find skills and strengths he never before valued. At each step in his quest his understanding of himself grows until the original purpose is transformed into a realization that he is much more than the job he has been doing for so many years.
At the beginning of the movie Walter is a quiet, unassuming man few people notice. His life was banal, his potential unrealized. He shows it in body language, inappropriate responses in conversations, inadequate reactions to the taunts of the corporate bully sent to revamp the magazine. By the end of the movie Walter is still a quiet man, but now he has an air of confidence about him that leaves the audience certain that as he moves forward the decisions he makes will be ones he chooses in order to achieve the goals he sets for himself.
Laced with humour and filled with secondary characters who are offbeat enough to stand out, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a joy to watch and a film I’d recommend.