The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 16, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Everyone loves a hero, right up until the moment they complete whatever quest they were on. Then love turns to resentment. That’s why the hero never sticks around for too long afterwards. He ends up alone, on some remote mountaintop, brooding. He’s seen things, man—things you couldn’t begin to understand.

Mountaintops and other remote locations are appropriate places to store used heroes because keeping them close is either pathetic or annoying. Sometimes they end up like Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico, trying to relive their former glory until someone is forced to tell them no one cares any more. It’s better if they aren’t here so we can admire them from a distance.

This is the lesson at the end of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo leaves the Shire for the Undying Lands never to be seen again, probably because people got tired of him always bringing the whole ring thing up in casual conversation. It’s also why in last year’s remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, professional cool guy Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has hardly any screen time.

Sean is what Lacan would call Walter Mitty’s ideal ego, the point of identification that Walter strives to emulate. Sean is a photojournalist who works in exciting locations around the globe, and Walter is his bureaucratic counterpart at Life magazine, the negative asset manager who does the boring, safe, predictable work of receiving Sean’s work and preparing it for publication. The only moment of excitement in poor Walter’s life is when the negative for the cover photo of the final print issue of Life magazine goes missing. Sean is inaccessible by phone, so Walter is propelled out of his comfort zone and through the wilds of Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas to track him down.

The adventure transforms him from a self-conscious office schlub to what Patton Oswalt’s Eharmony consultant character describes as “Indiana Jones decided to become the lead singer of the Strokes.” It’s a misstep for the film. When the protagonist ends up cooler than the audience, we start resenting him.

When Walter was dull, we empathized with his shortage of cool sounding details to add to his online dating profile. We cheered for him as he overcame his limitations and seized the day. But then it turned out he overcame them a little too completely. If had just ridden off into the sunset to brood on some mountaintop, that would have been fine, but instead he came back and now we have to hear about how he’s getting 300 “winks” on his dating profile and see how impressed the TSA agents are when they hear he traveled through dangerous Yemen. And to top it all off, the final cover of Life is a photo of him! He’s now the “quintessence” of the magazine’s motto: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”

At this point, we no longer care about Walter Mitty. He’ll probably swagger up to his love interest and blow her mind with his charisma, or maybe he won’t, but it won’t matter because he’s far too cool. So let’s just let him pick up his trophy and ship him off to the Undying Lands with the rest of the heroes.

This wasn’t a problem for the Walter Mitty of 1947. Danny Kaye played him as a bit of an idiot, an ineffectual and boyish dreamer coping with the unexpected side effects of his talent for telling stories, so when he triumphs in the end, the audience is still on his side.

Not so with Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty, because his thirst for adventure isn’t a personal eccentricity. It’s 2013, and being notable and fascinating is a social imperative that imposes on all of us. For us today, seeming cool, interesting and adventurous on social media websites is mandatory, and just like Walter Mitty can’t get a date, we risk social exclusion of one kind of another if we fail to live up to the standard. The tone shifted from goofy, slapstick comedy to earnest, wistful longing because adventure, travel and thrill seeking has become much more important. In 1947, it was a weird quirk. In 2013, it has somehow come to be regarded as the very purpose of life.

So now the movie is interpreted as “life-affirming” and “optimistic”. But why? At the risk of sounding cynical, this alleged optimism is the dream of becoming one of the impossibly cool guys, facing down the threat of ending up as one of millions of ordinary, anonymous people. Your purpose in life is to make your mark, to be noticed as different and special, but for that to happen, the standard has to be extraordinarily high. It has to be inaccessible to the vast majority of people. Walter Mitty’s dreams probably aren’t realistic for someone who isn’t rich, well-educated, able-bodied and tolerant of high levels of risk and uncertainty.

If, for example, you had a medical condition, a family that depended on you, an aging parent you were taking care of or simply a job that you wanted to hold on to, you might be less inclined to spend weeks in the Himalayas. And that, of course, is the whole point. If everyone could do that, then it wouldn’t make you special—it’s a lifestyle as a status symbol in the purest sense.

Why should we feel that this is life-affirming? Wouldn’t it be better if our cultural expectations for living a good and worthwhile life were actually somewhat achievable for everyone?