Journeys and Walter Mitty

Dare to step outside…without a mask!

03/27/2021. I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of life-changing journeys, especially as achieved in pilgrimage. Lord of the Rings is a classic example. Journey stories are a dramatic arch-type. It’s easy to understand why, with a journey being a metaphor for life. As with life, a person comes to the end of his journey wiser, devastated, or maybe he just continues in cluelessness. A lot can be said in fiction with this story type.

Pilgrimage stories are usually nonfiction. They tend to be memoirs of someone’s insightful journey, often on an historic pilgrimage, such as the Santiago de Compostela Camino. I have read and reviewed several of these accounts. I have never undertaken such a pilgrimage myself. That is a life regret for me.

It’s not so much that such a journey is no longer possible because of advancing age (though there is that), but because the world has changed. It has become a place hostile to the idea of individual insight gained through intentional ordeal. Also, the natural world—the inspiration ultimately at the heart of pilgrimage—is marred by the onslaught of human agendas (such as geoengineering, “pandemic” lock-downs, The Great Reset). These works of evil hide the beauty of nature and stifle personal resolve for spiritual growth.

NEVERTHELESS, I have recently reconsidered some of my “journey story” inspirations. Maybe I’m just looking for inspiration in the face of the world coming apart at the seams. So last week, I reposted my book review of Robyn Davidson’s Tracks. I have done a few book reviews on pilgrimage memoirs and journey accounts that have touched me over the years. Most disappeared with my previous website, so I may repost them here with some commentary.

The following is a “Ray’s Journal” post from January 1, 2014 where I review the Ben Stiller movie of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I saw this movie at Christmastime in 2013 with my family and we all enjoyed it. I still recommend it as an inspirational comedy-drama.

A movie by Ben Stiller
Review by Ray Foy

Unrealized potential may be the hardest thing for a person to face in this life. If, as the Buddhists say, the root of life’s sorrow is its impermanence, then reaching one’s later years with no feeling of accomplishment can bring a profound sadness. It is an unstamped passport, an empty travel journal, or a backpack never used.

All of those images are in Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I saw the movie recently with my family and we all enjoyed it. In fact, we saw it in a full theater and I picked up on a positive energy from the entire audience. There were a lot of communal laughs that I haven’t heard at a movie in a long time. It was like everyone was really into the show and just expressing their enjoyment without being aware of the others around them. I take that as a sign of a well-made movie and this one certainly is.

The character of Walter Mitty is so ingrained in popular thought that the name is a metaphor for someone who is a dreamer in the sense of a “wannabe.” The common expression is “Walter Mitty type” when describing someone who fantasizes about being someone else, usually a more exciting persona. The dreamer’s desire is motivated by a wish to escape dull or otherwise unpleasant circumstances that he or she feels are imprisoning. His ability to make his escape is all but nil, so there is an element of tragedy in that fantasies are all he has. Don Quixote, on the other hand, at least acted on his dreams in a concrete way, though it often earned him a beating. He was not just dreaming the impossible dream, he was attempting to live it.

I think more of us identify with Walter Mitty than with Don Quixote. We dream because that’s all we can do. We don’t have the means or the freedom to truly live in earnest, so we keep quiet and leave our debt-financed Land Rover in the parking garage while we spend the day in our cubicle.

Ben Stiller’s movie starts with this more-tragic image, showing Mitty as a photo negative processor at Life magazine. He’s 42, works in the basement, is threatened with job loss when Life is taken over by new management, and he can’t even work up the courage to send an e-harmony wink to a coworker he has the hots for (when he does, it doesn’t go through). His e-harmony profile is devoid of “things done.” These negatives prompt Mitty’s escapist imaginings (with much high-tech embellishment) as he “zones out” in stressful situations.

But Mr. Stiller doesn’t leave us with a trapped, disillusioned Walter Mitty. For all his problems, Walter has potential. He is smart, resourceful, imaginative, and even a skilled skateboarder. He just needs the courage and motivation to cross the line into a fulfilling life (don’t we all believe that?).

This scenario is common in movies, where the bored and boring protagonist comes into his own by finding adventure, love, etc. This is the essence of “coming of age” stories (re: Star Wars). It can make for a predictable and sappy story, but Mr. Stiller doesn’t fall into that trap. He could have, had he made Walter’s “breakout” be a mission to save the world, or rescue the heroine from terrorists, or right some huge wrong. But Mitty doesn’t need to save the world, just himself.

So Mr. Stiller doesn’t send him chasing the Holy Grail. He goes looking for one of the magazine’s photographers, Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn), as part of his search for a lost photo negative meant to be the cover for Life’s final print issue. Walter’s search takes him globe-trotting and so he finally gets his passport stamped, fills his travel journal, and makes good use of his backpack. More important, he experiences life and stops zoning-out.

I’ve identified with Walter Mitty ever since I read Thurber’s story in High School. I expect that’s true of many people, just judging by the audience reaction in the movie theater. But though Walter Mitty or Don Quixote characters are enjoyed in stories, they are often condemned in life as aimless dreamers. Yet the character persists in our entertainments. I think that’s because some of us realize that it’s better to dream of an ideal, than live a delusion and believe it’s real.

I consider The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to be Ben Stiller’s best movie. I like that he made Mitty’s redeeming activity to be travel, rather than fighting aliens or saving the president or some such. It makes Mitty’s personal journey more identifiable. This is underscored by the realistic feel of the travel scenes (even when dealing with sharks and volcanoes; and they’re funny–I especially liked the scene with the drunken helicopter pilot).

In the movie, Mitty is prompted to step outside his “box” by his need to track down O’Connell. He is reluctant at first, because finding O’Connell will require some world travel, starting with his last known whereabouts, Greenland. Life opens up to him when Mitty takes the plunge. And I can relate, to a degree. When my wife and I were talking about a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico back in 2012, I felt the inertia of fear and self-doubt about making such a trip. But I bit the bullet and did it, and got my passport stamped for the first time. When the trip was done and we were flying back, I was ready to keep going and see other places. I think our sons had a similar experience when they spent a couple of months in China. So, like Mitty, I can find the courage to step out-of-doors, and even be taken by the wanderlust.

I liked that Stiller cast Shirley MacLaine in the role of Walter Mitty’s mother. That casting embraces the movie’s “travel broadens the mind” theme because MacLaine is a restless world traveler, seeker, and author. Those are things I would love to be as well, and I suppose many people feel the same. A few realize these activities and compose their identities from their experience of the wider world. The rest of us just dream.

Published by Ray Foy

SciFi writer, blogger, book reviewer, author of "Power of the Ancients"

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