Theme: The Quintessence of Life
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie about life. It is about the life of Walter Mitty, the life of Life Magazine and the life of LIFE in all its deepest aspects. On all three levels the film asks one question: What is the quintessence of life? The answer it gives to each is profound. On the surface, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may appear to be a two-star comedy starring Ben Stiller. At its crux, it is a cinematic exploration on the essence of life.
The Loss of Life
In the opening scenes of the movie the audience is introduced to the main character, Walter Mitty. He has two lives . . . one is the very gray life of his ordinary everyday world - writing checks, trying to connect to others via the internet, and having no “resume” for eHarmony. Walter is just a “negative asset manager” who works in the basement of a gray building filled with lots of gray cubicles. His other life is lived in his vivid colorful imagination where he periodically “zones out” and goes on great adventures, all the while being his brave, creative self.
Walter Mitty works for Life Magazine which also has two lives. One is closing down, being phased out; its motto is:
“To see the world things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, to draw closer to find each other and to feel . . . That is the purpose of life.”
The life replacing Life Magazine is the new world of Life Magazine on line. It is epitomized by trendy little bearded men in gray suits who don’t even know the magazine’s motto. The lost life of Walter Mitty and the lost life of Life Magazine converge in these opening scenes with the loss of something precious to both of them . . . a tiny negative.
The Quintessence of Life
The film’s other major character, who is rarely seen but whose presence is always felt, is now introduced - the mysterious Sean O’Connell. He has been the star photographer for Life Magazine who has never been willing to speak with its executives, but now via a telegram has requested his negative #25 be given full consideration for the cover of the final issue.
The telegram arrives the same day a package arrives for Walter Mitty. It is a thank you gift to Walter from Sean O’Connell; the outside wrapper tells him #25 is “The Quintessence of Life”. Much to Walter’s dismay, #25 is missing from the other negatives and the only thing inside the wrapper is a wallet inscribed to him with the Life motto. The telegram upstairs and the missing negative downstairs intersect to become the inciting incident which sends Walter Mitty out of Life and into LIFE.
The Journey to find The Quintessence of Life
How does one go about finding the one who sees the world, but is rarely seen? This is Walter’s dilemma, for he is convinced that any hope of finding #25 is tied to finding the elusive photographer. The only clue Walter has are the three photographs he developed from the other negatives - a picture of a thumb, a picture of a boat name, and a picture of a piece of wood.
There is another one “who sees the world but is rarely seen” and that is Walter himself, Sean O’Connell’s partner. There are clues to his mysterious life as well. His mother is preparing to move and she unpacks “Walter’s box” finding an unused backpack, an empty travel journal and a picture of Papa John’s Pizza where Walter had his first job.
The clues to finding the mysterious Sean O’Connell and the clues to finding the lost Walter Mitty now merge into one quest to find the missing #25, “The Quintessence of Life”. The epic adventure begins with the first two O’Connell clues which force Walter to jump out of a helicopter into the waters off Greenland and to escape a volcanic eruption in Iceland.
The first clues for Walter’s life force him to return to a Papa John’s Pizza and the memory of his father’s death. His father died when Walter was 17, leaving no life savings and forcing the young Mitty to cut his hair, hang up his backpack and go to work. The loss of one life led to the loss of another.
It takes bravery and creativity to follow all the clues and go where the adventure is leading. The final O’Connell clue finds Walter pursuing the photographer in Afghanistan equipped with his backpack and journal. The journey is transforming him outwardly and inwardly. Even though he is climbing a mountain to find Sean, he is making a descent into the inner most cave of his heart to find the real Walter Mitty.
The Innermost Cave
Every Hero Journey has a stage where the hero comes to a crisis, often called the ordeal or the innermost cave. Christopher Vogler 1 explains it like this:
“The simple secret of the ordeal is this: Heroes must die so that they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth. In some way in every story, heroes face death or something like it: their greatest fears, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship, the death of an old personality. Most of the time, they magically survive this death and are literally or symbolically reborn to reap the consequences of having cheated death. They have passed the main test of being a hero”.
Walter comes to his ordeal when he finds Sean O’Connell high in the mountains of Afghanistan. The conversation between the two is the highlight of the movie; in it Walter faces his greatest fear, the failure of an enterprise, the end of a relationship and the death of an old personality.
O’Connell never tells Walter what was in #25 but he does give him a hint by comparing Walter to the snow leopard, the “ghost cat” he has patiently been observing. “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention”, but those who have eyes find their presence worth the wait.
The road back reveals the reborn Walter Mitty; he overcomes the authorities at the airport, meets and hugs his eHarmony friend Todd, finds #25 and delivers it on time and bravely confronts the insipid leader of the transition team with truth.
The movie ends with the revelation of what was in #25 “The Quintessence of Life” . . . it was a picture of Walter Mitty who was the very heart of Life Magazine. The Quintessence of Walter Mitty was his own heart which was reborn on a heroic journey of adventure, bravery and creativity.
The movie is a modern day parable on the heart as the wellspring of life. What is the essence of life? It is a heart that has been reborn; one that is flowing with the life it was originally created to have, a life of adventure, bravery, and creativity. Walter Mitty is the lost person of every man; death has dealt its blow to his heart and he has only a faint memory of real life in his zoned-out daydreams. The journey to find “the Quintessence of Life” led him to the mysterious Sean O’Connell who represents God in the parable. Walter walks away from that encounter with a new heart, a new identity and fully alive.
“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. “ (Proverbs 4:23)
Note 1: From The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler