Hero’s Journey – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)  is based on a short story by James Thurber. In the movie version, Walter Mitty is a “negative assets manager” at Life magazine – his job is to document and archive photo negatives, as well as deliver them to the photo department for  publication in the magazine. Walter is a guy who’s kind of just coasting through life – managing his elderly mother’s budget and trying to work up the courage to send a “wink” to his online (and office) crush. He’s also a complete  space cadet. He  daydreams himself into the photos he sees daily, always ending up as a hero saving either the office staff or his crush, Cheryl, from the “dragon” – in this case, the nasty  layoff manager Ted.  When it is announced that most of the employees will be laid off after Life ceases to publish paper copies of the magazine and goes fully digital, Walter’s last job is to deliver a negative that captures the “quintessence” of Life and will be the last cover photo.  Unfortunately for Walter, that negative – sent to him personally by the legendary photojournalist Sean O’Connell – is missing. Thus begins our unlikely hero’s journey to find the missing photograph before he loses his job. Walter Mitty Awkward Office GuyThere are a few scenes that stood out to me after learning to recognize the Hero’s Journey stages.  Walter’s call to adventure begins when his job is threatened after discovering that the negative of the last cover photo of Life is missing. He sets out to find O’Connell and almost immediately refuses to answer his call – boarding a helicopter to take him to the ship where O’Connell is rumored to be on. (In his defense, the pilot is not a sober man.) However, one of his daydreams takes over and he sees a vision of Cheryl urging him on (his supernatural aid),  and before he knows it, he’s jumping on the helicopter as it lifts off. From here, his road of trials begins as he tracks O’Connell through multiple countries, shark-infested waters, a volcano, a quick command  stop back in New York,  and finally to the Himalayas, where he finds that O’Connell doesn’t actually have the negative (his belly of the whale moment). O’Connell tells  Walter that the negative was inside the wallet that the photojournalist sent  him as a gift for all  of  the years of dedicated work Walter put in at Life. Defeated, Walter  heads  home, only to get stuck in LA  (due to a little misunderstanding with security), which results in a Refusal of the Return  moment:  with no job and no negative, why is he even going home?  During his  previous stop in New York, Walter had been fired for failing to recover the negative and had thrown away the wallet in despair. However, his mother saved it and upon Walter’s return home, gave it back to him (the Rescue from Without). In an example of the Freedom to Live, Walter rushes the negative to the photo department at Life and finally faces his dragon by telling off  the nasty “corporate transistion manager” Ted. He walks away ready to face the world with Cheryl by his side.

Ben Stiller in Walter Mitty

2. As far as current cinema meeting the four functions of mythology? I’ve seen a handful of movies that could claim this (like How to Kill a Mockingbird), but I think  these days movies are pure entertainment. From The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Independence Day to Die Hard, and even the sappy romance comedies, cinema in the present day really isn’t about deep soul searching but the bottom line; how many explosions and pretty superstars can Hollywood put in a movie to appeal to the most people and therefore make the most money? My feeling is that books have overtaken the four functions of mythology as their own again, and will probably continue until cinema catches up.

5 thoughts on “Hero’s Journey – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

  1. Jared

    “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” sounds quite humorous and eventful. Consider taking up a career in advertisement. From your description, I can see that three different platforms took place throughout the “Return” phase of the story. I had initially thought that there would be one type of return per story, but after reading your description, I feel this has been duly clarified and I thank you for that.

    I also, agree with you on the point of view you take on modern cinema. Entertainment has definitely become the primary focus, besides making money. Thank goodness for books and the creative thought of the artists who write them.

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  2. Cas

    NOOOO! I haven’t seen the Secret Life of Walter Mitty yet but really want to, I wanted to read this but also didn’t :/ But well done corresponding modern life to the hero’s life, a guy working in an office is no less of a hero=)

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  3. bdfleagle

    Amy,
    Well done! I like your analysis of Walter Mitty, I think it is spot on! You’ve also said what I was thinking, but didn’t say until the last sentence in my piece, that the movie industry is making a mockery of myths and stories. I watch movies with my children, we select them together and when we choose to say “no” to certain movies, I make sure they understand why. Some parents are shocked that I let my kids watch very dramatic, some times highly rated films, but they let their children watch all kinds of mindless junk which I refuse to let my children view, nor do they want to. The film industry is producing content for money sake. It remains in the realm of social responsibility to filter what is considered a part of the mythical role and what is not. I wonder if the scribe, chipping out Gilgamesh on stone was influenced by a few extra shekels?

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  4. emrickrachel

    I love that movie! I can definitely see Walter’s Heroic Journey and I think you are spot on in that. However, I think you are overlooking the truly powerful movies my focusing on the ones created solely to satisfy the masses. There are many undiscovered films which seek to give viewers insight into the needs of humankind and how to go about achieving those needs.

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  5. Jennifer Popa

    I love this! While I haven’t seen this film, it seems to fit the bill and is one of the less obvious choices when one considers films that follow the traditional hero’s journey.

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