[Note: This post contains spoilers for the movie so if you plan to see it and don’t want it ruined, stop reading.]
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is based on a short story of the same name written by James Thurber and published in the New Yorker in 1939. In the film, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a negative assets manager for Life magazine which is in the process of transitioning to a completely digital publication. For the final physical print, Life plans to run a cover photo from the world-renowned photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who has a long-term, yet impersonal relationship with Mitty, the developer of his photographs.
The film sets out to explore meaning through the eyes of its protagonist. Like many, Walter Mitty is a man plagued by disappointment as neither his work nor his experiences are by any means glamorous. To escape, he exercises his vivid imagination by daydreaming about what life could have been. There he rescues small animals from burning buildings, scales snowy mountains, fights obnoxious co-workers, and smoothly charms his attractive co-worker (Kristen Wiig). Each dreamlike sequence momentarily celebrates the creativity of Mitty’s imagination before returning to the sadness of his own discontentment in developing photographs and caring for his widowed mother.
Mitty’s problem isn’t merely the fact that he leads a routine and ordinary life; it’s that he hates living a routine and ordinary life. Yet, despite his misgivings he lacks the courage to take the risk of pursuing change. Fortunately for him, the opportunity is brought his way when the film negative for Life’s final cover photo goes missing and he embarks on a journey to track down the nomadic O’Connell in the hopes of securing an additional copy.
His travels take him to Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan where he narrowly escapes a volcanic eruption, fights off a shark attack, and scales the Himalayan Mountains. All the while, his daydreaming grows increasingly distant. In terms of life trajectory, O’Connell is very much his opposite. Whereas Mitty offices out of a dark room and analyzes film negatives behind magnified lenses, O’Connell is a man without boundaries. He goes where he wishes and lives life on his own terms without any hindrance, not even a cellphone.
Yet, the film never forces us to takes sides. O’Connell’s reckless, adrenaline-laced pursuits aren’t exemplified as a life full of meaning. Rather, both Mitty and O’Connell are utilized to offer a plea for contentment and presence, a posture that requires courage because it is rooted in ideals often frowned upon. For all of his daydreaming, Mitty never imagines himself as someone else. He simply dreams of a better version of his own self. And yet, as O’Connell’s final photographic masterpiece is revealed the film shows that meaning is not so much a matter of experience as perspective because even what is seemingly ordinary in life holds important significance when viewed through the proper lens.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty teaches that the small and ordinary matters just as much as that which is celebrated for its grandeur. O’Connell could not have come to enjoy his renown as a photographer without someone committed to the behind-the-scenes work of properly developing his pictures. True meaning is found in a commitment to what we have been given. It is not defined by personal circumstance, but by the One who creates circumstance.
God shows us that he cares for both the grand and the ordinary by powerfully speaking the universe into existence and then stepping into the limitations of his own creation to live as the son of a common artisan for 30 years before any of the notably significant events recorded in the New Testament. Because of this, everything matters regardless of what others may say or think.
Life is a great adventure we’re invited to participate in on a daily basis. Sometimes that will take us to far and foreign lands and sometimes it will simply bring us back to our front door. Our meaning, like Mitty’s, is discovered in contentment and presence with what we have been given. It’s found in love, service, and relationships, the most important being with the God who cast each of us in a unique role to contribute to the story he continues telling today.