Finding Beauty in the Ordinary: A Commentary on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The wonderful thing about the art of film is its potential to convey aspects of universal truth in almost any of its diverse array of genres. While this can certainly be said of most art forms, nowhere do those differences in genre feel more acute than in film. This article will examine an unlikely gem of somewhat recent years that may have received little fanfare upon release but, upon re-examination, has more to offer than initially meets the eye.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty began its journey to the big screen with a lengthy stint in a mire of production red tape, waiting almost 20 years to be green-lit as it was tossed from one director, studio, and potential lead to the next. The film drew its inspiration from James Thurber’s widely read 1939 short story of the same name. To many a dispirited high school student languishing away in the classroom, Walter Mitty’s exploits have proven most relatable. Thurber’s work describes a series of vivid daydreams experienced by Mitty, a rather bland and uninteresting sort of man, tasked with accompanying his wife on a series of mundane errands in the suburbs of a small Connecticut town. As the humdrum of ordinary life passes him by, Mitty dreams that he is anything from a daring bomber pilot, tasked with a suicide mission, to a noble revolutionary, dying for a great cause by firing squad. However, the story ends with his daydreams, bringing no change to his experience of reality.

Ben Stiller’s 2013 film recognizes the potential of Thurber’s main idea, the conflict between the mundaneness of reality and the life of one’s imagination, but develops the narrative into something more nuanced and heartfelt. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty could certainly be described as a “feel good” movie, but it would be a shame to simply leave it stuck with that appellation. On a purely visual level, the film is stunning, boasting snappy, colorful sequences which bring to life the world of the imagination with sweeping shots of epic mountain vistas all the way from Iceland to Afghanistan. It’s a heartwarming feature set on the most epic of canvases. 

The narrative follows Walter Mitty, the most ordinary of men, who has spent the last 16 years working the same job as Negative Asset Manager (developing film negatives) in the gloomy bowels of LIFE Magazine’s colossal Manhattan headquarters. In the brief exposition, the unremarkable nature of his life is brought into painful focus as he struggles to add any interesting personal detail to his online dating profile. The irony is clear as day for one who’s employer touts the motto “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” It’s a setup that will pay rich thematic dividends down the line. As with Thurber’s protagonist, Mitty’s ordinary day-to-day interactions are frequently interrupted with vivid daydreams. What sets the cinematic adaptation apart from the short story is the thematic revelation that what appears ordinary on the surface may in fact be quite extraordinary beneath. 

From the outset, the film highlights the conflict of the modern, the new, and the glitzy with the older, slower and more ordinary ways of approaching things. Mitty finds himself suddenly rendered obsolete amidst a ruthless corporate transition of LIFE magazine to a completely digital platform. With a probable layoff looming, he is tasked with developing a negative from legendary photographer Sean O’Connell for the last printed cover. To Mitty’s horror, O’Connell’s negative is missing, catalyzing Mitty’s ultimately transformative journey in search of it. O’Connell in many ways embodies an older, wiser and richer way of seeing things than what the contemporary world offers. He resists the allure of many modern conveniences, and, as Mitty discovers, understands the value in being fully present to appreciate the beauty of every ordinary moment.

In a world that is focused on casting aside the old for the new, O’Connell teaches Mitty a different way. Nowhere is this more clear than in the pivotal mountain scene where O’Connell decides to forgo the opportunity of a lifetime in capturing a rare snow leopard on film, telling Mitty that “Sometimes I don’t [take the picture]. If I like a moment…I mean, me, personally…I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. Just want to stay in it. Yeah, right there. Right here.”

In his commitment to being fully present to these ordinary moments, O’Connell teaches a profound lesson in recognizing the beauty in what may at the surface appear mundane or boring. “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” he tells Mitty. In the ultimate reveal (spoilers) of his final greatly anticipated magazine cover, O’Connell chooses to show none other than Walter Mitty in a most candid moment of ordinariness, sitting in front of the building on his lunch break. He recognizes the years of quiet, dedicated work Mitty has done behind the scenes to make the magazine the success that it is. Disdained as no longer relevant by LIFE’s new corporate overlords, the film illustrates, through Sean’s eyes, the immense value of Mitty’s humble and mundane work in helping bring forth the magazine’s grand artistic vision. This is affirmed by Mitty’s mother who conveys to her son what Seam had once told her, “You were the person who worked the hardest…to make sure [Sean’s] work was realized the way he wished.” There is a simple and profound message that can be taken away here in how God sees each of us. We may look ordinary, feel unremarkable, and doubt the value we bring in our everyday lives, but God recognizes our extraordinary worth and sees the little simple acts of our daily lives. 

While showing the value of Mitty’s ordinary work, the film also stresses the importance of breaking out of one’s comfort zone, taking a leap of faith, and realizing the true potential within. One could certainly see Mitty’s daydreams in the beginning of the film as metaphoric to the strength and ability he has within to step out into the unknown. The crucial moment where this great potential is actualized involves Mitty fully leaving behind his comforts and leaping from a helicopter into the frigid north Atlantic sea in the hopes of finding O’Connell in a nearby vessel. This rather light hearted sequence speaks to a deeper truth calling to mind Jesus’s words in scripture to cast out into the deep. Mitty’s plunge into the icy waters can be seen as a kind of baptism, he has accepted O’Connell’s invitation to follow him into the wild and, casting aside the comforts of his old life, is reborn as Walter Mitty, the wild-hearted adventurer. A motif found in many of the great stories of human history, from Bilbo in Lord of the Rings to Luke in Star Wars, we are reminded of the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” 

With a fun and stylish execution, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty offers audiences simple yet profound lessons on the value of seeing the beauty in life’s ordinary moments while simultaneously believing in oneself to make that leap of faith into the unknown. There is no shortage of humorous moments and epic eye-popping shots which awaken the adventurer in each one of us.

A truly good work of art can speak to universal truths, no matter the genre or medium. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will leave you feeling uplifted and with a smile on your face, perfect for the next family movie night.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s blog 100 Movies Every Catholic Should See.

Stiller, B. (Director). (2013). The Secret Life of Water Mitty [Film]. 20th Century Fox.

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Cameron DeLaFleur is a husband and father, searching for the true, the good, and the beautiful through film, art, music, and God’s creation.

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