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The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_1274874Yes, the title is intended to be clever. Honestly, I think I did a pretty good job at that. We all know that the ‘secret’ to a good story is conflict. This is something that we learn in middle school English. Whether its internal conflict (man against himself), personal conflict (man against man), or conflict with the world (man against nature), it is conflict that makes a story interesting. This is one reason that I’m guessing very few of you have read Thomas More’s Utopia. There’s not a lot of conflict in that book… also, it’s about 500 years old, which probably doesn’t help much. Still, if the secret to a good story is conflict, the secret to a great story is that it gives meaning to the mundane. This is what makes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a great movie, and it’s something that I’d very much like to see more of in fiction overall.

Walter Mitty is, at its core, a story about a man who has to go on an adventure to actually come to the realization that he didn’t have to go on an adventure. Keep that in mind, it’s important and I’m going to get back to it. In modern fiction, and especially in the Science Fiction/Fantasy and associated genres, the concept of adventure is key to the story. Follow the genre back to its origins and you find that Jules Verne wrote about people who went on adventures, George McDonald did the same. Tolkien’s beloved characters weren’t so cut out for adventures, but Bilbo and Frodo both had them nonetheless. The heart of speculative fiction, even moreso than normal fiction, is the adventure. It might take the form of a galactic war, a mythic quest, or a noble uprising, but the adventure (as Joseph Campbell tried to point out about myth… you can ask Selanya, I am not a fan of Campbell) often has similar basic elements. However, one of the problems that I’ve found with a lot of speculative fiction is the idea of adventure for the sake of adventure. We don’t write stories about the cobbler who worked for 45 years to support his wife and children. Why? Because he isn’t interesting.

nal_duncan022209_57345cSo, why is this a problem? Because adventure for the sake of adventure is pointless. We can, and have, argued for decades about the glorification of war and violence, the need for accountability in the portrayal of harsh subjects, the importance of including clear and real consequences in fiction, but ultimately having an adventure is not the answer to a meaningful life, and a lot of our fiction treats it like the holy grail. If you’re not happy with your life, have an adventure, make drastic changes, turn your world upside down… etc. Even those stories that impose adventure on unwilling heroes attempt to create meaning through that adventure, not through the mundane.

This is where Walter Mitty shines. Does the story have adventure? Sure, as we said, the basic building block of an interesting story is conflict. However, Walter Mitty doesn’t make the mistake of attempting to use that adventure to create meaning. Instead, it uses the adventure to make the point that mundane, everyday, humdrum life is where we can and should find meaning. My favorite phrase, and a keystone of the message itself, is ‘the quintessence of life’. This phrase is used to describe the main character’s devotion to his mundane job. Mitty is a character who devotes himself to doing his best at basic things. He doesn’t ask for attention, doesn’t demand praise, in fact, he isn’t really noteworthy in any way, and the overarching point of the movie is that this is the core of a meaningful life.

This reminds me of the message of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The author’s final message, after address the meaninglessness of all the things that we seek to find meaning in: obey God and enjoy life. Adventure is not what gives life its meaning. It is not the salt or the spice of life. Adventure merely allows us to appreciate the meaning that can be found in a day’s work done well, or in pursuing a devotion to God through obedience. The salt and spice of life are found in how we live day to day, and this is something that I would very much like to see more of in the speculative fiction market.

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2 thoughts on “The Secret Lessons of Walter Mitty

  1. This reminds me of a woman I met at a writing conference. I asked her what her book was about, and she told me it was about (main character’s name) going on a hero’s quest. She said this in such a way that clearly that should have told me all I needed to know.

    I think too many speculative fiction authors slavishly follow the various steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey without putting much thought into the meaning behind those steps. The result feels like something writen by a machine, each plot point plugged into the story according to a formula.

  2. Excellent post. Ultimately stories consisting of so-and-so went out, so-and-so had an adventure, so-and-so came home become boring. While conflict is clearly necessary, the growth and development of a character or idea is what a writer needs to pursue. Thanks for the post.

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