What’s wrong with ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’

mittyI recently watched Ben Stiller’s ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘. After I read on IMDB that it’s a re-make of an old movie with the same title, I managed to see the old one as well.

Well, to call it a remake is unfair. Except the name of the protagonist and his habit of daydreaming, nothing is common between these two movies. However, what I wish to talk about is the underlying message that Ben Stiller’s movie gives and my problem with that message.

(Spoiler ahead ****) The basic difference between the original 1947 movie and Ben Stiller’s movie is the conceptual treatment of daydreaming and hallucinations. In Stiller’s movie Walter Mitty is a a ‘negative asset manager’ at Life magazine. Life magazine gets sold and its new owners decide to close it. Walter Mitty (played by Ben Stiller) has to provide the negative for the photograph to be used as cover for the final print issue of the magazine. He needs to use a particular negative sent by a famous freelance journalist Sean O’Conell (played by Sean Penn) but somehow he isn’t able to locate it. To save his job Walter has to get the negative. In order to achieve that he embarks on an amazing journey to catch the eccentric photographer himself. The journey takes him to places as different and exotic as Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan. However when his life takes this unexpected turn and becomes extremely exciting and adventurous, his hallucinations and daydreams take a backseat. In fact they disappear after a while.

In the older version (which was based directly on the short story wmitty oldritten by James Thurber) the daydreams stay very much a part of the protagonist’s life. In fact the whole idea of the story was that when life of Walter Mitty takes a mysterious turn he himself gets confused whether all that’s happening to him is real or a mere hallucination! Needless to say, till the end, the viewer is also intrigued whether all that’s going on the screen is real or is just another hallucination of the protagonist.

This is not the case with Stiller’s movie. Ben Stiller’s movie has over-philosophized the simple story-line and hence committed a serious mistake. The underlying message of the movie is that if you daydream a lot maybe your life lacks excitement, and so by making your life more exciting you can cure yourself of daydreaming. However there are two basic problems here. First, not everyone who does a mundane monotonous job (and that’s about several billion men and women on this planet) necessarily feels devoid of excitement in life. Second, not every daydreamer needs to be ‘cured’. In fact some daydreaming is rather good for creative thoughts. Research in psychology has suggested that ‘Positive Constructive Daydreaming’ plays an essential role in a healthy and fulfilling mental life. Here is a link to an excellent piece on Mind-Wandering by Maria Popova. Anyway, that’s a different issue altogether!

What promises to be a funny story about a daydreamer turns out to be a story of discovery of self. That’s the problem with the movie. The story and it’s treatment are not bad, in fact some sequences are truly breathtaking in visual sense. However, the script doesn’t remain loyal to it’s original premise and that’s where the movie falters.

Birth of a Masterpiece – A Case of Animal Farm

George Orwell - Courtsey : http://www.George-Orwell.org

Sometime ago I came across an interesting essay by self-anointed provocateur Christopher Hitchens about Animal Farm, an evergreen masterpiece by George Orwell.  The essay talks about the book’s birth, teething problems and everlasting relevance. However, what caught my attention was this paragraph taken from Orwell’s own introduction to the book.

” . . for the past ten years I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the socialist movement. On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood by almost anyone . . . However, the actual details of the story did not come to me for some time until one day (I was then living in a small village) I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them, and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.”

This is a very interesting example. An acute need to express something – continuous search for a medium to do it – and a situation providing the ultimate ‘illumination’. Wolfgang Kohler, a Gestalt Psychologist, pointed out that an insight is the result of a dynamic interaction between the person and the situation. Many of us nurture similar desires to express several ideas, opinions etc. However, the reason why many of us cannot convert a ‘raw’ idea into a ‘product’, is because of this lack of ‘dynamic interaction’. We fail to interact with our situation. We fail to read our surroundings. So many stories, poems, novels, haikus, dramas are floating all around us. George Orwell can read it. I can’t. Do you?

How can we learn to interact with our situations? Certain mental habits may facilitate this. A persistent quest – ‘Prichchha’ – a persistent habit of questioning – a persistent habit of noting down details could help. Many studies in Psychology have found that a dialectical mind – a questioning mind – an observing mind – brings out better insights. Albert Rothenberg studied 22 Nobel Laureates, and found that the common differentiating factor among them was a dialectical mind – constantly looking for gaps, the unexplained, the contradictory, the anomalous, the odd.

Maybe we should also develop this quality – who knows – our masterpiece might just be lying next to us.

References.

Khandwalla, Pradip (2003). Lifelong Creativity. Chapter 6. Pages 90-92. Tata McGraw-Hill, India.

Kohler, Wolfang (1947). Gestalt Psychology

Rothenberg, Albert (1996). “The Janusian process in scientific creativity”, Creativity Research Journal. Vol.9(2&3), pp. 207-231

How to write a novel

In Haruki Murakami‘s Sputnik Sweetheart, I came across a very interesting passage, where one character ‘K’, explains his opinion on writing a novel metaphorically to his friend Sumire. The author uses the metaphor only to describe the process of writing a novel. But I feel this metaphor could be very well applied to any creative pursuit.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" was published in Japanese in 1999, and in English in 2001.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" was published in Japanese in 1999, and in English in 2001.

Here, I am producing the same passage as it is. . . (All rights reserved by Haruki Murakami and Random House)

……..

After a while I started to speak, “A long time ago in China there were cities with high walls around them, with huge, magnificent gates. The gates weren’t just doors for letting people in or out, they had greater significance. People believed the city’s soul resided in the gates. Or at least that it should reside there. It’s like in Europe in the Middle Ages when people felt a city’s heart lay in its cathedral and central square. Which is why even today in China there are lots of wonderful gates still standing. Do you know how the Chinese built these gates?”

“I have no idea,” Sumire answered.

“People would take carts out to old battlefields and gather about. China’s a pretty ancient country – lots of old battlegrounds – so they never had to search far. At the entrance to the city they’d construct a huge gate and seal the bones up inside. They hoped that by commemorating the dead soldiers in this way they would continue to guard their town. There’s more. When the gate was finished they’d bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinke their blood on the gate. Only by mixing fresh blood with the dried-out bones would the ancient souls of the dead magically revive. At least that was the idea.”

Sumire waited in silence for me to go on.

Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn’t make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.”

…………….

Isn’t it interesting? What do you say?