I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty over the weekend. I am quite picky about agreeing to go see a film because these days Hollywood productions make me feel like I’ve wasted my time and money. I agreed to this one because it was supposedly based on a famous short story by James Thurber and so I thought it would be nuanced.

Ha! Well, it wasn’t terrible – there were some beautiful landscapes that made watching it on big screen worthwhile – and I didn’t quit halfway, but it spoke to some of my pet peeves:

  1. I’m sure James Thurber’s story was lovely. Why not just stick to that instead of dumbing it down? Within 10 minutes of the film, I could tell this was not a remake of a literary masterpiece. It was it’s own thing, and sadly not one that would contain anything other than slick and glib. There was a moment in the beginning when Walter zoned out into an action-hero fantasy where I thought that even the Hollywoodesque style might result in something halfway entertaining, but that was momentary.
  2. Why must everything be reduced to a love story? Is no tale ever complete without a neat little bow of two people finding each other romantically? I’ve been thinking about how pervasive and oppressive the metanarrative of romance is. There must be a love interest in every film, no matter how irrelevant to the actual plot. Almost all music seems to deal with love, though contemporary English music seems have to graduated to dealing exclusively with sex – wanting it, getting it, fantasising about it. (I don’t listen to that much music. Tell me I’m wrong.)
  3. A person does not amount to anything unless he has been there, done something. This film seems to be a critique of that mindset through the device of the online dating profile, but in the end it capitulates to the logic. At the end of the movie, Walter is tan and brown and interesting from his adventures. He is not plain old boring and weird Walter Mitty.

How he achieves this transformation is through travel, actual travel, not travel in his own head, because, you know, it’s only actual travel that can transform you into an interesting person.

The pervasiveness of the travel narrative has begun to irk me big time. Everyone these days loves to travel. The only two people I know who do not profess a love of travel are my father (over-travelled, addicted to his couch) and my husband (fairly well traveled, now aspires to retire to small farm in Kerala. His idea of travel is to occasionally drive to another village).

My problem with travel is only when it’s posited as something edifying to do. Travel and you will become a better person, or at least a more interesting person.

The thing is, I don’t really see those results in real life. Everyone I knows travels. Noone seems particularly edified or even interesting. In fact, travel is so quotidian that no one even talks about it anymore. Either everyone has already been there, or they can’t put their travel epiphanies into words. I sincerely hope it’s the latter.

I had this discussion with Curly and she pointed out: 1. Not everyone wants to gain enlightenment by travelling. Some people just to want to explore and see new places. 2. You do gain something my travelling.

Okay, so I don’t deny that travelling is better than, well, watching movies like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. You would probably learn more seeing something yourself if you can afford to. Like the world is a real-life museum and you’re seeing beauty in the original. And you accumulate your own treasure trove of photographic memories (or actual photographs). There are times when I am transported back to the short time I spent in Rome and it just fills me with a feeling of well-being.

I agree that travel broadens your horizons, a cliché that I trot out ever so often in my job. But of a higher order than breadth (according to me) is depth. Where is a depth of travel, at least in the form it is undertaken these days?

I agree that backpacking or cycling across a continent is a lifechanging experience because you are pitting yourself against hardship. I agree that if you’ve lived a fairly comfortable life like Hong Kong kids and you travel to remote areas, the experience can change you profoundly.

Can you gain any kind of lasting insight by taking a flight and sightseeing, no matter how diligently? I doubt it. And I doubt it even more than if the experience is repeated ad infinitum, with only the destination changed. Yes, you will gather kaleidoscopic memories and those are precious, but they strike me as hardly penetrating the surface somehow. In a way, travel is an escape. V pointed out that we are all always escaping, which is true. Maybe it’s fine for people to flit from experience to experience like Peter Pan. But call it what it is then, Peter Panning.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the nomadic life is the profound one (if it is really nomadic, that is). All around me are people who are travelling and seeing things and I am supposed to admire them. And there was a time when I did. Now, I admire those who stay still.