Thursday, September 12, 2013

Classics: A Review of Dead Poets Society By Lauren Ennis

Carpe Diem!
When one thinks of the word education, one most often imagines students sitting at desks practicing language, mathematics, science, and history. This image captures much of the modern public education experience, in which students gain knowledge in an approved set of subjects in order to pursue a career or college degree. This conventional approach to education is turned on its head, however, in the coming of age classic, Dead Poets Society. Over the course of the film, charismatic English teacher John Keating instills in his students a passion for “poetry, beauty, romance, love…what we stay alive for”, and teaches them that education is about far more than facts and figures. By the film’s end, even the most hardened viewers will be tempted to seize the day and make their lives extraordinary.

The film begins at the start of the school year at the fictional 1950’s preparatory school, Welton Academy.  The film immediately introduces the audience to the drudgery of life at Welton as the boys start the year with formal welcoming ceremonies and introductions to rigid courses. The atmosphere at the school quickly changes, however, when the students attend their first session of Keating’s (Robin Williams) poetry class and discover that their teacher possesses even more contempt for the school’s restrictions than they do. Keating’s first lesson includes instructing students to tear the foreward chapters out of their textbooks and reminding them of the importance of ‘carpe diem’, or seizing the day.

Over the course of the school year, Keating’s teachings prove to have an immense effect upon his students, as he consistently encourages them to challenge themselves and pursue a passion for life. Anxiety ridden Todd (Ethan Hawke), for instance, slowly emerges from his emotional shell and discovers both a talent for poetry and the confidence to pursue a social life on campus. Similarly, dutiful son Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) attains the courage to defy his father (Kurtwood Smith) and pursue his passion for acting, while awkward Knox (Josh Charles) uses his new knowledge of poetry to woo a girl (Alexandra Powers) at the nearby public school. Even the popular and charismatic group leader, Charlie, (Gale Hansen) steps outside of his comfort zone as the class clown to revive Keating’s old club, the Dead Poets Society. The club quickly becomes a haven for the boys, in which they can temporarily escape from their controlled lives through the freedom of literature. Obstacles arise, however, when the administration becomes critical of Keating’s methods and the nonconformity that they are inspiring in his students. Tragedy strikes when one student finds himself unable to reconcile the life of choice and opportunity that Keating has shown him with the constrained existence that society is forcing upon him. The ensuing ramifications force both students and teacher to confront the restrictions of the outside world and question the merits of a 'live to the fullest' philosophy.
Oh captain, my captain
Although numerous films have chronicled the influence of passionate teachers upon their students, few have done so as effectively or realistically as Dead Poets Society. Unlike other teaching films, which show students accepting a new teacher’s unique philosophy almost overnight, Keating’s class initially scoffs at his unconventional ideas before slowly incorporating them into their daily lives. Similarly, the students’ views evolve over time, rather than changing in an immediate revelation, as they come to terms with the hindrances of the privileged lives that their parents have planned for them. The film is particularly realistic in its inclusion of students who have not been influenced by Keating. Cameron, for example, proves to be the group’s skeptic throughout the story when he hesitates before joining the club and later betrays Keating in order to avoid being punished by the administration. Cameron’s presence reveals that while Keating is an effective teacher, he is not perfect and cannot reach every student. As a result, the story remains relatable without compromising its inspiring message.

In an effort to appeal to modern audiences, many recent school films focus upon teachers working with at-risk urban students. Although these films tell important and interesting stories, they often portray characters as types instead of people, and define them by the topical issue that they represent. After seeing numerous films that have resorted to stereotyping, it is refreshing to see a school film that avoids tacking on current issues in favor of telling a compelling story. Because the boys each have their own distinct personalities, it is much easier for the audience to be engaged in their activities than if they were relegated to the roles of stock characters such as “the teen parent”, “the drug addict”, or “the gang member”. The film’s efforts to create an original narrative are further aided by its setting. By setting the story at a boarding school, the screenplay can place almost total focus upon the students without involving their families and back stories. Similarly, the 1950’s setting enables the narrative to place the black and white views of the administration in the greater context of the severe views of Cold War America . Through its combination of dynamic characters and a rich sense of time and place, the film provides audiences with an engrossing story that relates an important message without sacrificing any subtlety.

The cast provides excellent performances that are by turns comical, charismatic, compelling, and haunting. Robin Williams perfectly captures the spirit of adventure that enables Keating to inspire his students, while also imbuing him with the necessary wisdom to lend his advice merit. Robert Sean Leonard nearly captures the film from Williams as he shows the torment behind Neil’s easy going persona. Gale Hansen and Josh Charles provide necessary comic relief in their portrayals of rebellious Charlie and awkward, love-struck, Knox. Ethan Hawke’s role as cripplingly shy Todd is truly a breakout performance in which he speaks volumes as a man of few words.

Dead Poets Society has remained a favorite amongst teachers and students since its initial release in 1989. The film has lost none of its resonance over the years, and its central message of ‘seize the day’ remains as crucial as ever. Through its realistic portrayal of adolescent confusion and discovery, the film reminds us of our own search for identity and the importance of remaining true to ourselves as we grow older. Join Keating and his class as they live deliberately and suck the marrow out of life. They just might teach you to look at the world in a different way.

No matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas can change the world


  1. Ethan Hawke is soooooon dreamy *swoons* Great article Miss-E. I haven't seen this film, yet, but now I think I will

  2. Be careful, it might want to make you stick to teaching! And there is no disputing the Hawke's dreaminess