Study Guide

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society Introduction


Release Year: 1989

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Tom Shulman

Stars: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles


We'll admit it: prep schools don't have the best literary rep. We've got the stifling conformity and phoniness of the prep school that Holden Caulfield goes to, the stifling conformity and betrayal-happy prep school showcased in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and the stifling conformity and—gulp—organ harvesting of the prep school in Never Let Me Go.

And we'll also admit that the 1950s don't have the best literary rep. Remember the stifling conformity and rampant racism on display in Go Set a Watchman? Or hey: the stifling conformity and homophobia apparent in the film Carol? How about the stifling conformity and familial dysfunction going on in Revolutionary Road?

Dead Poets Society gives you a double scoop of stifling conformity: a prep school, circa the 1950s. But it also gives you the antidote to the aforementioned stifling conformity: meeting a mentor that will encourage you to march to the beat of your own drum.

Four Pillars of Yawn

The students of Welton academy live a super-privileged existence in their prestigious school, where some of the finest future academics, doctors, politicians, and scientists are being groomed.The boys live lives of discipline and tradition, and basically have their Ivy League futures tied up with a bow.

That doesn't mean it's an idyllic existence, though. When a new and dynamic English teacher arrives on the scene, some of Welton's finest are given a glimpse of the world that exists beyond rituals and test scores. They learn about the value of poetry and individualism, and become inspired to lead the lives they have only been dreaming of.

But because this movie takes place in the conformity pressure-cooker of a 1950s prep school, these lessons on scary poetry and scarier individualism don't come easy. We're given front row seats into the lives of young men struggling to find meaning…even as the environment they find themselves living in is choking them like a too-tight school uniform tie.

That doesn't mean it's all doom n' gloom n' claustrophobic school hallways, though. The film's motto of "carpe diem" (aka: "seize the day") struck a chord with audiences and landed Touchstone Pictures with plenty of Oscar nominations (and even a win).

  

Dead Poets also launched the careers of actors like Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles, and gave audiences a glimpse into the dramatic chops of everybody's favorite genie, Robin Williams.

Carpe diem FTW.

What is Dead Poets Society About and Why Should I Care?

We're guessing even the most math-allergic among you is familiar with the following equations:

Hard Work + Good Grades = Good School

Good School + Hard Work = Good Job

Good Job = Success

Right? Isn't that the way it works?

For most of our lives, we're told that excelling at school will lead to a bright, successful future. All we have to do is study and work hard.

That's the way it works at Welton. Welton Academy—otherwise known as "Hellton," so you know it's super-fun—is the best of the best, and the students (and faculty and parents) know it. The young men of Welton are all destined for bright futures. It's already decided. They simply have to solve the equation that leads to success.

But what does success even mean? Does it mean making money? Having a fancy-shmancy job? Or is it…something else?

In Dead Poets Society, we meet a teacher—Mr. Keating—who challenges his students to consider that very question. He wants them to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Mr. Keating tries to inspire them to live fully, seizing every day, and make their mark before it's too late. He challenges them to avoid conformity and march to the beat of their own drum.

In other words: he wants them to let their freak flags fly.

And maybe it's not just the Welton students who could use a little inspiration. Maybe we could all take a little break from working toward the nebulous goal of "success" and consider which (and whose) goals we want to be working for.

So maybe take a quick study break. Read a Walt Whitman poem. Run barefoot through a meadow. Build a radio. Tell the cutie-pie you've been dreaming about that they're worth dreaming about. Take a stand.

And—oh, yeah—watch Dead Poets Society.

Trivia

Sounds hot: the first set that was built for Dead Poets Society got burned to the ground. On purpose. (Source)

Dustin Hoffman was briefly in talks to play Mr. Keating…and to direct the film. (Source)

Up for grabs: Bill Murray and Liam Neeson were also briefly considered for the role. (Source)

Ethan Hawke credits the film for teaching him how to act. Guess class really was in session. (Source)

The Romantic poet John Keats was the inspiration behind naming the teacher John Keating. Seems pretty fitting. (Source)

Oops: in one scene, a student is seen with a textbook that wasn't printed until the 1980s. Maybe it was a time-traveling textbook? (Source)

Dead Poets Society Resources

Websites

The Official Fan Club
Everything a fan could want. Welcome to the society.

The Facebook Society
Join the society on social media. Mr. Keating would be proud.

Wiki Quotes
Want more DPS quotes? They got 'em.

Start Your Own DPS
A how-to guide.

The Society Tropes
Interested in tropes and how they work in the film? This one is for you.

Book or TV Adaptations

The Novelization
After the film was made, it was turned into a novel. Isn't it usually the other way around?

Articles and Interviews

Interview With the Writer
Schulman chats it up.

Where Are They Now?
See what new hijinks the DPS members have been up to.

25 Years Later
One of the DPS members travels back in time (okay, not really) and revisits his experience.

An Inspiration
Teachers who were inspired by Mr. Keating. Aw.

A Dissenting View
On why Dead Poets Society may not be the best representative of the humanities. Hey, not everyone can be a fan.

Video

The Original Trailer
Get a load of that voiceover. Think the trailer does the film justice?

What Will Your Verse Be?
Watch when you need a little carpe diem in your life.

O Captain!
The famous final scene.