Revisiting Dead Poets Society (1989)

In the suffocating environment of classroom, the sheer enjoyment of learning and knowledge is exiled. Istiaque Ahmed Nahian looks back on a classic film that deals with this problem and finds a solution in literature.



“I will not pen a love song;

Consider the intervals of my elegies as love

Oh Beloved!”

Pity! I cannot mention the name of the genius who produced these wonderful lines, as it is not the Mindspeak section. But let me assure you, the lines, however they may seem, came from a person who abhorred poesy and poetry previously. He believed poetry as some form of luxury only lazy people could afford. Poetry was meaningless to him. But one day he came across a DVD which had a wonderful title. ‘Dead Poets Society’. Our genius here expected zombies of Shakespeare, Yeats and Tennyson making funny faces, but once he turned on the DVD player, his world was changed.

The education system of our country has done many wonders. It has produced many gems, including one ‘whole’ Nobel Prize winner. But one thing I have to say, it has ruined the idea of free thinking. The subjects in which students can express themselves fully, are less valued. Instead of understanding poems, novels and literary concepts they swallow guide books and save their valuable time. Almost nobody talks about poetry and literature in their hangouts. People are very much indulged in trivialities. The funniest are the universities. Literature students opt for corporate jobs now. Since when did crunching numbers become more fun than crunching pages of books? The time students get to evaluate their ideas taught in the classroom, they spend it in achieving ambitions which are totally in discomfort with the specific subjects they learn. During these hard times, the one not wearing the tin spectacles looks for an ideal classroom where poetry is not taught, it is felt. The movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ gives us the view of that ideal classroom on the backdrop of such a society.

Like every other classroom, the classrooms of Welter academy were boring as hell. But the protagonist of the movie Mr Keating (Robin Williams) is an anomaly in the conventional boredom. He inspires his students, converses with them as their friend and listens to their problems. On the first day of his teaching, he surprised the students with his unorthodox form of teaching. He told his students to rip out the introduction of the book which explained certain methods of reading poetry. He encouraged them to develop their own style and become individuals. His students then reopened the club of which Keating was a former member and practiced writing and recitations. They started to live life on their own terms through Keating’s inspiration which led to the plot advancement of the movie.

Directed by Peter Weir and written by tom Schulman, the movie was a major success. The film received critical acclaim and was a box office success. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film and César Award and David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. Schulman received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work. The script was based on the Montgomery Bell academy in Nashville, Tennessee. The story was inspired by the life of Samuel Pickering, who was a teacher in the academy.  Filming took place at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, and at locations in New Castle, Delaware and in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. The worldwide box office was reported as $235,860,116, which includes domestic grosses of $95,860,116. The film’s global receipts were the fifth-highest for 1989, and the highest for dramas.

Dead Poets Society holds an 85 per cent approval rating and average rating of 7.2/10 on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews. The site’s critical consensus reads, ‘Affecting performances from the young cast and a genuinely inspirational turn from Robin Williams grant Peter Weir’s prep school drama top honors.’ The film also holds a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 14 reviews, indicating ‘generally favorable reviews.’

The Washington Post reviewer called it ‘solid, smart entertainment’, and praised Robin Williams for giving a ‘nicely restrained acting performance’. Vincent Canby of The New York Times also praised Williams’ ‘exceptionally fine performance’, while noting that ‘Dead Poets Society … is far less about Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys’. Pauline Kael was unconvinced by the film, and its ‘middlebrow high mindedness’, but praised Williams. ‘Robin Williams’ performance is more graceful than anything he’s done before – he’s totally, concentratedly there – [he] reads his lines stunningly, and when he mimics various actors reciting Shakespeare there’s no undue clowning in it; he’s a gifted teacher demonstrating his skills.’

Robin Williams received his second “Best Actor in a Leading Role” nomination and it has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian’s best roles. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film. Robert Sean Leonard showed his primary flares in acting in this movie. Now we know him better as Dr James Wilson in the TV series HOUSE.

There is also a novel based on the movie named Dead Poets Society. It was written by NH Kleinbaum. Various stage plays were also performed based on the movie.

Language is the greatest invention of human beings. It is perhaps the only reason of our existence. The invention of language was in order to woo women. So, it is a matter of fact that the manipulation of the language, that is literature, bears far more importance than it seems. So we should focus on the things we live for, not the things that keeps us alive. That is the message Dead Poets Society conveys.


Istiaque Ahmed Nahian is a student at University of Dhaka

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