You should not live your life to the fullest even if it seems like the perfect moment to, because it all depends on the consequences. The 1989 dramatic film Dead Poets Society written by Tom Schulman is based on his own life experience, winning an Oscar Academy Award in 1990 for Best Original Screenplay, also starring Robin Williams as John Keating. In this film directed by Peter Weir, characters explore defiance and identity, and wander against traditionalism which makes the film revolve around shaping one’s attitude and behavior.
The new English teacher of Welton Academy, Mr. John Keating, is introduced to the exclusive all-boys school where students are expected to have high-quality education. The boys Neil, Todd and other boys experience hardcore traditional teaching methods of their teachers. These methods are contrasted by Mr. Keating’s – influencing his students to think for themselves and reflect poetry with true knowledge and feelings. Neil and his friends then decide to revive the Dead Poets Society ‘DPS’ club where Keating was once part of, by meeting in a cave then learning life lessons out of poems.
The friends have been through a lot of change since the DPS club was reassembled, especially Neil Perry. His father has strong demands for Neil to become a doctor, pushing Neil to stop his desires and making him end his life. Mr. Keating is blamed for his improper guidance, and the school headmaster forces the boys involved in the Dead Poets Society club to sign the document confirming Keating’s actions or else they will face expulsion, making the teacher leave the academy for good.
Dead Poets Society becomes the title of the movie because of the central characters being part of the DPS club. The story is set in the year 1959 which is thirty years earlier the movie release. The opening scenes highlight this vintage aura, as the central school Welton was planned in a very traditional manner. The settings include the school, the forest and the Indian cave where the Dead Poets Society meetings are held. Scenes of the film are mostly shot on location, such as Welton Academy filmed at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware. Some dialogues cannot be understood immediately because of some mumbling and the use of some Latin phrases such as ‘carpe diem’.
Mr. Keating first introduces the quote ‘carpe diem’ to the boys which means seize the day, explaining how they should seize the day because soon time could be gone for them (Kovan, et al.). Neil and Todd search for true happiness, belonging, and purpose. Neither of the two wants to do what their parents have dictated what they should. So they each set out on their journey to find meaning when Mr. Keating challenges them to “seize the day”. Multiple points of view when the boys start to discover their life meaning makes sense that the story is composed of mini-plots. (Watts)
Also, Keating does not care about preparing his students for college but he rather wants to prepare them for life. He tries to convince his students to be more reserved and cautious in their behavior when a Dead Poets Society member began to fight back against the Welton administration. Keating’s co-teachers at the conservative Welton Academy who do not agree with his non-conformist method of teaching are probably right when they said young boys cannot handle an unconventional type of freedom. (“Essay on Film Review of Dead Poets Society”)
There is a part of the plot where Neil is uncertain about the type of future he is being prepared for by his strict father. Experiencing this kind of life, Neil rejects his superego and satisfies his id by acting as the main part in a school play. Cameo lighting is observed in Neil’s performance scene to create a feeling of innocence. He achieves a narcissistic bliss in theatre until his father learns that Neil has disobeyed him. It could be that Neil really needed conformity at his young age but his father was pushing him too far from it.
Furthermore, Neil yearns to find a way to rebel against his stern family, seeing Mr. Keating as his paragon for rebellion. The point where Neil chose to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his beliefs shows that he is more rebellious than Keating. He is a tragic example of how Keating’s view on freedom and art can go wrong. (Kleinbaum, Neil Perry)
Todd Anderson is very quiet and shy in his first days at Welton, but then he learns to express his feelings and compose impressive poetry with the help of Mr. Keating and Neil. In the scene where Todd tells Mr. Keating he has not written a poem, Keating changes the attitude of the shy Todd by helping him compose a poem on the spot. Todd is the most dynamic character in the story because of his positive transformation from a shy orthodox person to a bold maverick. This character of Todd embodies the defiant spirit in the story. (Kleinbaum, Todd Anderson)
The signing of Keating’s dismissal document features Todd in the state of cognitive dissonance, having inconsistent thoughts about whether or not he should sign the document. Todd is the last one to sign, aware that Keating is not the main reason why Neil committed suicide. In the final scene, Todd, who previously had no identity, is able to shout out to the fallen Mr. Keating showing the balance between individuality and truth. He contributed his verse to mankind by climbing to the top of his desk to salute his fallen teacher, who changed Todd. The feeling of victory when the boys stand on their desks in solidarity with Mr. Keating presented that the film ends positively, although the Dead Poets Society boys are defeated by the parents and the headmaster of the school in giving justice to Neil’s death.
Through the development of Neil and Todd, the importance of individualism and romanticism is explored. The movie captures the embracement of truth in an individual’s life, separating the ability to enjoy life from the actual way to live. The transition from being obedient students lacking individuality to boys who take risks for what they want in life is shown alongside the growth of daring and passionate personalities. The movie explores the need for truth within an individual to live a free life while not conforming to societal standards. Truth in the Dead Poet’s Society is not a matter of what the environment surrounding an individual expects, but rather holding to the values and ideals of the individual. (Naresh)
In the movie, there are changes within the characters due to Mr. Keating’s influence. The group of students become more confident, artistically expressive, and learn to fight for their desires. That change is what brings up the idea of a Bildungsroman to light, the boys learn to cut the cord with the typical boarding school life already set in stone for them. (Iskhakova)
Keating’s opinions on how to live life stay the same no matter what conflict was happening in the film. The students of Keating become more independent in their thinking and discover what they wanted out of life. The change in the behavior of these students is the reason for the main conflict of the movie as Mr. Keating’s philosophies about life are challenged by the people against his opinions. (“Essay on Film Review of Dead Poets Society”)
Multiple camera shots of flying birds represent life at Welton Academy and how all its students want to break free which is one of several pictorial metaphors and symbolism used in the film. Neil’s crown of thorns is the most meaningful symbol as the thorns are symbols of his father’s control over him. The four pillars of Welton Academy, which are Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence, convey exactly what the school wants of its students. These are the pillars that will hold each student together as they go on in life according to the school. (Moothan)
Maturity does not come to the Dead Poets Society until they experience being overpowered once again, and then find a way to hold on to their beliefs except for Neil who chooses death. The weakness of this film is the difficulty in determining who the protagonist is supposed to be, since Neil dies before the ending, who appears to be the point of view character in the movie, and the final convention seems to pass between Mr. Keating and Todd. The bittersweet ending belongs to Keating, who loses his career over his unorthodox methods, but leaves the academy with proof that he has made a positive difference in the lives of most of the boys. (Watts)
The film revolves around shaping one’s attitude and behavior as the members of the Dead Poets Society wander against traditionalism, and explore defiance and identity among themselves. Mr. Keating wants the students of Welton Academy to think and express freely instead of following conventional rules in life. Neil is negatively affected by Keating’s unorthodox teachings and by the control of his father. On the other hand, Todd’s positive transition of behavior and personality shows the positive effect of Mr. Keating’s lessons. Both Neil’s and Todd’s lives build up the Bildungsroman theme in the film, dealing with change in personality. After his students learn to take control of any situation that comes their way, Keating sticks to his epistemology that the world must be seen from different perspectives to achieve true happiness and freedom. It is recommended that a sequel of the film should be created featuring Keating’s new journey of teaching new life lessons out of Welton Academy, sticking to Mr. Keating as the protagonist throughout the film so that confusion between characters will not be made.