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Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film starring Robin Williams and directed by Peter Weir. Set in 1959 at a conservative and aristocratic boys prep school, it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students to change their lives of conformity through his teaching of poetry and literature. The movie is a modern interpretation of the transcendentalist movement.

The story is set in Welton Academy in Vermontmarker and was filmed at St. Andrew's Schoolmarker in Middletown, Delawaremarker. The script, written by Tom Schulman, was based on his life at Montgomery Bell Academymarker, an all-boys preparatory school in Nashvillemarker, Tennessee.


Seven boys, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston) attend the prestigious Welton Academy prep school, which is based on four principles: Tradition, Honour, Discipline and Excellence.

On the first day of class, the students are introduced to their overwhelming and extraordinary curriculum by sullen headmaster Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd). However, their new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells the students that they may call him "O Captain! My Captain!" (the title of a Walt Whitman poem) if they feel daring. His first lesson is unorthodox by Welton standards, whistling the 1812 Overture and taking them out of the classroom to focus on the idea of carpe diem (Latin for 'seize the day') by looking at the pictures of former Welton students in a trophy case. In a later class, Keating has Neil read the introduction to their poetry textbook, an academic essay entitled "Understanding Poetry" by the fictional Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., which describes how to place the quality of a poem on a scale, and rate it with a number. Keating finds the idea of such mathematical literary criticism ridiculous and instructs his pupils to rip the introductory essay out of their textbooks. After a brief reaction of disbelief, they do so gleefully as Keating congratulates them with the memorable line "Begone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!" He later has the students stand on his desk as a reminder to look at the world in a different way, just as Henry David Thoreau intended when he wrote, "The universe is wider than our views of it" (Walden).

From that point on, the boys set out on a journey of awakening, discovering that authority can and must always act as a guide, but the only place where one can find out one's true identity is within oneself. To that end, the boys secretly revive an old literary club of which Keating had been a member, called the Dead Poets Society. Todd experiences a particular transformation when, out of a severe episode of self-consciousness, he fails to complete a creative writing assignment and is subsequently taken through an exercise of uncharacteristic self-expression, realizing the creative potential he truly possesses. One of the boys, Charlie Dalton, takes his new personal freedom too far and publishes a profane and unauthorized article in the school flyer. In this article, Charlie states that he wants to have girls allowed at Welton. To the amusement of the other boys, he fakes a phone call from God saying that girls should be allowed at Welton. Dean Nolan paddles and interrogates Charlie about the others involved. Charlie says he acted alone.

Knox meets a beautiful young girl named Christine and falls in love with her, later using his poetry flair that he learned in Keating's great English class to woo her. He presents one of these poems in class as his poetry assignment, and although he is somewhat embarrassed, he is applauded by Keating for writing such a courageous and heartfelt poem on love. Knox later travels off Welton grounds to Christine's public school and upon finding her, he recites his poem to her.

Neil, without his father's permission, tries out for a local production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He desperately wants to be an actor, but knows his extremely strict father (Kurtwood Smith) will disapprove. One day when Neil walks into his dorm room, he finds his father waiting for him. He orders Neil to withdraw from the play, but Neil goes against his wishes and delivers a sterling performance as Puck.

Infuriated by this affront to his authority, Neil's father plans to pull him out of Welton and to enroll him in Braden Military School to prepare him for Harvard Universitymarker and a career in medicine. Unable to cope with the future that awaited him and equally unable to make his father understand his emotions, Neil commits suicide with his father's revolver.

At the request of Neil's parents, Nolan launches an investigation into the tragedy. Richard is solicited for information and is brought to a meeting with the school governors and board of regents. Under vigorous questioning from Charlie, Richard admits that he not only squealed on them but has also turned Keating into the scapegoat. Charlie viciously attacks Richard, but Richard urges them to let Keating take the fall rather than risk ruining their lives.

Neil's father takes no responsibility for his son's death and instead holds Keating responsible. Todd is called to Nolan's office, where his parents are waiting. Todd is forced to admit being a member of the Dead Poets Society. He is also forced to sign a written confession casting blame on Keating for abusing his authority as a teacher, inciting the boys to restart the Dead Poets Society (even though they restarted it themselves) and—most seriously—encouraging Neil to flout his father's authority. It is implied that Knox, Richard, Steven and Gerard were also pressured into signing the confession. Keating is fired.

In the film's dramatic conclusion, the boys return to English class following Keating's dismissal. The class is now being temporarily taught by Nolan, who has the boys read from the very Pritchard essay they had ripped out at the start of the semester. As the lesson drones on, Keating enters the room to retrieve a few belongings. On his way out, Todd apologizes to Keating for having signed the confession, citing the pressure exerted by the Academy and his parents. Keating acknowledges this. Nolan sternly orders Todd to be quiet and demands that Keating leave at once. As he exits the door, Keating is startled to hear "O Captain! My Captain!" being called out by Todd, who has stood on his desk as Keating made him to do earlier, demonstrating the new perspective Keating has taught him. Enraged, Nolan warns Todd to sit down immediately or face expulsion, only to be defied. Then, one after another, the members of the Dead Poets Society (excepting Richard, conspicuously) climb onto their desks and look at Mr. Keating proudly.

Sources and inspirations

The inspiration for Robin Williams' character is University of Connecticutmarker English professor Samuel F. Pickering Jr., a former teacher of author Thomas Schulman at Montgomery Bell Academymarker in Nashville, TN. Williams, however, partly based his portrayal of the character on the late John C. Campbell (d. 2007), Williams' history teacher at Detroit Country Day Schoolmarker. On the first day of class it was customary for Campbell to dump the AP American History textbook in the trash and to commence lecturing ex tempore.

The introductory essay that Keating has his students read from their poetry textbook near the beginning of the movie is similar in some respects to chapter 15 of Laurence Perrine's (1915-1995) Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which is still occasionally used by AP English classes in the United States.

Charlie Dalton writes his poem on the image of a centerfold; she is Elaine Reynolds, Miss October 1959 in Playboy magazine. In another reunion, the centerfold for Miss March 1959 Audrey Daston is seen briefly.

In one scene, a bagpipe player stands on the docks in the middle of the night. The song played is "The Fields of Athenry", an Irish ballad that tells the story of a man who stood up against 'the famine' and 'the crown' was arrested for it and dispatched to Botany Baymarker. This echoes the boys' actions: they stood up against the school and were punished, even though they did it for the right reasons. The song was composed in the 1970s.

The uniform of the fictional Welton Academy shares characteristics with that of director Weir's real high school, The Scots Collegemarker, including the use of the Lion Rampant on blazer breast pocket. The major difference is that Welton's uses red and blue, while Scots' uses a gold and blue color system.

The actual quotation from Henry David Thoreau read at the beginning of each meeting is:"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived … I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms..." (61) (Walden, 1854).

Neil Perry recites the words of Puck's soliloquy at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream.



Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman were considered for the role of John Keating. When Jeff Kanew was planned to direct the film, it was rumored that Liam Neeson had apparently landed the lead role, but Robin Williams was given the part when Peter Weir came on board to direct. Dustin Hoffman later praised Williams's audition, claiming that Williams did a better job than he could have done.

Robin Williams stated during filming that he was really drawn to the character John Keating because Keating was the kind of teacher he wished that he had had in school.


Director Peter Weir chose to shoot the film in chronological order to better capture the development of the relationship between the boys, and their growing respect for Mr. Keating. Set in rural, autumnal Vermontmarker, the location chosen for the film was St. Andrew's School marker a small liberal arts boarding school in Middletown, Delaware (mainly for the school scenes), which served as a similar location to Vermontmarker. There is actually no cave in the woods surrounding St. Andrews. Other locations in Delaware were used for the theatre scenes, the scenes at Neil's home, and the exterior shots for the cave scenes (society meetings). These locations include, Gunning Bedford Jr. Middle School in Delaware Citymarker, Everett Theatre in Middletown, and New Castle, Delawaremarker.

Filming was considered in Rome, Georgiamarker's Berry College. However, it would have been too expensive to create fake snow on the campus grounds, so the project was moved to Delaware.

The extreme closeups seen in this movie became a successful signature for Peter Weir.

Filming of the movie took place between November 14, 1988 and January 15, 1989.

Director Peter Weir encouraged the young actors in the film to improvise in some scenes, and he would sometimes deliberately let them finish a scene and then not yell "cut," just to see what they would do.

Peter Weir attended The Scots College, a private boys school in Sydney. The uniforms, discipline and overall feel of the school translated into many of the film's scenes. In 1994, a stage production of the film, the first in the world authorized by Touchstone Pictures, was put on by the school. Peter Weir attended the opening night and spoke about the making of the film.


Dead Poets Society was generally well received. Critics generally praised the uplifting and moving message of the story, the depth of many of the characters, and Williams' performance. It has become a cult movie, and often used by teachers to inspire the work of their students and even themselves. Critic Gene Shalit of The Today Show stated that it was "One of the most magnificent motion pictures I've seen." Other critics see it as a movie of two halves, the first being the more worthy.

Awards and nominations

Dead Poets Society won the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman), and was then the base of the book,"Dead Poets Society". Peter Weir received a nomination for Best Director and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Robin Williams received his second Best Actor 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 (the first Touchstone Pictures release to receive a best picture nomination).

The movie's line "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." was voted as the #95 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100). Also, the film was voted one of the 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time by the American Film Institute.

This movie ranks number 20 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies.

  • BAFTA Awards (UK)
    • Won: Best Film
    • Won: Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre)
    • Nominated: Best Actor – Leading Role (Robin Williams)
    • Nominated: Best Director (Peter Weir)
    • Nominated: Best Editing (William M. Anderson)
    • Nominated: Best Screenplay – Original (Tom Schulman)

  • Golden Globe Awards (USA)
    • Nominated: Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Robin Williams)
    • Nominated: Best Director (Peter Weir)
    • Nominated: Best Film – Drama
    • Nominated: Best Screenplay (Tom Schulman)


  1. Carpe Diem
  2. Neil
  3. To the Cave
  4. Keating's Triumph

Tracks composed by Maurice Jarre.

References and further reading

External links

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