It is 1959 and the prestigious Welton Academy has just hired John Keating (Robin Williams) as the new English teacher for the upcoming school year. A Blithe Spirit, he uses his classes to inspire his students to go against the flow and be themselves, somehow managing to make reading poetry seem like a cool, rebellious thing to do. A group of the boys, including Todd Anderson, Neil Perry, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks and Gerard Pitts, form the Dead Poets Society, a group wherein they all sneak out at night to read poetry in a secluded cave. After witnessing many of Keating's unorthodox teaching methods and the effects on the students, Headmaster Nolan, the Dean Bitterman of Welton, tries to put a stop to this.
Dead Poets Society is a 1989 drama film directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams in one of his earlier "serious" roles. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards: Robin Williams for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Picture and winning for Best Original Screenplay.
A book adaptation of the film was published shortly afterwards by N.H. Kleinbaum.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Some parents, particularly Neil's father, have a image in mind for their child to do when their older and wouldn't be open to anything else. Even all they give to or do for their children are associated with their expectations that want for them.
- Added Alliterative Appeal: When the students are going along the stairway to their classes:Mr. McAllister: Slow down, boys! Slow down, you horrible phalanx of pubescence!
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: According to Pitts: "All the good ones go for jerks, you know that."
- All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Similarly, both Chet and Knox are attracted to Chris, who is a cheerleader.
- Ambiguously Gay: Neil and Todd's dynamic definitely comes across as closer than simply roommates. Todd reacts to Neils' death like a distraught lover, and all of the other poets are more worried about looking after him than their own grief, even though they've been friends with Neil for years, and Todd has only known him for a few months. Not to mention unlike the rest of boys, neither of them show much interest in the girls Charlie brings into the society.
- Anachronism Stew: In one scene, the piper is seen playing "The Fields of Athenry", which was composed in the 1970s.
- Ancient Grome: It's subtle, but in a scene of the Latin class room next to the board is a map centered on Greece with the Italian boot being cut off at the heel.
- Armor-Piercing Question: When Neil consults Mr. Keating about whether he should go through with the play:Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?Neil: I can't.Keating: Why not?Neil: I can't talk to him this way.Keating: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is!Neil: I know what he'll say! He'll tell me that acting's a whim and I should forget it. They're counting on me; he'll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It's not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn't believe you - well, by then, you'll be out of school and can do anything you want.Neil: No. What about the play? The show's tomorrow night!Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.Neil: Isn't there an easier way?Keating: No.
- Armor-Piercing Response: When Keating calls out Charlie for his "phone call from God" prank, Charlie remains defensive until this:Keating: You being expelled from school is not daring to me. It's stupid, 'cause you'll miss some golden opportunities.
Charlie:Yeah, like what?
Keating: Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.
- Assimilation Academy: And how. Welton seems to be only a notch away from a military school. Its methods are centered on demanding total conformity to a program that puts every student on a pre-set path toward the Ivy League and eventually the Establishment. Deviating from this is simply not tolerated.
- Bad Liar: For a skilled actor, Neil certainly isn't all that convincing when he tries to tell a lie. It doesn't even look like Keating believed him when Neil claimed that his father was letting him stay in the play.
- Berserk Button: Never contradict or talk back to Mr. Perry, especially if you happen to be Neil.
- Mr. Keating finds J. Evans Pritchard's "Understanding Poetry" mathematical formula of poetic excellence to be utter rubbish, and even has the students tear that preface out of their textbooks.
- Big "NO!": In slow motion!
- "Billy Elliot" Plot: With acting apparently being the girly thing here.
- Blithe Spirit: Mr. Keating.
- Boarding School: The location of the movie.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Neil's father is extremely controlling and dominating, and at one point he starts to call him on never listening to his own son or showing any interest in what he wants to do with his life, but he can't follow through and he gives up halfway. Defied when Mr. Perry calls Neil's bluff:Neil: I've got to tell you what I feel!Mrs. Perry: We've been so worried about you!Mr. Perry: What? What? Tell me what you feel! What is it? Is it more of this, this acting business? Because you can forget that! What?Neil: Nothing.Mr. Perry: Nothing? Well, then, let's go to bed.
- The Captain: Mr Keating is not actually one, but his students call him "O Captain My Captain" at his suggestion.
- Captain Obvious: Lampshaded when Neil re-convenes the Society:Cameron: All I'm saying is, we have to be careful; we can't get caught.
Charlie: No shit, Sherlock!
- Carpe Diem: Discussed Trope, as Keating tries to inspire his students to love poetry and live life.
- Catapult Nightmare: Mr. Perry upon sensing his son's final actions.
- Church of Saint Genericus: The school chapel, since Welton isn't a parochial Catholic school, is presumed to be Protestant, possibly Presbyterian or Episcopalian, but not specified.
- Cool Teacher: Mr. Keating, duh.
- Corporal Punishment: Charlie is paddled by the headmaster for his "phone call from God" antics.
- Crosses the Line Twice: In-Universe, Keating advocates taking such an approach to Charlie after the latter's "phone call from God" joke.Mr. Keating: Phone call from God? If it had been collect, that would have been daring.
- Decoy Protagonist: Neil is the focus student for much of the film, but after his death it becomes apparent that the real protagonist is Todd.
- Dean Bitterman: Mr. Nolan.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Mr. Nolan reveals to Mr. Keating that he too was an English teacher once; the scene goes on to show that the two men both believe in the value of education, both love teaching English and both believe they're doing what's best for the students at the school; the difference is Mr. Keating's ideas are those of the hip, modern generation (of the movie) and Mr. Nolan's are those from a few decades ago. This is why they are at odds.
- Disobey This Message: Mr. Keating encourages his students to "think for themselves". And, mind you, he actually praises Charlie when he disobeys Keating's request ("exercising my right not to walk").
- Distaff Counterpart: Mona Lisa Smile. But then one could say...
- Dog Latin: From the novelization, Knox has one of these moments when trying to make a move on Chris:Knox: Carpe breastum. Seize the breast.
Charlie: Carpe cavem, boys, seize the cave. note
- And Charlie (in the novel version) when he claims the cave:
- Do Not Call Me "Paul":Charlie [recurring line]: The name is "Nuwanda."
- Driven to Suicide: Neil.
- Elaborate University High: The fictional East Coast boys' prep school Welton Academy.
- Everybody Smokes
- Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Neil's father doesn't want Neil to have anything to do with poetry or theatre, and upon discovering that Neil is playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he goes utterly ballistic. He sends Neil to a military academy, but he is Driven to Suicide before he can be shipped off.
- The '50s: Set in 1959. There are glimpses of the popular culture of the day, including early rock and roll music and teenagers openly smoking in (the public) high school without reprisal, in the scenes which take place outside Welton.
- Five-Man Band: The main group, with Mr. Keating as the Mentor.
- Foils: Roommates Charlie and Cameron. Charlie is rebellious, a poor student and goofs around, but remains loyal to his friends. Cameron is a brown noser, studious, hates breaking the rules, and betrays everyone at the end of the film to save his own skin.
- Fond Memories That Could Have Been: Subverted. All Neil's father has to say is "My son, my son," and he blames Keating for the boy's being Driven to Suicide, completely failing to understand that it's his own fault.
- Foreshadowing: If you look at it a certain way, the ghost story Neil tells earlier in the film is a metaphor for his own suicide. More directly, at the beginning of the first meeting when Neil reads the passage from Thoreau: ...and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. In addition, when Keating discusses mortality in the first meeting with the boys, the camera focusses on Neil at the line "stop breathing and go cold."
- Four-Temperament Ensemble: The four main Poets could be considered this: Todd is melancholic, Neil is sanguine, Charlie is choleric and Knox is phlegmatic.
- The Friend Nobody Likes: Cameron basically only gets included in the Society because he's part of the other boys' study group and is Charlie's roommate.Neil: Hey, he's your roommate.
Charlie: That's not my fault.
- Justified, as it's obvious they wouldn't have included him if they had any hope to hide the Society from him, calling him a creep. And he betrays them in the end.
- Gender-Blender Name: Chris, a girl who goes to a local public school.
- Grew a Spine: Todd, very much. Demonstrated by the end scene.
- Hate Sink: Nolan's status as the resident spoilsport who gets in the way of the boys' fun and games is justified by the fact that Mr. Keating's "think for yourself" message and methods are at odds with his own beliefs and the pre-existing curriculum that he genuinely believes benefits them better than having a strong individual voice. Other than that, the film is mostly concerned with the boys dealing with their struggles against constrictive parents, romantic difficulties, lack of self-confidence or chronic rebellious tendencies. Cameron thus serves as the lightning rod for the audience's contempt — he's a brown-noser, doesn't like anything the others do, is constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure things don't come back to haunt him and rounds it off by ratting on everyone to save his own miserable hide. Eventually Charlie decks him hard enough to cause a nosebleed—and boy is it satisfying.
- Heroic B.S.O.D.: Keating goes into one after Neil commits suicide and doesn't get better until the final scene. Todd suffers one too from the same event.
- Holding Hands: During the play, Knox holds Chris's hand and she seems to reciprocate.
- Hollywood New England: Set in Vermont.
- Honor Before Reason: Cameron chooses to uphold Welton's honor code and blows the whistle on Keating and the Society than risk expulsion.
- Mr. Perry is furious that Neil forged his dad's name and made him look like a liar, especially after the play when he forcibly withdraws Neil from Welton to save his reputation, which has been tarnished once Neil went through with the play and has turned the rumor into truth when he performs on stage.
- Hope Bringer: According to the director, Keating is in a severe depression after Neil's suicide and the one thing that brings him out of it is the boys standing up for him.
- Hypocrite: Knox, who had no objections to visiting Chris at her high school, gets called out by Chris when she visits him at Welton before Neil's performance:Knox: Chris... what are you doing here?
Mr. Keating [offscreen]: Gentlemen, let's go!
Knox: Go ahead guys, I'll catch up.
Dalton: Yeah, come on guys.
Knox: Chris, you can't be in here. If they catch you, we're both gonna be in big trouble.
Chris: Oh, but it's fine—
Knox: Shh, sh, Chris...
Chris: Oh, but it's fine for you to come barging into my school and make a complete fool out of me?
- I Am Spartacus: Deconstructed in the end scene.Nolan: One more outburst from you (Todd), or anybody else, and you're out of this school! (to Keating, as he is about to leave) Leave, Mr. Keating. (Keating pauses by the door) I said leave, Mr. Keating.
(Keating opens the door and begins to walk out. Todd then stands up on his desk)
Todd: O Captain, my captain!
Nolan: Sit down, Mr. Anderson. You hear me? Sit down. Sit down! This is your final warning, Anderson! Again... How dare you?
Knox: (stands up on his desk as well) O Captain, my captain!
Nolan: Mr. Overstreet, I warn you! Sit down! Sit down!
(one by one, a few other students, among them the remaining members of the Society, save for Cameron, also stand up on their desks)
Nolan: Sit down! All of you. I want you seated. Sit down. Leave, Mr. Keating. All of you, down! I want you seated. Do you hear me? Sit down!
- I Die Free: Neil, after being taken out of Welton, chooses suicide over military school, telling himself: "I was good. I was really good."
- It Amused Me: Is there anything that Charlie says or does which is not simply intended to have fun?
- Ivy League: The aspiration of most of the Welton students — the school takes quite particular pride in stating that many of its graduates went on to study at schools that belonged to the very prestigious Ivy League.
- Jerkass: Cameron.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Keating's antics don't go over well with the school administration and teachers. He has at least two conversations about this during the course of the film. While the audience is set up to believe their adherence to tradition and conformity are a bad thing, both conversations drive the point home. "Free thinkers at seventeen? Teach them to learn and the rest will follow." A prep school education is designed to send the young men on to college, and trying to be an artist usually ends in disappointment. Not to mention that a traditional prep school education doesn't exclude the possibility later on.
- Jerk Jock: Chet. Which of course leads to problems when Knox falls head-over-heels for the former's girlfriend.
- Karma Houdini: It would have been nice to see Neil's father get called out for driving his son to suicide. Though he wasn't consciously mean to him - just utterly oblivious to consequences of his actions.
- Large Ham: Charlie has his moments, and is clearly enjoying himself at the line "To indeed be a god!"
- Love at First Sight: Knox, Knox, Knox. One-sided as the object of his affections is "practically engaged" to someone else.
- Meaningful Name: It couldn't have been coincidence that John Keating is a lover of poetry. As well as being close to John Keats, the -ing suffix usually implies a verb or an action. Thus, he's a more active John Keats by teaching poetry.
- Military School: Neil is threatened with this by his controlling and dominating father.
- Mood Whiplash: Neil experiences this when he is thrilled to pieces about getting a major role in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," only to open the door to his dorm room and become white with fear to see his father sitting there, already waiting to scold his son ruthlessly. Even though Neil did falsify a letter of permission from his father earlier in the film, which wasn't the smartest move, the fact remains that Mr. Perry's behavior throughout the film is still displayed as thinking of his own interests rather than Neil's, given how overly strict and authoritarian he is, which only makes Neil want to pursue acting more.
- Nerds Are Virgins: Meeks claims he'd try anything once. Charlie's reply is "Except sex!"
- Never My Fault: Neil's father blames Keating for his son's suicide even though it was largely his fault.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: As soon as Charlie pulls off the "phone call from God" prank, Mr. Nolan is aware of the Society's presence and starts to keep a closer watch on the students' activities. Even Keating reprimands Charlie for going too far.
- Oh, Crap!: Neil's reaction to seeing his father at the play - during the performance no less.
- One-Gender School: Welton Academy is an all-boys school.
- One-Liner Echo: "Oh, Captain, my Captain!" at the end.
- Performance Anxiety: Todd has a very severe case of this, leading to initial reluctance to join the Dead Poeets Society, since he thinks it will mean having to read aloud in front of other people. Fortunately Neil insists that he doesn't have to read, and lets him take meeting minutes instead.
- Keating knows all too well tat Todd has this, and still gets him to come up with an impromptu poem, resulting in a Moment of Awesome for Todd.
- Pretentious Latin Motto: The official motto. The unofficial one, student-written, is somewhat modified, shall we say.
- Punch-Clock Villain: The writers tried to avoid the good-students versus bad-teachers angle by writing the faculty and parents as just doing their jobs and teaching the kids the way it was done at that time.
- Ray of Hope Ending: Neil commits suicide to escape his abusive father, Mr. Keating is the scapegoat and fired and Charlie gets expelled for defending him. Mr. Nolan takes over teaching his class and reinstates the conservative, dispassionate approach to learning poetry. However, before Mr. Keating leaves the school for good, over half his class (including students who weren't in the society) proves to him they will see the world in new ways, they will think for themselves, and he will not be forgotten.
- Rebellious Spirit: Charlie's actions make for an interesting contrast with what Keating actually encourages. While the latter is trying to teach his students to think for themselves and be masters of their own lives, the former takes that to mean "rebel for its own sake, fight against authorities for fun." When Charlie nearly gets himself expelled for a joke, Keating calls him out on this misinterpretation.
- Still, when he "exercises the right not to walk" during the strolling lesson, Keating notes that he righteously "illustrated the point" by "swimming against the stream". Charlie may not actually misinterpret him but simply over-interpret. See also It Amused Me.
- Satellite Love Interest: Chris for Knox, to an extent. Through no fault of her own, though, she just doesn't get much character development onscreen and is only really loved by Knox for her appearance. She even points this out to him when she goes to confront him at Welton, replying to his repeated insistence that he loves her, "You don't even know me!"
- Save Our Students: Welton is an Assimilation Academy with a program designed to make its students models of the Establishment and stick to the status quo. Mr. Keating's goal is to try to inspire the students to think in different ways and be their own persons, rather than just follow and conform to their superiors' instructions.
- School Play: A community one. Neil wants to do it.
- Scotireland: Mr. Mcallister, the Latin teacher (played by Welsh-born Canadian actor Leon Pownall), has a Scottish accent and heritage.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Charlie "Nuwanda" Dalton, who already got the Society in hot water with the "phone call from God" prank, confronts and punches Cameron after he ratted the D.P.S. out to Dean Nolan, and gets expelled from Welton in the process.
- Sexy Sax Man: Charlie pretty obviously tries to be this. Though he claims to like the saxophone because it is more "sonorous" than the clarinet, which his parents forced him to take.
- Shirtless Scene:
- The students have one after taking a shower.
- Neil takes off his shirt before wearing his headgear for the play for a last time and comitting suicide. It's suicide, so it's not played for fanservice.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Charlie gets expelled before the climax of the film.
- Shout-Out: The film's ending where the students (except for Cameron) stand on their desks in a farewell salute to Keating is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "The Changing of the Guard", where Ellis Fowler, an aging prep school teacher has been asked to retire, and just when Fowler is looking back on his life wondering if his teachings had any impact on the youths he had instructed, he hears the bells ringing and enters his classroom, seeing ghosts of other students who had died in heroic actions, and is inspired to know that his efforts were not in vain.
- Knox's crush, Chris Noel, may have been named after the real-life Chris Noel, a model, actress and singer who became a favorite of American troops during The Vietnam War. The real-life Chris Noel is a blonde, just like the fictional Chris Noel, and graduated high school in 1959, making both women similar in age.
- Shrinking Violet: Oh, Todd. At the beginning, at least, he seems to just be trying to blend in with the wallpaper half the time. Fortunately his friendship with the other Poets (Neil in particular) goes a long way toward making him a more confident person.
- Silly Walk: Keating encourages each student to find his own walk, some of which are rather silly. One even exercises his right to not walk.
- Six Student Clique: The six members of the Society (not including Cameron) fit this:
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Although deconstructed, double subverted, and generally played with beyond all recognition, the film still tries to promote an idealistic viewpoint, even though a lot of situations in DPS are firmly on the cynical end.
- The Smart Guy: Meeks, who aced Latin and tutors Charlie in just about every subject, something that Charlie happily admits, calling him a genius.Meeks: He flatters me. That's why I help him with Latin.
Charlie: And English. And Trig.
- Smart People Know Latin: Meeks, the smartest of the students, tutors Charlie in Latin and also is readily able to translate "Carpe Diem."
- Smug Snake: Cameron has definite shades of this.
- Snow Means Death: Symbolised by the society walking through snow after Neil kills himself.
- Sour Supporter: A student named Hopkins shows no enthusiasm towards Keating's teachings and puts the least effort into the class. Nevertheless, he is one of the students who stands on his desk to support Keating at the end of the film.
- Stalker with a Crush: Knox, in regards to Chris. Well-intentioned, but watching her from afar wearing dark glasses can come off as slightly creepy.
- Stupid Sacrifice: Neil's suicide. Aside from his dad being controlling the relationship is not otherwise abusive. Sure, maybe he has to do what his Dad says now, but in a few years he'll be an adult and can do whatever the hell he wants, and he'll never be able to become an actor if he's dead. And isn't suicide kind of the opposite of what the motto "Carpe diem" calls for? Then again, that is depression for you—convincing you that there's no other way out.
- Another interpretation: Neil finds his situation hopeless not because of what his father is demanding or the amount of time left before he is adult enough to chart his own course, but because he finds himself incapable of saying no or defending his own dreams even a little bit, and he projects that failure onto the future, thinking that even when he's 25 he'll still be unable to deviate from the course his father sets for him. Hence, the only way out is to do the one thing his father can't countermand: Kill himself.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Neil after the play and his father crushing his dream, just before he kills himself.
- Tragic Bromance: Neil and Todd could count although they're both main characters. They are particularly close and share an intense friendship, and Neil's death clearly has a deep impact on his roommate.
- Tragic Dream: Neil and acting, thanks to his father.
- True Companions: The Dead Poets Society becomes this.
- Turncoat: Richard Cameron, from the Society to the school authorities.
- Two First Names: Neil Perry. Knox Overstreet has two last names, as well.
- The Un-Favourite: Todd's parents almost certainly value his older brother Jeffrey more than him.
- Unfortunate Names: Pitts and Meeks, as pointed out by Keating.
"Mr. Meeks, time to inherit the Earth. Mr. Pitts, rise above your name."
- Becomes a Punny Name during the soccer/poetry lesson when Keating hands the boys lines to read
- Visual Pun: When Mr. Keating is writing the Pritchard formula on the blackboard, it reads Perfection x Importance = Greatness, or without the math symbols, P.I.G.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Mr. Keating chews Charlie out for his "phone call from God" prank, telling him that putting himself in danger of getting expelled from the school and jeopardizing his future isn't noble, it's just reckless and stupid.
- Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Neil's father in particular. Also the Andersons to Todd.