Essay: How and which is literature used in the film Dead Poet’s Society?

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 19 minutes
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  • Published on: July 20, 2019
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1. Foreword

During a cold winter night, I wanted to spend my time in a pleasant way. So I decided to see a film and luckily for me, ‘Dead Poets Society’ was on Tv that night. I was touched by it and when the opportunity came to do something around it, I grabbed it with both hands. I never regretted watching it and the moment it was mentioned that we had to write a research competence that kind of literature flashed into my head. How Keating said: ‘Oh Captain, my Captain’ and how Anderson foreshadows a terrible happening by playing Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was being trapped in doing what his parents wanted him to do: in their web of ambition and lack of thorough knowledge about their son. Problems that still exist nowadays; people can’t accept themselves and the ones surrounding them. Problems that won’t be solved by the making of a movie, but cultural and creative interpretation of how the world looks like, opens a door, to more options and opinions. It makes more possible.

For my research competence, I chose to watch the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ and to investigate it’s literary references. Due to my field of study, specifically modern languages, I chose to do a thing I like very much: watching a film, with some amazing actors in it, and do some research on great poems from talented poets. This film is a source of inspiration and happiness, with a touch of sadness. You laugh, you cry, you learn. I do not know when I started loving cinema and literature, but I want it to be a love of my life. And right now, I think that will come true. I am thinking about studying languages next year and a good film never seizes to amaze me. I find myself always extremely intrigued both by a good movie night/morning (‘day’) or a great book. I read ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ from Isherwood and now I’m very fond of it. I had the same feeling while watching ‘Dead Poets Society’, I was moved by its characters and especially by the teacher: John Keating. Robin Williams did a marvelous job portraying him. He can crawl into the character of anyone he wants to. It is a movie with a tear and a laugh: some like it, others don’t. It is movie about the importance teaching, poetry, finding yourself, stick to your own interests and values, family, individuality, inspiration, creativity, the fight against narrow-mindness, etc. It might be somewhat American, it has elements of glorification and clichés, but it contains nevertheless a truth. Everyone will find it in a different way, in a different scene.

2. Introduction

Poetry is being portrayed in a peculiar way. They speak about Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Tennison, Robert Frost: the classics. Random lines are being quoted and cited whenever there is an appropriate link, lessons are being learned and friendships are being made thanks to these great writers. They are part of the foundation of English literature, an important part, and deserve to be treated with respect. The actors in the movie as well, they have grown and proved their talent in this film. Robin Williams was being nominated for an Oscar (by portraying John Keating) for a reason. He shone in Good Will Hunting and in Mrs. Doubtfire as well. Ethan Hawke has played in tons of films and was only 19 when playing Todd Anderson. He appears in Gattaca, before sunrise etc. The cast is what makes it such a special film: there is chemistry, it works. The film needs a bound before being successful. The characters need more than beautiful poetry: they need each other. Poetry can’t work on his own as well: it needs a reader, one who can appreciate its beauty and interpret it on his own, without ruining the magic it has in it. How you can express a feeling, create a whole new world with only some words, verbs, adjectives: the mystery of language can never be solved. Its beauty lies in its self-possessiveness. Nobody can steal your words. When you don’t find them, you can make them. You are able to be the founder of a new empire with nothing more than syllables. Those who received the special gift of writing, like the classics, have to be remembered. Even if it is ‘cliché or superficial’: as long as we don’t forget our rare power of communication on a leaf of paper and on respect for the results and its creators, the world isn’t lost and humanity still exists. But at the same time, words set boundaries; there doesn’t seem to be enough words. Our brains are our limits. When you’ve given something a name, you’ve determined it as something: you killed all other possibilities. The world is the one you created, but can be changed with a certain interpretation. An own word. An own voice. A personal vision.

3. Literary references and the research
3.1. Research Question: How and which is literature used in the film? What is the difference in the meaning the film gives to it and the interpretation the writer or poet himself gave to it while writing? (in general)
3.2. Introduction: the film: Robin Williams and plot
3.3. Dead poets society and Henry David Thoreau: Which works are used from Thoreau and why? What did Thoreau mean? What does Mr. Keating mean?
3.4. Dead Poets Society and Walt Whitman: Why is Whitman so often mentioned? What is the importance of his poems (especially: Oh Captain My Captain!)
3.5. Dead Poets Society and Carpe Diem

3.1 Research Question: How and which is literature used in the film? What is the difference in the meaning the film gives to it and the interpretation the writer or poet himself gave to it while writing? (in general)

3.2 Introduction: the film: Robin Williams and plot
John Keating, lover of the letters, is played by Robin Williams. The comedian was born in 1951 and his death (at the age of 63) in 2014 had a great impact in the cinematic world. He was known for his improvisational performances and in Dead Poets Society, he has this original, personal input as well. He attended Claremont Men’s College and College of Marin and after that, he went to Juilliard School in NYC. He was a stand-up comedian and worked on some TV programs before his real ‘big-screen’ debut in 1980, in Popeye. He can be seen in Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning Vietnam, but at the same time as his break-through in the performance industry, he dealt with some personal troubles as well. Acting is more than just the bright side and spotlight: he had a drug and alcohol problem and this addiction would follow him the next decades. He had some affairs during his marriage and after his divorce with Valerie Velardi, he got remarried with Marsha Garces. His acting career grew but he had a drug relapse in 2006 and divorced in 2008 from Garces. He married for the third time in 2011. On August 11, 2014 Robin Williams passed away: he had a rough time, he suffered from a severe depression and anxiety and he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was suffering from a sort of dementia. He had committed suicide, by hanging himself. His last film, ‘boulevard’, was released after his dead, in 2015. On social media, a lot of photos appeared from fans, with captions such as ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’ (a reference to a famous poem from Walt Whitman.)

The film was made in 1989: there is a main character, Mr Keating: but his importance lies in his connection with his pupils: ‘It takes two to tango.’ It received critical acclaim and Tom Schulman even won the ‘Academy Award for best original Screenplay’ because of this masterpiece. The events from the film itself take place in 1959 in a prep-school for boys only. The main group of friends consist of more or less 7 boys, one somewhat more important than the other. Neil Perry, the passionate actor with the pushy parents who want him to achieve as much as possible in his life, ‘the best for him’, is a key figure in this film together with Todd Anderson, the shy boy with his brother as an honor student, a great precedent. The others are Knox Overstreet (who’s in love with Chris Noel), Steven Meeks, Charlie Dalton, Richard Cameron and Gerard Pitts. They have a new teacher for English literature, teaching in a totally different way then his colleagues: he thinks ‘out of the box’ and wants his students to do that as well. ‘Make your life extraordinary’, he says. He states this in numerous lessons, from ripping a theoretical poetry-page from their book, to walking in the courtyard, to citing poetry while playing football. He wants to form them as individuals with their own minds, feelings, passions, goals in life. Neil Perry wants to follow his dreams and become an actor, but his surroundings are intoxicating: he doesn’t dare to speak up, when he does, there isn’t being listened to his will and preferences. His parents ignore him, he’s deeply unhappy, sees no way out. He’s made himself clear but his dreams remain distant, unsure of what to do, the most tragic event takes place at the happiest and worst night of his entire life. That night, when he played Puck and his father saw him, but didn’t welcome him for who he really was. He wanted him to follow his dream: go to the Ivy League and be able to do ‘med school’. A well-desired study-field.

Todd has gone through the most remarkable metamorphoses. It seems like he has finally found his voice. He was always hiding in the shadow of his known, intelligent family. People expected a lot from him and he remained a wallflower. Every year, he gets the same lame birthday present: his parents don’t shown interest, they don’t do an effort. His first change starts when he befriends Neil and his friend. He becomes a part of their crew on the background. When deciding to join their ‘Dead Poets Society’, as a listener, he marks his place in the group. He chooses to be part of it and develops while following Mr. Keating his lessons and having good friends. His ultimate change is there when he has to improvise because he hasn’t prepared a poem because of his insecurity. But then something happens, a loss. He feels helpless when this sudden change of events is there, the two people who inspired him the most in his life are being tormented by society. But he can find his way back and he finds the courage to stand up, on his desk and say the magical words, he can reward Keating for everything he has done for him. For learning how to be an individual. The shyest of all in the beginning has the most remarkable voice at the end.

3.3 Dead Poets Society and Henry David Thoreau
In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams portrays a teacher who teaches more than just knowledge. He gives them inspiration. He gives them poetry. Every group of friends has something in common, some have a pub they like or a shared passion, a secret place, a common feeling. But the students from Welton, the prestigious high school in Vermont learn how to reach the path of success by the four pillars: tradition, honor, discipline, excellence. That is, until they meet their new English teacher. He was member of the former Dead Poets Society, in his blooming youth. He gives them the object of the gatherings from his time, the bespoken book: when reading the book from the former Dead Poets Society, filled with poems, they have a new life, with gatherings in a secret cave by night. That is the first sentence of the book as well, it is a poem from Henry Thoreau.

“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 practise 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…”

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