Dead Poets Society Plot Essay

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 American drama film directed by Peter Weir, written by Tom Schulman, and starring Robin Williams. Set in 1959 at the fictional elite conservative Vermont boarding school Welton Academy,[4] it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry.

The film received critical acclaim and was a box office success. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film,[5] and César Award and David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. Schulman received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work.


In the autumn of 1959, shy Todd Anderson begins his senior year of high school at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school. He is assigned one of Welton's most promising students, Neil Perry, as his roommate and is quickly accepted by Neil's friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton.

On the first day of classes, they are surprised by the unorthodox teaching methods of the new English teacher John Keating, a Welton alumnus who encourages his students to "make your lives extraordinary", a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem. Subsequent lessons include having them take turns standing on his desk to teach the boys how they must look at life in a different way, telling them to rip out the introduction of their poetry books which explains a mathematical formula used for rating poetry, and inviting them to make up their own style of walking in a courtyard to encourage them to be individuals. His methods attract the attention of strict headmaster Gale Nolan.

Upon learning that Keating was a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society while he was at Welton, Neil restarts the club and he and his friends sneak off campus to a cave where they read poetry and verse, including their own compositions. As the school year progresses, Keating's lessons and their involvement with the club encourage them to live their lives on their own terms. Knox pursues Chris Noel, a girl who is dating a football player from a public school and whose family is friends with his. Neil discovers his love of acting and gets the role as Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, despite the fact that his domineering father wants him in the Ivy League (and ultimately medical school). Keating helps Todd come out of his shell and realize his potential when he takes him through an exercise in self-expression, resulting in his composing a poem spontaneously in front of the class.

However, Charlie takes things too far when he publishes an article in the school newspaper in the club's name demanding that girls be admitted to Welton. Nolan uses corporal punishment to coerce Charlie into revealing who else is in the Dead Poets Society, but he resists. Nolan also speaks with Keating, warning him that he should discourage his students from questioning authority.

Neil's father discovers Neil's involvement in the play and forces him to quit on the eve of the opening performance. Devastated, Neil goes to Keating, who advises him to stand his ground and prove to his father that his love of acting is something he takes seriously. Neil's father unexpectedly shows up at the performance. He takes Neil home and says he has been withdrawn from Welton, only to be enrolled in a military academy to prepare him for Harvard. Unable to find the courage to stand up to his father, a distraught Neil commits suicide.

Nolan investigates Neil's death at the request of the Perry family. Richard blames Neil's death on Keating to escape punishment for his own participation in the Dead Poets Society, and names the other members. Confronted by Charlie, Richard urges the rest of them to let Keating take the fall. Charlie punches Richard and is expelled. Each of the boys is called to Nolan's office to sign a letter attesting to the truth of Richard's allegations, even though they know they are false. When Todd's turn comes, he is reluctant to sign, but does so after seeing that the others have complied.

Keating is fired and Nolan takes over teaching the class. Keating interrupts the class to collect personal articles; before he leaves, Todd shouts that all of them were forced to sign the letter that resulted in his dismissal and that Neil's death was not his fault. Todd stands on his desk and salutes Keating with the words "O Captain! My Captain!". Knox, Gerard, Steven, and over half of the class do the same, ignoring Nolan's orders to sit down. Keating is deeply touched by their gesture. He thanks the boys and departs.



The script was written by Tom Schulman, based on his experiences at the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, particularly with his inspirational teacher Samuel Pickering.[6][7] A scene in the original script showing Keating dying in a hospital was removed by film director Peter Weir.[8] Filming took place at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, and at locations in New Castle, Delaware, and in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.[9]


Box office[edit]

The worldwide box office was reported as $235,860,116, which includes domestic grosses of $95,860,116.[3] The film's global receipts were the fifth-highest for 1989, and the highest for dramas.[10]

Critical response[edit]

Dead Poets Society holds an 86% approval rating and average rating of 7.3/10 on Rotten Tomatoes based on 56 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."[11] The film also holds a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 14 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[12]

The Washington Post reviewer called it "solid, smart entertainment", and praised Robin Williams for giving a "nicely restrained acting performance".[13]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".[4]Pauline Kael was unconvinced by the film, and its "middlebrow highmindedness", 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."[14]

Roger Ebert's review was largely negative, only giving the film two out of four stars. He criticized Williams for spoiling an otherwise creditable dramatic performance by occasionally veering into his onstage comedian's persona, and lamented that for a movie set in the 1950s there was no mention of the Beat Generation writers. Additionally, Ebert described the film as an often poorly constructed "collection of pious platitudes ... The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon."[15] On their Oscar Nomination edition of Siskel & Ebert, both Gene Siskel (who also gave the film a mixed review) and Ebert disagreed with Williams' Oscar nomination, with Ebert saying that he would have swapped Williams with either Matt Dillon for Drugstore Cowboy or John Cusack for Say Anything. On their If We Picked the Winners special in March 1990, moreover, Ebert chose the film's Best Picture nomination as the worst nomination of the year, believing it took a slot that could have gone to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.


Dead Poets Society won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman). 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 in a Leading Role nomination and it has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian's best roles. The movie also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.

The film was voted #52 on the AFI's 100 Years…100 Cheers list, a list of the top 100 most inspiring films of all time.[23]


The film's line "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." was voted as the 95th greatest movie quote by the American Film Institute.[24]

After Robin Williams' death in August 2014, fans of his work used social media to pay tribute to him with photo and video reenactments of the film's final "O Captain! My Captain!" scene.[25][26]


N. H. Kleinbaum's novel, Dead Poets Society (1989), is based on the movie.[27]

Stage play[edit]

A theatrical adaptation written by Tom Schulman and directed by John Doyle opened Off-Broadway on October 27, 2016, and running through December 11, 2016.[28]Jason Sudeikis stars as John Keating[29] with Thomas Mann as Neil Perry, David Garrison as Gale Nolan, Zane Pais as Todd Anderson, Francesca Carpanini as Chris, Stephen Barker Turner as Mr. Perry, William Hochman as Knox Overstreet, Cody Kostro as Charlie Dalton, Yaron Lotan as Richard Cameron and Bubba Weiler as Steven Meeks.[30][31]

The production received a mixed review from The New York Times, with critic Ben Brantley calling the play "blunt and bland" and criticizing Sudeikis's performance, citing his lack of enthusiasm when delivering powerful lines.[32]


The ending of the film was parodied in the Saturday Night Live sketch, "Farewell, Mr. Bunting", in which a student, upon climbing onto his desk, is decapitated by a ceiling fan.[33]

See also[edit]

  • "The Changing of the Guard", a June 1, 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Donald Pleasence as a retiring English teacher at a New England boys' school, who questions whether he has made a difference in the boys' lives.
  • The Emperor's Club (2002), an American drama film set in a boys' preparatory school in the northeast.


  1. ^"DEAD POETS SOCIETY (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. July 27, 1989. Retrieved August 15, 2014. 
  2. ^"Dead Poets Society (1989)". The Numbers. Retrieved June 1, 2016. 
  3. ^ ab"Dead Poets Society (1989) – Box Office Mojo". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-11-15. 
  4. ^ abCanby, Vincent (June 2, 1989). "Dead Poets Society (1989) June 2, 1989 Review/Film; Shaking Up a Boys' School With Poetry". The New York Times. Retrieved November 8, 2011. 
  5. ^"1990 Film Film | BAFTA Awards". Retrieved 2016-11-07. 
  6. ^"Real-life professor inspires 'Dead Poets' character". TimesDaily. Florence, AL, USA: Tennessee Valley Printing Co., Inc. Associated Press. July 10, 1989. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  7. ^Bill Henderson (January 12, 1992). "Robin Williams and Then Some". The New York Times. Retrieved December 19, 2007. 
  8. ^McCurrie, Tom (March 15, 2004). "Dead Poets Society's Tom Schulman on the Art of Surviving Hollywood". Retrieved 31 March 2015. 
  9. ^Cormier, Ryan (August 12, 2014) [Originally published April 4, 2014]. "25 'Dead Poets Society' in Delaware facts". The News Journal. Pulp Culture. Wilmington, Delaware, USA: Gannett Company. Retrieved January 18, 2015. 
  10. ^"1989 Worldwide Grosses". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2014-11-15. 
  11. ^"Dead Poets Society Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 14, 2017. 
  12. ^"Dead Poets Society reviews at". Metacritic. Retrieved January 25, 2010. 
  13. ^Howe, Desson (June 9, 1989). "'Dead Poets Society'". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 17, 2010. 
  14. ^Pauline Kael, Movie Love, pp. 153-157, reprinted from review that appeared in The New Yorker, June 26, 1989
  15. ^Ebert, Roger (June 9, 1989). "Dead Poets Society". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved October 17, 2010. 
  16. ^"Nominees & Winners for the 62nd Academy Awards". Archived from the original on February 21, 2014. Retrieved November 17, 2010. 
  17. ^"Awards Database". Retrieved November 27, 2010. 
  18. ^Crazy Dave. "Dead Poets Society". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  19. ^Ente David di Donatello – Accademia del Cinema ItalianoArchived October 21, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^"Welcome to the Directors Guild of America". Archived from the original on November 20, 2010. Retrieved November 27, 2010. 
  21. ^HFPA – Awards SearchArchived October 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^Mathews, Jack; Easton, Nina J. (February 9, 1990). "Some Surprises in WGA Nominees, Shutouts : Film: 'Baker Boys,' 'My Left Foot' are dark-horse nominees for Writers Guild awards; non-union 'Do the Right Thing,' 'Drugstore Cowb..."Los Angeles Times. 
  23. ^American Film Institute. "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 CHEERS". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  24. ^American Film Institute. "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 MOVIE QUOTES". Retrieved 2014-08-13. 
  25. ^"'#O Captain, My Captain': Robin Williams' fans take over social media with tributes and memorials dedicated to the legendary comic". Retrieved 2014-11-15. 
  26. ^"Robin Williams death: Jimmy Fallon fights tears, pays tribute with 'Oh Captain, My Captain'". Retrieved 2014-11-15. 
  27. ^Kleinbaum, N.H. (1989). Dead Poets Society. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 978-1-4013-0877-3. OCLC 71164757. 
  28. ^Clement, Olivia (February 29, 2016). "CSC to Stage World Premiere of Dead Poets Society". Retrieved December 8, 2016. 
  29. ^Itzkoff, Dave (August 16, 2016). "Jason Sudeikis to Star in Stage Version of 'Dead Poets Society'". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2016. 
  30. ^Clement, Olivia (September 14, 2016). "Dead Poets Society Finds Its Complete Cast". Retrieved December 8, 2016. 
  31. ^Clement, Olivia (October 27, 2016). "The World Premiere of Dead Poets Society Begins Tonight". Playbill. Retrieved December 8, 2016. 
  32. ^Brantley, Ben (November 17, 2016). "Review: 'Dead Poets Society,' Starring Jason Sudeikis as the Idealistic Teacher". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 8, 2016. 
  33. ^Silverberg, Nicole (2016-05-23). "Behold, a New Classic 'SNL' Sketch". GQ. Retrieved 2016-06-23. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Munaretto, Stefan (2005). Erläuterungen zu Nancy H. Kleinbaum/Peter Weir, 'Der Club der toten Dichter' (in German). Hollfeld: Bange. ISBN 3-8044-1817-1. 

External links[edit]

It's the beginning of the school year for a group of students at Hellton—er Welton—Academy, a prestigious all-boys boarding school in 1950s Vermont. Ah, back-to-school season: that wonderful time of fresh new notebooks, squeaky pink erasers, and existential dread.

Among the students feeling the end-of-summertime blues: the shy newcomer Todd and his roommate, Neil, both of whom (along with the other boys) have to sit through a lecture by the stern and humorless Headmaster Nolan about the many merits of their fancy-shmancy Welton.


At least one interesting thing happens in this first meeting, though: the boys are introduced to their new English teacher, Mr. Keating. But more on that later.

After meeting Neil and Todd's parents, it's clear that the two boys have a lot in common. Neil's parents plan for him to have every advantage that they didn't, so he's on the fast track to medical school (whether he likes it or not).

And Todd's parents just want him to be like his older brother, a Welton alumnus who made quite a mark and has gone on to be super-successful.

So no pressure for either of them, right? No pressure at all.

The two boys bond quickly, and Todd is welcomed into Neil's group of buddies: Knox the romantic, Cameron the goody-goody, Charles the jokester, and the dynamic duo Meeks and Pitts, who are constantly conspiring to build a radio (apparently, radios are a no-no at Welton).

The first few days of Welton life seem to go normally: boring books to buy, lectures to attend, hours to watch tick away. But when the group gets to Mr. Keating's poetry class, things start to shake up a bit. He shocks them by getting the class to leave the room and observe the pictures of long-dead alumni that line the hallways. He admonishes them to live fully, seizing every opportunity to experience life.

He even instructs them to address him as "captain," after the famous Walt Whitman poem "O Captain My Captain."

And that's just the first class. In the weeks that follow, Mr. Keating encourages the boys to find their own voices and look at things a different way. (One way he demonstrates this: he has them stand on his desk in order to see things from a different perspective.)

Mr. Keating also encourages them to consider poetry, rarely a beloved subject, as a valuable and important part of life, and wants them to learn to think for themselves about what it all means.

The boys find this pretty stirring, each in his own way. Todd, ever the shy guy, begins to get the guts to speak up and make himself heard. Knox is inspired to pursue the girl he loves, Chris, who has a boyfriend. And Neil decides to truly seize the day and tries out for the school play, despite his father's orders.


Mr. Keating's influence is also felt in another way: he inspires them to re-form the long-dead Dead Poets Society, a secret group of students who sneak off campus to read and experience poetry together.

But not everyone is a fan of the whole "seizing the day" thing. Headmaster Nolan and some of the other faculty members are pretty skeptical about Mr. Keating's shtick, and they don't think the boys should be encouraged to think or act so freely. So when Charlie—ever the prankster—writes a note to the school paper encouraging the admittance of girls to Welton and signs it "Dead Poets Society," the administration comes down hard on the English teacher (and the students). Headmaster Nolan becomes obsessed with finding out just who the members of the DPS are.

It all gets a little out of hand.

Still, the boys carry on with their commitment to live fully. Knox finally gets a date with Chris (after getting punched out by her boyfriend), and Todd overcomes his shyness to read a poem in front of the class. Neil gets the lead in the school play and totally rocks it, to the cheers of his fellow DPS members and the rest of the audience.

One person who ain't cheering? His father, who watches from the back of the theater. Neil's dad takes him home and tells him that he is enrolling Neil in military school. No more Welton, no more theater, no more Dead Poets Society. It's military school or bust.

As you may have guessed, Neil doesn't take this well. Instead of living a life without inspiration, he decides to take his life. After donning his Puck crown one last time, he uses his father's revolver to commit suicide.

The boys are devastated, as is the rest of Welton. Headmaster Nolan blames the Dead Poets Society and Mr. Keating's teaching style for Neil's death, and becomes even more obsessed with finding out just who is behind the secret group. When Cameron spills the beans and signs a statement blaming Mr. Keating for everything, the rest of the boys feel like they have to follow suit.

Adios, Mr. Keating.

But that doesn't mean they didn't learn anything. When Mr. Keating comes to class to collect his things, Todd stands on his desk to salute his "captain" one last time. After a few moments, most of the class does, too, despite the threats from Headmaster Nolan.

It's their final salute to their teacher, and it reminds him (and them) that his lessons live on.

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