If you don’t have a Tumblr account or a parent who is in love with 80s classics, then chances are you haven’t heard of Dead Poets Society.
But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t neglect this memorable film.
Dead Poets Society easily fits into the family of John Hughes’ coming-of-age sub-genre. If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the popular older brother who always gives rides and 16 Candles is the middle sister who doesn’t like to leave the house, then Dead Poets Society is the angsty younger brother who writes all of the songs for his alternative band and has slam poetry awards on his dresser.
On the surface, Dead Poets Society is about a throng of boys who love two things: old poetry and their English teacher, Mr. Keating. Search underneath and you’ll find a story about friendship, loss and something else (we’ll get to that later).
The film focuses on a group of young men at a prestigious boarding school, specifically a new student named Todd Anderson. Todd, who is played by Ethan Hawke, is assigned Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) as his roommate. Neil is a charming, sweet student set for a promising future. Todd and Neil grow closer when they find themselves in the same English class, taught by Mr. Keating. For a traditional school, Mr. Keating is a striking oddity. His teaching style can only be described as “different.” He tells the boys to rip out the first page of their poetry textbooks, which featured a graph for rating poetry, and takes the boys out to the courtyard to develop their own style of walking. Todd, Neil, and their friends form a group inspired by the club Mr. Keating and his friends used to have. They call it the Dead Poets Society.
From here, the movie enters its obligatory honeymoon phase. The boys are seen chanting classic poetry from Mr. Keating’s book and marching around the cave. Todd, the new kid, finally feels like he’s found a home in his fellow Dead Poets. The boys start to break from their traditionally masculine archetypes and embrace emotional openness, something that is rarely seen in films directed at teenagers.
Media in the 1980s (as well as today), played upon traditional gender roles. Women were depicted as the “gentler” sex. Emotional vulnerability often went hand in hand with this softness. On the other hand, men were seen as the dominant, “tougher” gender. The stereotype often implied that teenage boys were being groomed to be the typical patriarchs of their households, a position that was seen as having no place for the same emotional vulnerability most females in film display. However, the emotional openness displayed in Dead Poets Society allows the boys to develop more meaningful and intimate relationships with each other, developing the camaraderie that is the foundation of the film.
Inspired by Mr. Keating, each of the boys break the social quo and go their own ways. Neil’s decision might be the most meaningful of them all. He confesses to Mr. Keating that he wants to pursue acting and join the community production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but his father would disapprove. Neil’s definition of “promising” greatly contrasts his father’s. At Mr. Keating’s advice, who tells him to seize the day, he auditions for the play and gets the role of Puck.
The play ends with Neil wearing a crown of leaves that looks awfully similar to thorns, an image that alludes to Jesus Christ. On its own, there is nothing wrong with this scene. Books, plays, and movies regularly utilize religious symbolism and iconography. However, the scene that follows this one makes it problematic.
After the play ends, Neil’s father brings him to his family home. He tells him that he is withdrawing Neil from his boarding school and sending him to military school. From there, he will be forced to become a doctor and never act again. After Neil’s parents go to bed, Neil puts on his crown one last time before taking his father’s gun and committing suicide. We hear the bang, then Neil’s parents’ footsteps barreling down the stairs. When Neil’s father runs into the room, he sees the gun on the ground and Neil’s lifeless hand peeking out. He screams and falls to his knees.
Despite Dead Poets Society’s beauty and “seize the day” mentality, it still has several problematic elements, the first of which is the way the movie treats suicide. By comparing Neil and his subsequent suicide to Jesus Christ, the makers of the film glorify suicide. They see Neil’s suicide as a final act of rebellion against society, that his suicide was honorable and deserving of a praise so high that it should be considered biblical. Dead Poets Society is not the first movie/TV show to frame suicide this way, especially among films aimed at teens. When watching these films without anybody to talk to and process the event and its aftermath films like these can do more harm than good, especially now that we’re in a time where suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24.
In addition, I feel that Mr. Keating should have known to get Neil professional help with his situation. Nobody, including Neil, commits suicide without any kind of warning sign. When Neil came to Mr. Keating for help, his obvious distress still wasn’t enough to Mr. Keating to recognize that Neil was in a very difficult situation and was desperate to find a way out, even if that way out was as extreme as ending his own life. As an educator and responsible adult, Mr. Keating should have had Neil consult a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Instead, he attempted to comfort Neil but took no further action.
Maybe the reason why I’m so angry about Neil’s suicide is that suicide glamorization is still prevalent in teenage shows and movies today. While there are several modern comparisons, perhaps the most popular one is the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, which arguably depicts suicide more inaccurately than Dead Poets Society. Not only is Hannah’s death more graphic than Neil’s, but her death is seen as a plot point in her quest to avenge everyone she resented while she was alive. Either way, both 13 Reasons Why and Dead Poets Society share two key areas where each fell flat. They neglected the chance to educate viewers on the common risk factors, prevention strategies, and consequences of suicide. In addition, Dead Poets Society did not seize the opportunity to encourage people who were depressed and having suicidal thoughts to seek help. 13 Reasons Why did not have a warning video until they commissioned a study by Northwestern University to research the show’s impact on viewers.
In the end, the biggest and perhaps overarching problem I have with Dead Poets Society is that Neil’s semi-graphic suicide was not enough to warrant the film a PG-13 rating. In today’s society, the gun on the floor and Neil’s open hand would be enough to grant the film the rating it needs. However, once a rating is given, it cannot be changed, so it will forever remain at PG. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) needs to create a path for movies to change their ratings over time. What was once “acceptable” then is not acceptable now, and I feel now is the right time for the association, as well as Hollywood, should recognize that.