The film “Dead Poets Society” has become somewhat of an iconic film in Western culture. Years before YOLO (You Only Live Once), the much older Latin phrase carpe diem was briefly made popular again.
Carpe Diem. “Seize The Day”.
Welton, the boys-only boarding school depicted in this film is clearly focussed on hammering into their adolescent charges’ minds the fact that working hard at learning is the way to get ahead in life. To get anywhere in life. This is why Neil Perry’s father has sent him there (there are hints he has gone into debt to do so) and expects him to become a medical doctor. In Neil’s father’s mind, this is an honourable and high-paying profession, and likely one he couldn’t do himself. So he is giving his son every opportunity to, instead.
But Neil doesn’t want to become a doctor. He wants to be an actor. His passion is not to earn a lot of money and be well off, but to explore the emotions of words and story-telling. And his father does not understand this.
The story turns on this and similar conflicts.
If you have studied story structure, you would be able to pick the First Plot Point right around the 25% mark. This is where Neil convinces his friends to re-create the Dead Poet’s Society that their new English teaching, Mr John Keating, was apparently a member of when he studied at the same school. Crucially, this is where Neil takes a positive step to acknowledge his own emotional needs.
The Dead Poets Society is a real response to the students actually understanding on an emotional level what they are being taught. The dry, academic text Keating has Perry read from mere minutes earlier in the film is typical of the type of education at Welton. It is apparent that the intent is to teach a mechanical analysis of poetry. However, Keating (played by Robin Williams) wants to teach the boys how to find the emotion in the written word and then show them that they can integrate that with the rest of their lives.
This point in the story is also where Todd Anderson (played by Ethan Hawke), new at Welton, is actively included by Neil (his roommate) in this escapade. In a way, the story is told through Todd’s eyes. He is the outsider, drawn in unconditionally by Neil to his group of friends.
It is obvious that the character of Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is an important story thread. But as John Keating’s influence develops, there are other stories that play out alongside Neil’s. It is a mark of a good story-teller that they are woven so well together. In Neil’s story, his admission to Keating that acting is what he wants to do is the Second Plot Point in his story. It is Neil being honest with himself. Keating is sympathetic, but the confession is flawed: it is not to Neil’s father.
At roughly the same time, Knox Overstreet has an important step in his story, too. He has fallen in lust with a local high-school girl, Chris. Encouraged by his friends, he actually goes to her high school to impress her with his poetry. This is no less important an event for Knox as it is for Neil. Knox overcomes several things holding him back from being true to himself. And even though this is, for Chris, an unconventional courtship, Knox does get to later take her to a play, which she obviously enjoys.
The Turnaround is much harder to spot. In such a complex and well-written story as “Dead Poet’s Society” there are several such places as the various storylines wend their way forward. In a way, it doesn’t really matter. By the time the viewer has hurtled through the Second Plot Point, we only know we missed calling it out.
But in the midst of the co-operating stories, there is a key scene right on the halfway mark. This is where Keating has the boys do an exercise in a courtyard. It is just walking around, but it is an excellent practical and visible example of conformity. Without ever being obvious about it, this film shows a place that is solidly set in the ways of creating conformity. Keating says some of the most important lines of the film in this scene:
- “The difficulty of maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others.”
- “Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own.”
- “Now I want you to find your own walk.”
Shortly before this scene, there is also an absolutely wonderful scene where Keating manages to bring out the inner poet buried deep inside Todd Anderson. Initially it is unwillingly, forced and pathetic, then it is to mild derision of his fellow students. And then the poet suddenly bursts forth to the acclaim of both his teacher and his peers.
Sometimes this is what being a writer is like. There is a lot of marching to your own tune. In a lot of ways you are out-of-step with many of the people around you who make their living from fixing cars, or serving in a retail store, or reviewing loan applications. But there is an inner writer who never wants to be bound by what the world thinks.
The climax of the film is tragic and bittersweet. John Keating is let go from teaching at Welton after less than a year. One of the boys is expelled. And Neil Perry has taken his own life. It is Todd who reacts the most against the news of Neil’s death. He is physically sick and emotionally distraught.
But it is also Todd who disrupts the English class in the final scene. The dean of the college has taken over the class for the interim, and Keating happens to come in at that time to collect his personal belongings. And Todd is the one who breaks discipline to stand on his desk and proclaim “Oh Captain, My Captain”. Others follow, but it was Todd who was first. Keating had simply earned far more respect from the boys than any other figure of authority in Welton.
There is a reason so many viewers wish they had had a teacher like John Keating.