Home Thematic Film Series Film Study: Dead Poets Society & The Importance Of Individuality

Film Study: Dead Poets Society & The Importance Of Individuality

by Stuart Charles Black
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Part of The Thematic Film Series! (In Progress)

Part of the reason this film resonates with me so much is that growing up, I never really experienced anything contained in its message.

I can’t recall a single teacher who EVER told me to be myself, to challenge the status quo, or to be an individual rather than a cog in a wheel (which is quite sad if you really think about it).

The only exception I can make is that of English professor Michael Friedman of Cardinal Gibbons High School. Out of all the teachers I’ve ever had, he surely stands out and is the man responsible for screening this film as part of his syllabus.

Sure, I had others who complimented me; on my looks, the way I dressed, my sense of humor, my good grades (if I just so happened to be applying myself that semester), etc.

But they all followed a script handed down to them from their superiors. They taught the curriculum. Oftentimes they were dull and drab. Monotonous. Formulaic. Contrived. Ritualistic. Going to class felt synthetic and sterile. It seemed more like a prison sentence rather than an invigorating learning experience.

I can’t even count how many times I fell asleep in the back, dreaming of 4th-period lunch and waking up feeling like I could eat a horse.

Dead Poets Society stands out and succeeds largely because it achieves exactly the opposite of all that.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

There are an understated innocence and sense of nostalgia about this film that’s hard to put into words. It’s something you feel in your heart rather than think about with your mind. It’s profoundly spiritual at its very core. You know deep down that its message is truly important.

The problem with traditional schooling is that it systematically produces intellectually challenged, institutionalized drones; oftentimes incapable of abstract thought and devoid of any rudimentary common sense and logic.

“Education” (and I use that term loosely) sacrifices original thoughts, ideas, and the creative process in favor of mindless regurgitation. It encourages groupthink and unabashed indoctrination; both of which are incredibly dangerous to a healthy, functioning society.

I mean, just look around you. The percentage of people out there who are capable of truly thinking for themselves is astoundingly low. It’s why most people end up flipping burgers rather than achieving their goals.

Groupthink is pervasive in society. It’s how Hitler was able to rise to power and wipe out millions. It’s how the Patriot Act was signed without anyone so much as batting an eyelid (Well, except for Dennis Kucinich). God Bless Dennis Kucinich.

It’s why 99% of people now wear masks without stopping even for a second to consider why.

No, most people don’t understand the reasons behind doing the things they do. They simply comply with what they’re told and then attack others for even so much as questioning it. It’s the new herd mentality – Claim you believe in science (aka what the television spoon feeds you), but then disregard and discredit anyone who presents actual science; i.e. peer-reviewed studies and verifiable facts. It’s irony at its finest.

John Keating challenged his students in the film to think outside of the box; to ask questions, to dig deeper rather than take everything at face value. He made them stop and think. In essence, he woke them up out of a Matrix-like mentality.

He wanted them to be individuals, to go against the grain, to discover their unique identity, and not become just another brick in the wall. He challenged them to tap into the limitless potential that we all have but are too afraid to confront.

Todd’s character (in a haunting performance from a young Ethan Hawke), portrayed that brilliantly in one of the most powerful scenes in film that I’ve ever witnessed.

The boys are given a simple assignment; write a poem. We see a shy Todd terrified of the prospect of not only coming up with something but having to present it to the class (we’ve all been there).

When the day arrives, he basically has nothing written; due to writer’s block, fear, or a combination of both.

He’s almost incapable of coming out of his shell until Keating practically wills it out of him in some of the finest acting you’ll ever see. Todd quite literally comes out of himself and taps into some seriously raw spiritual energy. It doesn’t even feel like they’re acting.

If the scene doesn’t almost move you to tears or prick your heart, you may not have a soul. It was one of the most brilliant examples of realized potential and something not easily forgotten.

Todd lets go.

It’s the type of thing that most people don’t do. Ever. Either because they don’t have people in their lives willing to help, or because they just never take responsibility for themselves later on down the road.

The proof is right there in the pudding. Your typical, dumbed down, no ambition American who goes to a shitty 9-5 job 5 days a week and gets trashed on the weekend to numb themselves from the pain of the realization that they actually sort of hate their lives (and themselves most likely).

John Keating is a prime example of someone who was exactly none of that.

He didn’t at all fit into the mold of modern society, thus why he was ostracized and eventually pushed out. He’s an outcast in every sense of the word.

He refused to accept the status quo and got punished for it. He challenged his kids to go after what they truly wanted rather than settle for something shallow and meaningless.

If you know you’re going to die anyway, you may as well make the most out of this life. If anyone remembers me, it won’t be because I sat in a claustrophobic cubicle trying to look busy all day.

No, it will be because I fought for the things I believed in and went after what truly mattered to me.

Neil’s father, however, is a prime (albeit somewhat extreme) example of the opposite.

No, Dad, What About You?

A more in-depth character study of him and the motivations behind his attitudes would have helped to clarify some things; namely why exactly he was so vehemently opposed to his son’s dream of being a playwright. That’s something that should have really been explored because not only is it incredibly important, but it runs deep; a concept that not many parents can truly give a good account for.

Even so, I think we can all identify with, on some level, that somewhat volatile relationship that we’ve all had with our parents – one that was portrayed rather well in the movie even despite the time limitation.

Most parents out there want the best for their children, sure, but I think more of them should take into account what their child ultimately wants out of life, rather than what they want. I think too many of them take a dogmatic approach to parenting without thinking about its ramifications.

Neil’s suicide surely came out of left field and felt shocking, but did it actually if you sit down and really think about it?

Kids committing suicide isn’t exactly breaking news. It happens every single day for a myriad of different reasons – some of which are likely even less traumatic than Neil’s own situation.

We can’t look at these sensitive issues through a myopic lens. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it’s like to feel truly down and out. It doesn’t really matter why, whose fault it is, if you “should have been stronger”, how cowardly it seemed, etc.

The human mind is incredibly complex and there are millions of different factors that come into play.

At the end of the day, Neil felt trapped. He wasn’t exactly old enough to make his own decisions, and he had an overbearing, unsupportive father to boot. He was also very young and perhaps wasn’t as capable of thinking it through as well as he should have. Still, to him, that was a dire situation and he saw no other way out of it.


“Knox, we’ve only known each other for 5 minutes!” Knox: “But, I love you! Here are some flowers to prove it.” ? (Ad-libbed lines by yours truly)

A somewhat lesser story arc in the film but still profoundly important is that of the idea of love (or in the case of a young man, infatuation).

The themes surrounding this notion, while coming across as somewhat pedestrian, still speak to the longing in every man’s heart for an incredible woman to share his life with.

It’s Knox Overstreet (played by Josh Charles)’s heart that I appreciated. He was passionate, and the complete opposite of callous – something that I think men should largely avoid being even despite a society that applauds that sort of thing.

Yes, watching him act out his affection for a girl he barely knew was a little cringe at times, but it was him. It was how he truly felt about her. All guys at that age have been in that situation, and if you say you haven’t, you’re lying.



Wrap Up

At the end of the day, Dead Poets Society to me is surely one of the most important films ever put on the big screen. Not only is its message profoundly liberating and cathartic, but the cinematography, the colors, the acting, and the score are all nearly perfect.

Everything about it hearkens back to what it’s truly like to be young again. To embrace your youth with open arms. Where anything was possible. A time when we as humans hadn’t quite grown into the cynical windbags that we are now (I’m speaking to myself).

That fleeting moment in the grand scope of the universe only merely remembered, never to be replicated, but always cherished.

Robin Williams’ John Keating is perhaps his finest acting role (in a photo finish with his portrayal of Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting); he’s complex, genuine, affectionate towards his students, and incredibly arresting as a character all at once. He not only demands your attention, but he keeps it.

The fact that he could keep my eyes glued to the screen for the entire duration of the film in today’s ADD landscape is surely an incredible feat given that most people have the attention span of a fly. Never mind the fact that it was made in 1989 and deals with timeless concepts and ideas.

It’s a movie, and it’s a story, but more importantly, Dead Poets Society is a piece of cinematic art that I will never forget.

Never Forget.

Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this Dead Poets Society Review and came away with some valuable insight.

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Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

Have you seen this film? If so, what do you think? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,





Dead Poets Society






Themes / Character Development


Acting Performances


Overall Message



  • Incredible, timeless message
  • Pitch perfect acting
  • Amazing Cinematography
  • Perfect Score


  • Neil's father could have been explored deeper
  • Love story was a bit cringe at times

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