I am in my early thirties, and Dead Poets Society was a necessary coming of age film for me and so many others of my generation. It reminded me of so many things that I loved in my life and still others that I wanted. The nights of sneaking out to the cave reminded me of summer camp kitchen raids and nights spent on the docks, watching the stars. I also had a vocal desire to go to boarding school, mostly to escape my hometown. The more knowledgeable adult tells me that boarding school would likely have been worse, but I wanted out from a young age, in any case. Dead Poets Society was it for me, and when Todd Anderson stood up on his desk at the end of the movie, it sent a thrill skating up my spine.
Until tonight, I had not watched Dead Poets Society since I was a teenager. Many of my teenage loves have become constants in my life and stuck beside me through the changes that adulthood has brought, but Dead Poets Society was one that I would exclaim over if it came up in conversation, but I never went out of my way to watch it. Something about it occupied a space in my mind alongside other loved works and ideas that had slowly been left behind, like John Hughes films, Sweet Valley High books, and the idea that Republicans were the ones that were right.
As I listened to Robin Williams whisper “Carpe Diem” to the boys in front of the trophy cases and talk about how those alumni from years long past were now worm food and as I watched the character of Mr. Keating encourage these boys to embrace their inner hero and become men, it struck an emotional, resonant chord. This was not a new feeling, but thanks to maturity and probably Jordan Peterson, I understood the resonance with a far greater clarity, and suddenly the movie leapt out of the past and become living again. Indeed, it became vital in a way that it never had been before.
The eyes of my teenaged self had seen something that I wanted superficially. I wanted to get away. I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to have marvelous experiences with my friends. I wanted to be something like these young men, but I didn’t understand why, except that it all looked pretty fun until tragedy struck.
That same naïve teenager saw nothing deeper in Neil Perry’s untimely death than a cruel parent, unable and unwilling to understand that his son was not the person that he wanted the boy to be. Every teenager will identify with that because growing apart from one’s parents is part of growing up. The adult in me saw the same thing, but the adult in me was also able to carry it one step further and see the much larger picture.
Watch the movie. Most people will find themselves wanting and believing that Neil Perry is the hero. He should be. He defies his oppressive father. He breaks school rules with a cheerful, intelligent optimism common to most heroes in these sorts of movies. Every time Neil says something smart or finds a way around his father’s tyranny, we cheer aloud for him. The movie is supposed to end at the end of the play. Neil’s father is supposed to see him, realize the error of his ways, embrace his son, and encourage him to be his own person and forge his own path. Instead, he yanks his son out of this “midsummer night’s dream” and effectively damns him to hell for what to a teenager feels like an eternity – 10 years. Rather than accept his fate or continue striving against his father, Neil puts a gun to his head and suddenly, he is no longer the hero.
At this point, the movie is without its hero. Charlie Dalton is, in ways, the most likely second candidate and, in his own way, is a hero, but he fails to fulfill the archetypal role because he always leaves the viewer with the sense that he is only heroic because he is rebelling. There is an instinctual understanding that he has no real path in mind, or at least not in the way that Neil did. He has the essential bravery but without a true purpose in mind, and in the end, he is expelled and removed from our consideration as a true hero, although Charlie Dalton should certainly be given his due for his final moments onscreen.
Todd Anderson, while not the most unlikely candidate, is not the kid that you want to root for. He seems small and ineffectual. He doesn’t talk much, and he is scared even to write and read a poem in class. Neil has to point out to him the fact that, at points, he can’t even seem to be on the side of his friends. He simply wants to go along and get along. Only when he is pushed by Mr. Keating, the great font of truth and benevolent fatherhood, does he begin to show signs of strength and character.
As the chips fall against Mr. Keating (and truth) at the end of the movie, it is evident that Todd is deeply affected by this turn of events. He does not want to add his voice to a chorus that he knows to be dishonest to its core. In the quietly climactic final scene, he climbs to his desk and utters that famous phrase, “O Captain, my Captain,” and one by one, most of his classmates follow his brave example and express their solidarity with Mr. Keating. Todd emerges perhaps the most unlikely hero of all.
The story is moving because it expresses so many things that have touched us all, if we have attained a certain number of years. We must all find the bravery to break away and forge our own paths in life. However, it is never clear that those paths will bring us to the best place or even a good one. Sometimes those choices lead us to our own demise. The likeliest hero is sometimes cut down. And knowing this makes it all the more difficult to find that individual path. Todd is not the hero because he is as brave as Neil, but he is the hero because he expresses solidarity with the truth of the idea that we all have to be free to make our own choices in life, even if those choices lead us to a dark, bad place.
The impact of this realization was quite moving to me, as the bagpipe strains sounded and the credits rolled, and Dead Poets Society was made new for me. I have gone down the path of Neil Perry. I went my own way, and not all of the choices I made were good ones. I figuratively shot myself in the head on at least two occasions. I have been through quite a bit of hardship in my life, some of which was inevitable and some of which was largely avoidable. I have chosen to view the avoidable hardship as constructive, as something that perhaps needed to happen to bring me to maturity, knowing that there was no guarantee that I would get there otherwise.
Christmas is a hard time of year for me for the same reasons that it is hard for a lot of people. It magnifies our shortcomings with our family. It perhaps magnifies empty chairs at the table where a loved one no longer sits. It magnifies feelings that we have inside of us that perhaps we feel should not be there. Despite that, I am leaving this Christmas behind feeling that I have gained something genuinely great and inspiring through my experiences, and I feel a wonderful sense of gratitude knowing that I’ll live to fight another day. I like to think that I might even have the ability to accomplish more now than I would have otherwise had.
I doubt that I will watch Dead Poets Society again for a long time. Its place is genuinely in the past, but we would all do well to learn from our own pasts. Sometimes it takes a Christmas visit from an old friend to impress upon you the importance of what you have learned, that truth is a tangible thing in the world that is worth defending, and that the pursuit of happiness, however you define it, is the ultimate goal of all people in this world. The road may be long and hard, but that it be uniquely our own to pursue – that is something worth fighting for.