Dead Poets Society
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPeter Weir
Written byTom Schulman
Produced by
StarringRobin Williams
CinematographyJohn Seale
Edited byWilliam Anderson
Music byMaurice Jarre
Distributed byBuena Vista Pictures Distribution
Release date
  • June 2, 1989 (1989-06-02)
Running time
128 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$16.4 million[2]
Box office$235.9 million[3]

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

Dead Poets Society was released in the United States on June 2, 1989. The film was a critical and commercial success. It grossed $235 million worldwide, became the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1989, and received generally positive reviews from critics. The film received numerous accolades, including Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as a Best Actor nomination for Williams. The film won the BAFTA Award for Best Film,[5] the César Award for Best Foreign Film and the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. Schulman received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work.


In 1959, Todd Anderson begins his junior year of high school at Welton Academy, an Episcopalian all-male preparatory boarding school in Vermont. Assigned one of Welton's most promising students, senior Neil Perry, as his roommate, he meets Neil's friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts and Charlie Dalton.

On the first day of classes, the boys are surprised by the unorthodox teaching methods of the new English teacher, John Keating. A Welton alumnus who read English Literature at Cambridge, England, and became a teacher, Mr. Keating encourages his students to "seize the day", or "carpe diem".

Keating has the students take turns standing on his desk to demonstrate ways to look at life differently, tells them to rip out the introduction of their poetry books that explains a mathematical formula used for rating poetry, and invites them to make up their own style of walking in a courtyard to encourage their individualism. Keating's methods attract the attention of strict headmaster, Gale Nolan.

On learning that Keating was a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society while at Welton, Neil restarts the club, and he and his friends sneak off campus to a cave, where they read poetry. Keating's lessons and their involvement with the club encourage them to live their lives on their own terms. Knox pursues Chris Noel, a cheerleader who is dating Chet Danburry, a football player from a local public school, and whose family is friends with his.

Neil discovers his love of acting, and gets the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, despite the fact that his domineering father wants him to attend Harvard to study medicine. 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 spontaneously composing a poem in front of the class.

Charlie publishes an article in the school newspaper in the club's name suggesting that girls be admitted to Welton. Nolan paddles Charlie to coerce him to reveal 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. Keating admonishes the boys, warning them that one must assess all potential consequences of one's actions.

Neil's father discovers his involvement in the play and demands that he quit on the eve of the opening performance. Keating advises Neil to stand his ground to prove to his father that he takes acting seriously. After Neil participates in the play, his father withdraws him from Welton and enrolls him in a military academy in retaliation. Lacking any support from his mother and unable to explain how he feels to his father, Neil commits suicide.

Nolan investigates Neil's death at the request of Neil's parents. To escape punishment for his own participation in the Dead Poets Society, Cameron blames Neil's death on Keating, and names the Society's other members. Confronted by Charlie, Cameron urges the other students to let Keating take the fall. Charlie punches Cameron and is expelled. Each of the boys is called to Nolan's office to sign a letter confirming Cameron's false allegations. When Todd's turn comes, he is reluctant to sign, but does so under the pressure of his parents, resulting in Keating's firing.

Nolan, who taught English at Welton prior to becoming headmaster, takes over Keating's English class with the intent of adhering to traditional Welton rules. Keating interrupts the class to gather his belongings. As he leaves, Todd reveals to Keating that the boys were intimidated into signing the letter that sealed his fate. Keating assures Todd that he believes him. Nolan threatens to expel Todd and anyone else who speaks out of line. Despite this, Todd stands up on his desk and says the words, "O Captain! My Captain!". The other members of the Dead Poets Society (except Cameron), as well as several other students in the class, do the same. Touched by their support, Keating proudly thanks the boys before departing.




The original 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.[7][8][9]

Jeff Kanew was originally hired as the director, and Kanew had envisioned Liam Neeson in the role of Keating.[10] Other actors considered for the role were Dustin Hoffman,[11] Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Mickey Rourke.[12][13] Robin Williams, who was Touchstone Pictures's preferred choice, was ultimately cast, but on the first day of shooting outside Atlanta, Williams did not show, for he did not want to work with Kanew.[14] The studio burned down the already-built sets, and replaced Kanew with another director.[14]

In late 1988, Peter Weir met with Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney. Katzenberg, who oversaw Touchstone, suggested that Weir read Schulman's script. On the flight back to Sydney, Weir was captivated, and six weeks later returned to Los Angeles to cast the principal characters.[15] It was when Weir was given directing duties that filming began in earnest.[14]

In Schulman's manuscript, Keating had been ill and slowly dying of Hodgkin lymphoma, with a scene showing him on his hospital deathbed. This was removed by Weir, who deemed it unnecessary, claiming that it would focus audiences' attention on Keating's illness, rather than on what he stood for.[16]

Early notes on the script from Disney also suggested making the boys' passion dancing rather than poetry, as well as a new title, Sultans of Swing, focusing on the character of Mr. Keating, rather than on the boys, but both were dismissed outright.[15]


Filming began in November 1988, wrapped in January 1989, and took place at St. Andrew's School and the Everett Theatre in Middletown, Delaware, as well as at locations in New Castle, Delaware, and in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.[9][17] Classroom scenes with Keating were filmed in a replica classroom built on a soundstage in Wilmington.[9] During the shooting, Weir requested that the young cast not use modern slang, even off camera.[18] Weir also said that he hid a half-day's filming from Disney executives to allow Williams free range to use his comedy improvisational skills.[19]

During filming, Williams cracked many jokes on set, which Ethan Hawke found irritating. However, Hawke's first agent signed with Hawke when Williams told him that Hawke would "do really well".[20][19]


Box office

The worldwide box office was reported as $235,860,579, 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.[21]

Critical response

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 84%, based on 61 reviews, with an average score of 7.2/10. The website'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."[22] On Metacritic, the film received a score of 79, based on 14 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[23] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a rare "A+" grade on a scale of A+ to F.[24]

The Washington Post's reviewer called it "solid, smart entertainment", and praised Robin Williams for giving a "nicely restrained acting performance".[25]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times also praised Williams's "exceptionally fine performance", while writing that "Dead Poets Society... is far less about Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys".[4]

Pauline Kael was unconvinced about the film and its "middlebrow highmindedness", but praised Williams. "Robin Williams'[s] 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."[26]

Roger Ebert's review for the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film two stars out of four. He criticized Williams for spoiling an otherwise creditable dramatic performance by occasionally veering into his onstage comedian's persona, and lamented that for a film 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."[27]

On their Oscar-nomination edition of Siskel & Ebert, both Gene Siskel (who also gave the film a mixed review) and Ebert disagreed with Williams's Oscar nomination. Ebert said that he would have swapped Williams with either Matt Dillon for Drugstore Cowboy or John Cusack for Say Anything.[28] On their If We Picked the Winners special in March 1990, Ebert chose the film's Best Picture nomination as the worst nomination of the year, believing that it took a slot that could have gone to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.[29]

Film historian Leonard Maltin wrote, "Well made, extremely well acted, but also dramatically obvious and melodramatically one-sided. Nevertheless, Tom Schulman's screenplay won an Oscar."[30]

John Simon, writing for National Review, said that Dead Poets Society was the most dishonest film that he had seen in some time.[31]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Picture Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, and Tony Thomas Nominated [32]
Best Director Peter Weir Nominated
Best Actor Robin Williams Nominated
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Tom Schulman Won
Argentine Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film Peter Weir Nominated
Artios Awards Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Casting – Drama Howard Feuer Won [33]
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards Top Box Office Films Maurice Jarre Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Film Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, and Peter Weir Won [34]
Best Direction Peter Weir Nominated
Best Actor in a Leading Role Robin Williams Nominated
Best Screenplay – Original Tom Schulman Nominated
Best Editing William M. Anderson Nominated
Best Original Film Score Maurice Jarre Won
British Society of Cinematographers Awards Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature Film John Seale Nominated [35]
César Awards Best Foreign Film Peter Weir Won [36]
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Most Promising Actor Robert Sean Leonard Nominated [37]
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Film Peter Weir Won
Best Foreign Director Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Robin Williams Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Peter Weir Nominated [38]
Golden Ciak Awards Best Foreign Film Peter Weir Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [39]
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Robin Williams Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Peter Weir Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Tom Schulman Nominated
Golden Screen Awards Won
Joseph Plateau Awards Best Foreign Film Won
Jupiter Awards Best International Film Peter Weir Won
Best International Actor Robin Williams Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Director Peter Weir Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 6th Place [40]
Online Film & Television Association Awards Film Hall of Fame: Productions Inducted [41]
Political Film Society Awards Democracy Won
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film 6th Place
Warsaw Film Festival Audience Award Peter Weir Won [42]
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Tom Schulman Nominated [43]
Young Artist Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Won [44]

American Film Institute Lists

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.[45]

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.[46]


After Robin Williams's 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.[47]


Nancy H. Kleinbaum's novel, Dead Poets Society (1989), is based on the movie.[48]

Stage play

A theatrical adaptation written by Tom Schulman and directed by John Doyle opened off-Broadway October 27, 2016, and ran through December 11, 2016.[49] Jason Sudeikis starred as John Keating,[50] 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, Will Hochman as Knox Overstreet, Cody Kostro as Charlie Dalton, Yaron Lotan as Richard Cameron, and Bubba Weiler as Steven Meeks.[51][52]

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.[53]

In 2018, the theatrical adaptation of the film, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Francisco Franco, premiered in Mexico. The Mexican actor, Alfonso Herrera, played the main character.[54]

An adaptation was made for the Bad Hersfelder Festspiele in Germany, also with the assistance of Tom Schulman. It premiered in July 2021, and was still staged two years later. The lead actor was Francis Fulton-Smith.[55]


The ending of the film was parodied in the 2009 Community episode, "Introduction to Film".[56]

The ending of the film was parodied in the 2016 Saturday Night Live sketch, "Farewell, Mr. Bunting", with Fred Armisen playing Williams's role. The sketch is a largely faithful recreation of the scene, until a student (Pete Davidson) is decapitated by a ceiling fan when he jumps on top of his desk.[57]


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Further reading

Awards and achievements Preceded byDangerous Liaisons César Award for Best Foreign Film 1991 Succeeded byToto the Hero (Toto le héros)