Dead Poets Society: The tragic mistake made in an otherwise fine movie

<i>Dead Poets Society</i> missed an opportunity to rail against the appalling plague that youth suicide has become.

Dead Poets Society missed an opportunity to rail against the appalling plague that youth suicide has become. Photo: Getty

Anniversaries roll around – 75 years since Bretton Woods, 50 years since Apollo 11 and, a movie critic reminds his readers, 30 years since Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society.

No, the movie isn’t in the same class as the other two, but it was a very fine movie, important to many young people at the time.

Less remarked upon is that it was tragically flawed.

This is a column I prepared earlier, much earlier – nearly four years ago, part of it five years ago. Anniversaries provide the excuse to do that.

What I wrote in November 2015 was that the death of the loved and famous isn’t over quickly. It lingers and is reprised, sometimes warmly, beautifully, sometimes painfully.

The reprisal in question was Robin Williams’ death 15 months before, brought up afresh by his widow in a television interview explaining his mental deterioration.

The manner and possible impact of Williams’ death caused me to record a long-held complaint about the serious flaw in Dead Poets Society.

In many ways it was an inspirational film, art, but in my opinion it failed because of the omission of a final impassioned speech by Robin Williams’ character on how suicide betrayed the essential message of “seizing the day”.

I wrote that Neil’s death was allowed to lie there as an unanswered dramatic statement, a convenient theatrical dénouement.

It annoyed me at the time and annoys me still, as it left a film with enormous youth appeal and much joy apparently accepting suicide as a big statement, as a comprehensible way out of difficulty.

In Neil’s case, it could be construed as something like revenge on controlling parents, parents who still didn’t subsequently understand their son.

suicide as portrayed in Dead Poets Society

The cast of Dead Poets Society from 1989. Photo: Getty

An opportunity was missed to rail against the appalling plague that youth suicide has become.

For all our sorrow for the afflicted individual and, hopefully, our care for the depressed, the dreadful ending of a precious, loved, young life cannot be treated as anything less than the most misguided and total mistake, as horrific waste, as utterly unnecessary and ignoble.

Dead Poets Society didn’t do that.

The fear of copycat deaths that stalks parents and schools after a suicide may have been assuaged just a little by the Williams speech that wasn’t there. It angered me.

Reaction was, shall we say, mixed. Some people were angered, some appreciated the thoughts. So it goes.

Months later, I received an email that made the negative comments matter not. It was very personal from a man closer to the pain of youth suicide than I have been.

I asked him for permission to publish his email. He agreed on the condition of being allowed to rewrite the original, deleting some comments and personal information as he wanted to remain anonymous. He redrafted the email a couple of times. Here’s the final version:


I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for writing the Dead Poets Society piece in August. I just bumped into it while doing research on suicide prevention.

I had the same reaction to the film years ago. Why?

Approximately two weeks after watching Dead Poets Society, my son, a real-life poet, ended his life in almost the identical manner.  We had no idea he was depressed.

Why would the film portray suicide as a reasonable, almost noble solution to Neil’s perceived problem? Why would it not, as you note, denounce it in some manner? All that is shown after the suicide is that everyone is sad and angry. I know the feeling and I did not even have to act it out.

Why not at least include an educational message of hope within or after the film that says something like, “Suicide is not the answer, if you are depressed or considering suicide call this number or talk with a counsellor?” We know from some writings we discovered after his death that my son had thoughts of suicide for a month or more prior to watching this film but I can’t help believe that seeing it had a huge impact on him. Inspirational perhaps.

I don’t blame Robin Williams at all. Not for his role as an actor in this film or for being a victim of suicide. The illness that is depression can strike any of us regardless of our profession, place in society or celebrity. It does not discriminate.

However, I do share your grudge about the film. Had it included a responsible message, powerfully delivered by Williams as you suggest, it may have even inspired my son to seek help. Rather, it may have served to confirm his suicidal ideations and extinguish yet another ember of hope.

Thank you for shedding light on the pivotal role that the media and entertainment industry play in this epidemic of youth suicide.

A case of art not imitating, but playing, a role in ending life.

I published his email on my website. Why? Why extend the celebrity death media focus?

That reprisal of Williams’ suicide story came shortly after something else: The discovery that an old friend, someone I regarded as one of the strongest people I know, someone I would want beside me in the trenches if it ever came to that, had been suicidal for much of his youth.

Perhaps it is testimony to his strength that he daily fought anxiety and nobody knew. I don’t think I shock easily, but it shocked me to find that out – underlining how little we ever know of people.

I asked my friend about the Williams piece and the father’s message and he approved of both. He was glad of them. He told me all that stopped him becoming another statistic was fear of the possibility of hellfire from the remnants of religion he then had and not wanting to embarrass his family.

There are times when nothing can be said, when suffering is palpable and when any words of comfort would be known to be lies because there is no comfort for the death of a child. Never.

I have not felt such mute, mutual sorrow, such silence, as when standing among several hundred people outside a full college chapel, while a young man’s parents were led out after prayers on the Monday after the Saturday he had died, still days before his funeral.

The funeral would celebrate his precious life but the aching fresh devastation of his loss was beyond expression, striking us dumb, as every parent bled for his bleeding parents.

The awful silence that has stayed with me, the absence of sound in such a crowd on a summer’s evening under crimson bougainvillea tumbling over the colonnades.

There are guidelines for reporting on suicide, what should and should not be written.

But that father’s email and other feedback suggests that, while observing those guidelines, we shouldn’t pussyfoot around about it.

The depressed and anxious need to be supported, victims’ families and friends held close, but suicide is to be raged against, unlike its Dead Poets Society treatment.

If you are experiencing difficulty or need support, help is available:

Lifeline is a confidential telephone crisis support service available 24/7: 13 11 14

MensLine: 1300 78 99 78

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 

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