I know that it’s English teacher heresy, but I find Dead Poets Society impossibly sad.
Peter Weir’s 1989 film has become a personal classic, falling into the genre of “teacher movies” that I consume with the same emotional voracity that some men I know attach to sports or war movies. I love these movies, and watch them again and again, unashamed. Dead Poets Society is one of my favorites, but it breaks my heart, every time.
Friday afternoon, my students finish their vocabulary test with enough time to finish Dead Poets Society, which we’ve been watching for the past three days. I had to dismiss class yesterday at possibly the most depressing moment of film that I know of. Today, we watch the final ten minutes, which wrap up the film with a faint taste of redemption. This causes my energetic seventh period to burst into peals of applause, cheering anew at every fresh revelation. They leave happy, declaring that this was “a really good movie” and thanking me for sacrificing the class time to “let us watch the whole thing.”
I laugh at the latter comment, testimony my egregious habit of tantalizing my classes with small bits of movies, almost never showing one in its entirety, but the first comment sticks with me longer. A really good movie. What do they mean by this? Did they not see how sad it was? I asked one class, as they left, if the movie was “worth the sadness.” Almost unanimously, my students declared that it was.
I’ve written before about the necessary tragedies depicted in works of art, how any honest reflection–even on topics like love and beauty–must also include the brokenness that is common to human life. We see it in nearly every work of literature we study, with the notable exception of the wealthier idealists, Emerson and Thoreau.
The other authors agree: this life we live, this world we inhabit, it is full of trouble. I know this, and I respect these brilliant writers for telling the truth. So why do I still flinch every time I watch Dead Poets Society, or read Lord of the Flies or Of Mice And Men with a new class of young people?
These are the moments when I am most thankful that I have the freedom to remind my students, and myself, that we have hope in Christ, in the midst of the very real brokenness of human life. That, in the end, He offers greater redemption than the soaring final moments of Dead Poets Society, which are bittersweet, at best. I’m struck, again, with the realization that it’s only through His victory that I have the strength to look again and again into the suffering that surrounds us, whether real or fictional, and live joyfully in the face of sorrow.
Consider it pure joy, James suggests, when you face trials of many kinds. I don’t yet know how, completely, but at least I’m certain where to find the root of this joy, no matter what I happen to read or see along the way.