The film received critical acclaim and was a box office success. It won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, and César Award and David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. Schulman received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work.
In the autumn of 1959, shy Todd Anderson begins his senior year of high school at Welton Academy, an all-male, elite prep school. He is assigned one of Welton's most promising students, Neil Perry, as his roommate and is quickly accepted by Neil's friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton.
On the first day of classes, they are surprised by the unorthodox teaching methods of the new English teacher John Keating, a Welton alumnus who encourages his students to "make your lives extraordinary", a sentiment he summarizes with the Latin expression carpe diem. Subsequent lessons include having them take turns standing on his desk to teach the boys how they must look at life in a different way, telling them to rip out the introduction of their poetry books which explains a mathematical formula used for rating poetry, and inviting them to make up their own style of walking in a courtyard to encourage them to be individuals. His methods attract the attention of strict headmaster Gale Nolan.
Upon learning that Keating was a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society while he was at Welton, Neil restarts the club and he and his friends sneak off campus to a cave where they read poetry and verse, including their own compositions. As the school year progresses, Keating's lessons and their involvement with the club encourage them to live their lives on their own terms. Knox pursues Chris Noel, a girl who is dating a football player from a public school and whose family is friends with his. Neil discovers his love of acting and gets the lead in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, despite the fact that his domineering father wants him in the Ivy League (and ultimately medical school). 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 composing a poem spontaneously in front of the class.
However, Charlie takes things too far when he publishes an article in the school newspaper in the club's name demanding that girls be admitted to Welton. Nolan uses corporal punishment to coerce Charlie into revealing 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.
Neil's father discovers Neil's involvement in the play and forces him to quit on the eve of the opening performance. Devastated, Neil goes to Keating, who advises him to stand his ground and prove to his father that his love of acting is something he takes seriously. Neil's father unexpectedly shows up at the performance. He takes Neil home and says he has been withdrawn from Welton, only to be enrolled in a military academy to prepare him for Harvard. Unable to find the courage to stand up to his father, a distraught Neil commits suicide.
Nolan investigates Neil's death at the request of the Perry family. Richard blames Neil's death on Keating to escape punishment for his own participation in the Dead Poets Society, and names the other members. Confronted by Charlie, Richard urges the rest of them to let Keating take the fall. Charlie punches Richard and is expelled. Each of the boys is called to Nolan's office to sign a letter attesting to the truth of Richard's allegations, even though they know they are false. When Todd's turn comes, he is reluctant to sign, but does so after seeing that the others have complied.
Keating is fired and Nolan takes over teaching the class. Keating interrupts the class to collect personal articles; before he leaves, Todd shouts that all of them were forced to sign the letter that resulted in his dismissal and that Neil's death was not his fault. Todd stands on his desk and salutes Keating with the words "O Captain! My Captain!". Knox, Gerard, Steven, and over half of the class do the same, ignoring Nolan's orders to sit down. Keating is deeply touched by their gesture. He thanks the boys and departs.
The 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. A scene in the original script showing Keating dying in a hospital was removed by film director Peter Weir, giving Todd's gesture of standing on his desk the meaning of standing for one's belief. Filming took place at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, and at locations in New Castle, Delaware and in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
The worldwide box office was reported as $235,860,116, which includes domestic grosses of $95,860,116. The film's global receipts were the fifth-highest for 1989, and the highest for dramas.
Dead Poets Society holds an 85% approval rating and average rating of 7.2/10 on Rotten Tomatoes based on 54 reviews. The site'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." The film also holds a score of 79 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 14 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
The Washington Post reviewer called it "solid, smart entertainment", and praised Robin Williams for giving a "nicely restrained acting performance". Vincent Canby of The New York Times also praised Williams' "exceptionally fine performance", while noting that "Dead Poets Society ... is far less about Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys". Pauline Kael was unconvinced by the film, and its "middlebrow highmindedness", but praised Williams. "Robin Williams' 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."
Roger Ebert's review was largely negative, only giving the film two out of four stars. He criticized Williams for spoiling an otherwise creditable dramatic performance by occasionally veering into his onstage comedian's persona, and lamented that for a movie 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." On their Oscar Nomination edition of Siskel & Ebert, both Gene Siskel (who also gave the film a mixed review) and Ebert disagreed with Williams' Oscar nomination, with Ebert saying that he would have swapped Williams with either Matt Dillon for Drugstore Cowboy or John Cusack for Say Anything. On their If We Picked the Winners special in March 1990, moreover, Ebert chose the film's Best Picture nomination as the worst nomination of the year, believing it took a slot that could have gone to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
Dead Poets Society won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman). Peter Weir received a nomination for Best Director and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Robin Williams received his second Best Actor in a Leading Role nomination and it has since been widely recognized as one of the actor/comedian's best roles. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.Academy Awards (USA) 1990Won: Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman)
Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robin Williams)
Nominated: Director (Peter Weir)
Nominated: Best Picture (Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, Producers)
BAFTA Awards (UK) 1989Won: Best Film
Won: Best Original Film Score (Maurice Jarre)
Nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Robin Williams)
Nominated: Best Achievement in Direction (Peter Weir)
Nominated: Best Editing (William Anderson)
Nominated: Best Original Screenplay (Tom Schulman)
César Awards (France)Won: Best Foreign Film
David di Donatello Awards (Italy)Won: Best Foreign Film
Directors Guild of America (USA)Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures (Peter Weir)
Golden Globe Awards (USA)Nominated: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama (Robin Williams)
Nominated: Best Director – Motion Picture (Peter Weir)
Nominated: Best Motion Picture – Drama
Nominated: Best Screenplay – Motion Picture (Tom Schulman)
Writers Guild of America (USA)Nominated: Best Screenplay – Original (Tom Schulman)
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.
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.
After Robin Williams' 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.
N. H. Kleinbaum's novel, Dead Poets Society (1989), is based on the movie.
A theatrical adaptation written by Tom Schulman and directed by John Doyle opened Off-Broadway on October 27, 2016, and running through December 11, 2016. Jason Sudeikis stars as John Keating 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, William Hochman as Knox Overstreet, Cody Kostro as Charlie Dalton, Yaron Lotan as Richard Cameron and Bubba Weiler as Steven Meeks.
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.
The ending of the film was satirized in the Saturday Night Live sketch, "Farewell, Mr. Bunting", in which a student, upon climbing onto his desk, is decapitated by a ceiling fan.