OSCARS! In honor of this day, I’ve devoted a two-part blog to the representation of graduate school in Hollywood films.
So, as you noted from Part One, there aren’t so many movies set in graduate school or even with grad students as characters. To recap, most films that people come up with when asked this question feature LAW or MED school students, but not arts and sciences PhD students.
I think I assumed there were at least a few good ones, because I rationalized that I must have had some kind of image in my mind about what graduate school “looked like” before I… signed up for it. I assumed that that image came from either novels or movies. But after some investigating, I realized this “image” must have come more from novels than movies, or maybe just from something that I made up in my head based on romantic ideas of scholarship and academia that came from the pleasure I take in reading and being alone in a library. Wherever I got my “ideas” from, it probably wasn’t from movies, because, the truth is, there just ain’t that many movies out there.
That said, with a little digging, I was able to come up with a list of my own with some additional titles on it for us to check out. I haven’t seen all of these, so I won’t attempt to rank them or call it my “Top Ten” or anything like that. But, here’s a little filmography of movies featuring some element of graduate school. Criteria for this list: the movie has to have a character that either is, or was, a graduate student during, or just previous to, the action of the movie. Alternatively, if the character refers to graduate school in a significant way (teaching perhaps?), or was significantly shaped by graduate school, meaning that he or she is living a scholarly life that reflects a graduate school education, I also included the movie. Finally, the said graduate program cannot be law or med school.
Proof (2005): I don’t want to give away the plot, because it is a great little movie if you haven’t seen it, but the film involves graduate level math work that, within the world of the movie, would revolutionize the mathematics world. Originally a play.
Possession (2002): main characters are literary scholars in pursuit of the identity of a famous Victorian poet’s lover to whom he wrote beautiful letters.
The Addiction (1995): main character is a philosophy grad student turned into vampire! Sounds amazing!
The Shape of Things (2003): Features a romance between an English lit major and a graduate art student. Also originally a play.
The Last Supper (1995): A group of graduate students host a series of murderous dinner parties during their summer break. Seems like an interesting representation of grad students!!
Tenure (2009): Not exactly grad life, but in this film, with the young professors trying to get tenured, it has the atmosphere of grad school.
Marathon Man (1976): Never saw this but apparently, according to IMDB, Hoffman’s character is a history grad student.
Wonder Boys (2000): Can’t remember if these students are undergrad creative writing students or MFA students, but either way it has the intense feeling of what I would imagine a competitive MFA program to be like.
PHD the Movie (2011): Piled Higher and Deeper, our favorite grad-school comic, made a movie this year! Making the rounds at Universities all over the country – expect witty and satirical portraits of grad life, just like the comics.
Naturally Obsessed (2009): Documentary, not fiction, it follows the life of grad students in the microbiology department of Columbia University. Seems like it might be a good one to watch!
Okay, so maybe all of these aren’t “grad school movies” the way Animal House, Rudy, St. Elmo’s Fire, and With Honors are “college movies” – but you get the idea. If you've seen any of these, write in and let us know how accurate the depiction of grad life is!!!
To conclude: On a message board thread about this very topic, a poster asked, “Given the types of people who go to grad school and the life drama that ensues there, I'd think grad school days would be rich fodder for fiction/fictionalized memoir. What am I missing?” This question parallels the one I proposed in my last blog entry. The response to this post, by someone (with the handle “Brain Glutton”), also parallels some of what I was thinking as I realized that most “grad school” movies featured law or med students:
“Audience appeal. If the subject the characters are studying is an important part of the drama -- and it is, to real-life grad students -- then the scenario is too intellectual for most people -- too intellectual for most intellectuals, in fact, if involves a grad program outside their own field of expertise. To make it accessible, you have to make it about a law school or med school, something that produces professionals whom the average person has to deal with, and who do things the average person understands at least in general principles.”
There are a couple of points here I’d like to discuss. First, I love how Brain Glutton doesn’t pull any punches. She, or he, answers right off the bat – What’s missing? “Audience appeal.” BAM. Right across the face. Then we get the assessment explaining why a movie set in graduate school would lack audience appeal: “Too intellectual,” not “accessible,” not dealing with “things the average person understands.” This reasoning assumes at least two things: that movies are usually made to appeal to the widest audience possible (which is probably true); and that academic intellectual pursuits are not widely appealing (which is probably true in the US at least.) Hence, therefore: movies about academic intellectual pursuits are not usually made. There’s a great little syllogism.
What do you readers think about this assessment? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Enjoy Oscars Night!!! Make sure to fill out your scorecard!! Until next time, Liza