Cross-posting the full article from the Academic Affairs blog at the GC Advocate
In a previous GC Advocate article I presented my list of Top 10 academic films. I received some insightful feedback from various people who read the list. (And I heard from a couple of friends who chastised me for including John Singleton’s Higher Learning.)
To recap: I am interested in the academic film as an extension of the “academic novel.” Several of the works listed below were adapted from such novels. As the critic John Lyons simply put it in his 1962 critical study, The College Novel in America: “I consider a novel of academic life one in which higher education is treated with seriousness and the main characters are students or professors.” Extending this basic concept to film, my objective here is to find works that seriously examine the meaning of higher education in some way. (And I do believe that humor is certainly a valid way to examine higher education.)
Considering the literary form of the novel, it comes as no surprise that so many academic novels are set in English departments and deal with literature professors. And considering that several films have been adapted from this pool of academic novels, that dominance extends into academic films. I’ve tried to identify a few more films outside of literature, and I’m always on the lookout for more. Apparently David Cronenberg is at work on an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, a novel about an academic physicist, so there is some hope on the horizon.
Limiting my previous list to 10 films meant excluding a number of other worthy examples in this genre. So here are some brief comments on 10 more academic films I considered for the previous article. Just the for the fun of it I’m ranking these as well, from 20 to 11. I am also including a short list of several other notable films that fit the criteria, though this is certainly not a comprehensive list. If anyone has any more suggestions, we’d love to read your comments.
20. Possession (2002) – This film is based on the novel by A.S. Byatt. The director Neil LaBute is known for some appallingly awful male characters, but the closest we get to that here is the faint whiff of crass Americanism in the character of Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), a literary scholar from the U.S. studying in England on a fellowship. The film follows the story of Mitchell and British literary scholar Maud Bailey (Paltrow) as they research a romance between two fictional Victorian era poets. Rarely has any film dealt with the intricacies of literary scholarship at this level of detail, (though, yes, all the sleuthing is a tad exaggerated). The period setting and costumes in the overlapping historical narrative were quite lovely. That said, I imagine this film is precisely the kind of dry, pretentious exercise that most people have in mind when I tell them that I’m interested in films about higher education. Still, this is just too much of an academic film to dismiss entirely. Unfortunately the rich material in Byatt’s novel just did not seem to transfer well to the screen.
19. The Squid and the Whale (2005) – Directed by Noah Baumbach (who has made a name for himself chronicling the lives of discontented yuppie intellectuals) The Squid and the Whale is a family drama centered on a couple of PhDs raising a family in Brooklyn’s Park Slope in the 1980s. Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is a pompous literature professor and novelist who is oblivious to the fact that his literary star is rapidly fading. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is growing tired of his cantankerous attitude, and has literary aspirations of her own. Their two young sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) get caught up in the mix of their divorce, start acting out in various ways, and are forced to accept that their father may be more of an intellectual bully and manipulator than they realized. As for the academic content, there’s a storyline where Bernard takes up with a young female graduate student. His literary opinions also make for some biting moments of dry humor (in one dinner table conversation he dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens”). However, much of the story centers on the emotional family drama which is why, as much as I like it, I rank this one lower than other films that deal directly with higher education. Still I find it a wonderful film otherwise, especially if you happen to be familiar with this particular neighborhood and its literary denizens.
18. A Single Man (2009) – Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, the film was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford and it certainly has its share of pretty people, in pretty clothes, in pretty settings. However the film also calls attention to the homophobic political climate of the 1950s and 60s. Isherwood’s ironic title is mean to invoke the lack of social validity for homosexual relationships during that time. The main character, George (Colin Firth), is a British professor of literature teaching in Los Angeles in 1962, but he is far from a single man. He has in fact just lost his partner of 16 years in an automobile accident, but he is not even allowed to attend the funeral. (It’s for “family only” a sympathetic relative of his partner explains to him over the phone.) Claude Summers at glbtq.com has written an extensive and insightful article comparing the Isherwood novel with the film adaptation. As Summers put it: “If the film lacks the political edge and spiritual profundity of Isherwood’s novel, it compensates to some extent for these failings by its intense feeling, as well as its sensual and elegant style.”
17. Wonder Boys (2000) – Adapted from Michael Chabon’s novel of the same name, Wonder Boys features Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp, a pot-smoking creative writing professor and novelist at a university in Pittsburgh who has been working on an interminable novel for seven years and is dealing with a recent divorce. Two of his students are James Leer (Tobey Maguire), a socially awkward young writer who is obsessed with the details of celebrity suicides, and Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) who is infatuated with Tripp. The main set piece for the film is the university’s annual WordFest, a literary event that brings publishers and literary agents, among others, to the campus. The cinematography is striking, featuring lovely gothic campus scenes in the winter. I have not yet read the novel version, but the film seems to work wellon its own as an entertaining satire of the obnoxious eccentricity one sometimes finds among the students and professors in the nation’s MFA programs.
16. Tenure (2009) – This film came out in 2009 but apparently didn’t get much of a theatrical release. It features Luke Wilson in the role of Charlie Thurber, a young English professor up for tenure review at the fictional Gray College. Unfortunately for him he has spent his time becoming an engaging and effective teacher rather than padding his resume with boring peer-reviewed journal articles. The film is far from an accurate representation of how the tenure process actually works, but its heart is in the right place. It humorously addresses a very real and serious issue in academia: that devoted teaching is often valued less than academic stardom. Among the funniest bits in the film is the storyline with Thurber’s best friend (played by Jay Hadley), a wacky anthropology professor who spends his time combing the woods for evidence of the elusive Sasquatch. The online reviews of the film are middling, which might scare people off. And yes the film indulges in romantic comedy clichés (Gretchen Mol plays the hot young professor from Yale who is hired to replace Thurber, and they fall in love.) Still, I think the film has spirit and portrays the academic life with humor, thoughtfulness and a refreshing lack of pretention.
15. Disgrace(2008) – Here is another novel adaptation, this one based on J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. John Malkovich plays white South African literature professor David Lurie. Lurie is a literary scholar in his soul, and a lover of Wordsworth and Byron, but in a corporatized higher education system that has become dismissive of anything but the most immediately marketable subjects he is relegated to teaching dull “communications” classes to disinterested students. (Honestly, I cannot recall how well that distinction is driven home in the film, but it certainly resonated in the novel.) The story begins with an ill-advised relationship between Lurie and a “coloured” female student, a scandal which forces Lurie out of his teaching post. He leaves Johannesburg to visit his daughter Lucy in the countryside where they end up being the victims of an unrelated brutal attack by three young black men. The attack and Lucy’s complicated response to it, which is contextualized in the novel, really needed more historical-political background than the medium of film could allow. But otherwise it is a competent, well-paced adaptation of the novel, and a haunting and resonant piece of work on its own.
14. Educating Rita (1983) – In this film Michael Caine plays Frank Bryant, an apathetic and alcoholic literature professor who tutors Rita (Julie Walters) a spunky 26 year old working class student taking Open University courses. (The British equivalent of our adult education programs here). In this Pygmalion inspired screenplay Bryant takes a particular interest in Rita and introduces her to the world of literature and ideas. As Rita takes to her literary interests she finds that her newly discovered intellectual curiosity unexpectedly drives a wedge between herself and the working class community she came from. At the same time she does not feel at home in the privileged world of the academy either. The film is a wonderful representation of a student’s evolving consciousness and self-confidence, and is ultimately a compelling story about the kind of liberating self discovery that can come through an education in the humanities, particularly among students for whom such high-minded pursuits are considered materially “impractical.”
13. Something the Lord Made (2004) – As you may have noticed, most of these films are about the humanities (particularly English professors) but here is a great academic film that deals with the sciences. This HBO film tells the story of Vivien Thomas (wonderfully portrayed by Mos Def), a black surgical assistant who assisted Dr. Alfred Blalock (Alan Rickman) in developing an open heart procedure to cure “Blue Baby Syndrome.” Much of the film takes place in university research hospitals, at Vanderbilt University where Blalock first hired Thomas, and then later at Johns Hopkins University. Though he possessed a rare gift as a surgeon and was a self-taught medical researcher, Vivien Thomas was never able to afford to pursue his own medical degree. (The Depression of the 1930s exacerbated his financial troubles.) Thomas was hired and paid under the title of a janitor even though the work that he did for Blalock was that of a research assistant. The film subtly portrays the institutional and cultural racism of its time, such as one scene in the film when Thomas and a black friend are walking down a sidewalk chatting, casually stop their conversation to step aside and let white couples pass, then pick the conversation back up again without missing a beat. That Thomas did all this groundbreaking research while working in university hospitals where he was not even allowed to walk through the front door is just one of the many stories of injustice and institutional discrimination faced by African-Americans in the Jim Crow era.
12. Back to School (1986) – Rodney Dangerfield stars in this film as the buffoonish street-wise millionaire Thornton Melon, proprietor of a successful chain of “Tall and Fat” stores. To encourage his son Jason (Keith Gordon) to go to college and acquire the formal education he never had, Melon decides to enroll in school with him. This film is certainly a silly comedy chock full of Dangerfield’s signature one-liners, but it also captures something essential about the American attitude towards higher education. On the one hand we see college as a democratic means of upward mobility, but we also scoff at the college as a bastion of elitism and unearned privilege. Particularly interesting in Back to School is the conflict between Thorton Melon and Dr. Barbay, a pompous economics professor with whom Thorton is competing for the affections of English professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman). From Bill Gates to Kanye West we revel in our stories of rich and famous college dropouts. Dangerfield plays this quintessential archetype, a businessman without a college degree who made truckloads of money and gleefully gives the finger to all those smug college dons who insist that education is the only way to success, happiness or fulfillment. As much as I support higher education I think it’s also important to honor and cultivate that autodidactic, do-it-yourself spirit. The film splits the difference by showing Melon encouraging his son to pursue an educational opportunity even though he took a different route in his own life.
11. Kinsey (2004) – I have to confess that I really dropped the ball on this one. I saw this film in theaters when it came out in 2004, but it took another recent viewing for me to appreciate what an accomplishment it really is. This definitely should have been near the top of my previous list. Perhaps more than any other film I’ve listed so far Kinsey drives home the importance of academic freedom, and demonstrates how rational academic inquiry can have a huge impact on the larger society. The film is a skillfully constructed biopic based on the life of biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson) and the groundbreaking research on human sexuality he spearheaded at Indiana University. The film shows how Kinsey’s interest in zoology and the mating habits of insects and animals led him to question why similar scientific study had not been applied to human sexuality. The film dramatizes how important it is for public health, and for the health of democracy, to have accurate scientific knowledge about sexual practices available in the public sphere. It effectively portrays the dark ages of hypocrisy and misinformation out of which the feminist and gay rights movements emerged, and manages to do so without compromising on all the emotional and political complexity involved.
A few more films:
(Here are just a few more academic films that I identified but did not include in the Top 20)
Another Woman and Husbands and Wives. Both directed by Woody Allen. Another Woman is based on Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, and featured Gena Rowlands as a philosophy professor on sabbatical in New York writing a book. Husbands and Wives includes a storyline with Allen as a novelist and creative writing professor at Columbia University.
A Beautiful Mind– Directed by Ron Howard the film stars Russell Crowe as Princeton University mathematics professor John Nash.
Elegy – Based on Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal featuring David Kapesh (Ben Kinglsey) a professor of literature and “public intellectual.” Much of the academic content of the novel is absent in the film, but there’s plenty of naked Penelope Cruz, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Gaudy Night – Technically not a “film” but a 1987 three part BBC mini-series based on Dorothy Sayers’s 1936 mystery novel, set in an Oxford women’s college. Beyond the mystery plot, the story also deals with the politics of women’s education.
The Great Debaters – Produced by Oprah, directed by Dentzel Washington who plays Melvin Tolson, a poet and professor who directed the debate team at historically black Wiley College in Texas and led them to a pioneering debate against Harvard University. (It was actually against the University of Southern California).
Iris — Based on John Bayley’s memoir about his life with the novelist and professor Iris Murdoch. Murdoch and Bayley met, and both taught, at Oxford. Judi Dench gives a heartrending performance of Murdoch as she struggled with Alzheimer’s in her later years.
A Serious Man – The most autobiographical film from the Coen Brothers so far. The story centers on Larry Gopnick, a Jewish physics professor in 1967 suburban Minnesota who is beset by a series of Job-like calamities. Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in Minnesota by two academic parents. (Their father was an economist and their mother an art historian).
Stomp the Yard – Like Spike Lee’s School Daze, this was also filmed on my alma mater’s campus. But unlike Spike Lee this filmmaker seemed to think that black college students are incapable of any intelligent communication beyond snarling, scowling, fighting and dancing. Disappointing.
The Savages – Indie film stalwarts Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings who reluctantly have to care for their estranged father. Hoffman’s character is a theater professor in Buffalo, NY struggling to write a book on Bertolt Brecht.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – A classic film (based on Edward Albee’s play) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The film is more about an academic couple’s marital drama than about academia itself, but at least one other critic found it an iconic work of academic fiction. (“Who’s Afraid of the Campus Novel.”)
Even more films
(I haven’t seen these yet, but GC Advocate editor James Hoff has already been on my tail to hurry up and get something posted to this blog, so perhaps I’ll write about some of these in future posts.)