10 More Academic Films

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.)

The Absent-Minded Professor


Dark Mat­ter

Love Story

Mona Lisa Smile



Revenge of the Nerds

Spin­ning Into Butter

6 thoughts on “10 More Academic Films

  1. Pingback: Black Academic Fiction | "Schoolsville:" Academic/Campus/College/University Fiction

  2. Pingback: Storifying the Academy | THE OVER-EDUCATED NEGRO

  3. Pingback: Dark Matter | THE OVER-EDUCATED NEGRO

  4. Just came across your site today looking for reviews/interviews with Percival Everett (great essay). I am sure you have seen it but if you haven’t you need to check out Chameleon Street by Wendell B. Harris,Jr. While not strictly an academic film it does feature scenes on a college campus & features the main character’s rhapsody about the sanctity of the campus library.

    • You know, I’ve been meaning to watch Chameleon Street for years now. (I was first introduced to it by the intro to Black Star’s “Brown Skinned Lady.”) Thanks to your comment I’ve bumped it up in my queue. I appreciate the info. Thanks for stopping by!

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