Interview: Dead Poets Society by N.H. Kleinbaum

The patina of a classic, Dead Poets Society, 2014 (photo / T. Flynn)

Twenty-five years ago this spring, Touchstone Pictures released Dead Poets Society, a film set in 1959 at a fictional New England prep school. It’s in part a story of the potentially tragic chasm between acceptance and exclusion, played out among teens and the adults in their lives who ostensibly know better.

The movie was a breakout hit, grossing $235 Mn despite a budget of just $16 Mn. It received a 1989 Oscar nomination for Best Film, Best Director (Peter Weir) and Best Lead Actor (Robin Williams). Tom Schulman’s script won the year’s Best Original Screenplay.

Away from the screen, journalist and author Nancy “N.H.” Kleinbaum faced the potentially daunting task of turning Schulman’s screenplay into a novel. Novelizations are often measured, for better or for worse, by how closely they replicate a script. A marked divergence from the screenplay would clearly defeat the purpose of writing a novel to accompany a film.

Such would not be the simple measure for the novelization of DPS, as Schulman’s screenplay clearly drew inspiration from such modern American classics as The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. Although not necessarily held to their standard, Kleinbaum’s effort did have a literary context within which it would inevitably be placed.

In the quarter-century since the movie was released, the book has held up exceptionally well on its own merits. Perhaps not surprisingly; in addition to her professional experience, Ms. Kleinbaum holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern and a masters in American Studies, History & Literature from Columbia.

The book has been published in several languages and may be unique in novelizations in having a study guide associated with it.

I spoke with Ms. Kleinbaum recently about her recollections of the process, the film, and some connections to the story from her own life.

The interview was conducted via telephone and email and has been edited for length and clarity. – TF

Fieldhouse: When you were writing the book, had Dead Poets Society been filmed yet?

NHK: No, they were in the process of filming it. I didn’t know where it was being filmed; the only thing I knew about it was that Robin Williams had the lead role of the teacher, Mr. Keating. So I had that in the back of my mind.

I was given the script which had the dialog obviously but had very little geographical description. Some of the famous scenes of going into the forest, into the cave, and Knox Overstreet riding his bike into town, for example, were very skimpy in description.

But the novelization was still one of the most fun ones I’ve ever done as I really loved the story. I loved the characters and I loved all the poetry and literature references that were included in it.

Fieldhouse: You’ve got a unique connection to what may have been the inspiration for the setting of the book and movie.

My brother and each one of my children spent summers at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where John Knowles went and A Separate Peace is essentially set, although it’s called Devon in his book.

My physical reference point for DPS was Phillips Exeter. My brother and my three children were all summer school students there for academic enrichment. I spent a lot of time on campus, in the town, and in the nearby woods and such.My parents were there visiting my older son, before the book, when my Dad had a heart attack in nearby Portsmouth. He was quite ill and my Mom and I stayed in a hotel in Portsmouth for several weeks before he could be moved.

During that time I was back and forth to the school. The Dean allowed our son to visit my Dad frequently and I got more of an insider’s sense of the school and the dorms, the rules for meals, and study hours and those things. More than a typical summer parents’ twice a summer visiting day view of it.

So, I felt as though I was at Exeter when I was writing it. I really connected with the boys as well as Mr. Keating.

Fieldhouse: I noticed in reading DPS, it wasn’t exactly the same as the film. How does that typically work?

NHK: Right, there were things that were in the book that were cut from the film and there were things that were in film that were not in the book. Because the film was being made as I was writing it, I didn’t know what was going to be in the final version.

The time pressure was not as intense as with my first project [taken on two weeks’ notice – ed.], so it gave me a little more time to place myself inside the environment and feel the feelings and hopefully convey them.

I think that was one of those wonderful coming-of-age stories. The ending was horribly tragic, which was not unexpected, unfortunately. The concept was great, the characters were very strong. It was relatively easy to flesh them out because I think their words made them the people that they were.

Fieldhouse: Not unlike a play.

NHK: Yes, and I then had to fill in the physical setting. I would close my eyes and remember what I saw at Exeter, so it wasn’t that difficult to write, but very satisfying. It was also very satisfying to be associated with the project.

Interestingly, it was published in French and German, and to this day, 25 years later, there’s some kind of German fan club for the book.
Robin Williams on the cover of a German version of Dead Poets Society (photo / Petersen Classics)

When I lived in Westchester, I think on the back of one of the foreign editions it said I lived in Mt. Kisco, and so people would just send me letters addressed: N.H. Kleinbaum, Mt. Kisco, New York.

My mailman would just deliver them, even though it didn’t have my address they knew who it was after awhile. People really connected to it.

The story is universal and so was extremely popular, and the movie is extremely popular as well. When I watch the movie again, I have the same feeling I did the very first time, which was a great deal of satisfaction from being connected with it, even in a small way.

I think more people, interestingly, are familiar with it in a more intimate way through the book, than they are through the film. They might see the film once, but they might go back to read the book on more than one occasion. I thought it was just a wonderful screenplay and story to work with.

Fieldhouse: I agree it was a great story. I have a couple of passages that I thought you did a particularly good job with, especially not having seen the movie, which is what made me think that you had seen it. On page 30:

Robin Williams as John Keating (photo / Touchstone Pictures)

In the distance, Todd saw the fiery red sun sinking behind the green perimeter of trees that enclosed the sprawling campus.

Fieldhouse: On the next page it says:

The changing colors of the Vermont autumn were muted by the darkness. You’d not seen the film so you weren’t simply describing that, yet although obviously brief passages, they “look” very much like visuals from the movie.

NHK:Thank you. Most often I’d rather write my own piece, but if I’m doing a novelization, I have to stick to what the original screenplay writer wants to convey. Yet I was given a great deal of freedom for this project.

Basically they just said “Here’s the script.” I don’t think they knew that I was familiar with prep schools on a personal level.I wasn’t even aware of St. Andrew’s in Delaware where it was filmed. I might have taken a road trip if somebody had said to me “Oh by the way, they’re filming there.” But I literally only got handed a script.

So on the one hand as a writer, it gave me a great deal of flexibility. The minute I read it I knew it was going to be a wonderful film, and I knew that I wanted to make it as good of a novelization as I could to be at least close to on par with it.

So, thank you for that and I hope I did. I know it’s touched a lot of people. I’ve saved all of those letters, I have hundreds. People would sit down and take the time to write and say, “This book moved me and impacted my life and it helped me make decisions, and think about certain things in a different way.” It’s almost like feeling like a good teacher. And I’m not a good teacher. [laughing] Some are, my oldest is a professor at Dartmouth.

There have been two filmings of A Separate Peace. The one done in the 1970’s was filmed at Dartmouth. So you’re more connected than you think.

NHK: You know what I did know that. Isn’t that funny? Small world.

Fieldhouse: For people in Germany and France in particular, I presume they would have seen the movie subtitled. So for them it would have been the opportunity to experience it in their own language for the first time, in a way. It may have been more impactful.

NHK: I think that’s true.

Fieldhouse: I’ve read 15 or so novelizations; they’re typically quick reads and if I enjoyed the movie I’m somewhat fascinated by the “reverse” process of turning it into a book and what they’re trying to achieve. Yours, going away, was the best one. Did you go back and read The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace before writing it?

NHK: Thank you. I didn’t go back and re-read them. I went back through them and skimmed them, just to see the how and what.

But I didn’t want to be influenced in my style. I didn’t want those stories to influence Mr. Keating’s story, either. I’m familiar with them. But it was a long time since I read them as a student[laughing]. I felt as a story it needed its own platform.

Fieldhouse: That was smart; you know whatever you’re reading at the time of writing is having an impact, be it positive or negative. So, just what you’re saying, perusal served you well in that awareness is good. Immersion would have been too much.

NHK: I didn’t want to repeat it. It was a separate book, a separate story, a separate work. His [Robin Williams as Mr. Keating’s] words had a right to be respected and I had a great deal of respect for them. I wanted to familiarize myself with the genre but I wanted it to be my version.

Fieldhouse: It worked.

NHK: You know the interesting thing was, for that novelization they decided I should be “N.H.” Kleinbaum rather than Nancy. So there would be a more “universal” appeal. A teen boy might not want to read a book by a female author.

Fieldhouse:  That is interesting.

NHK: I don’t know, but it’s fine. [laughing]

– Tom Flynn

* In memoriam, Robin Williams 1951-2014 *