Hogwarts, a school of magic founded more than a thousand years ago by a quartet of the greatest witches and wizards of their age, will once again be front and centre when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 opens on Friday. It’s the screen’s most famous private school, but it isn’t the only cinematic bastion of readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.
The granddaddy of the modern prep school movie is 1972’s A Separate Peace, a dull film, based on a not-so-dull book by John Knowles, starring Parker Stevenson which was later remade as a better than average grade made-for-TV movie. Without the original film’s portrayal of Devon Academy, we might not have had Dead Poet’s Society (set at “the best prep school in America”) or any other classroom drama that teaches life lessons alongside the three R’s.
For instance the all-star students—Brendan Fraser, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris O’Donnell—in School Ties learn a lesson not on the curriculum—the power of prejudice. Fraser plays David Greene, a Jewish student at a WASPy prep school in the 1950’s who becomes the victim of vicious anti-Semitism. Most noteworthy because of its soon to be famous cast—this came out five years before Good Will Hunting made Affleck and Damon superstars and a year before Chris O’Donnell was nominated for a Golden Globe for his other prep school drama, Scent of a Woman—the movie’s message of tolerance resonates when set against today’s recent news stories about school bullying.
But don’t think all private school movies are about “carpe diem” and uplifting messages. Cruel Intentions sees a group of good-looking learners engage in a dangerous game of seduction and betrayal, and the only lesson Chris O’Donnell learns in Scent of a Woman—whose all male boarding school scenes were actually shot at one of the America’s oldest all-female boarding schools—is how to avoid being crushed by the weight of Al Pacino’s overacting.
Most vapid, however, is Private School, starring Phoebe Cates and Matthew Modine as star-crossed students from the Cherryvale Academy for Women and the Freemount Academy for Men. Completely devoid of merit, it most famously features gratuitous topless horseback riding and a female shower scene; behaviour Albus Dumbledore would certainly frown on. Critics too frowned upon the movie. One writer said “hardcore porn has a better reputation” than this teen sex comedy.