The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



The ultimate college movie

Molly Griffin | Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A lot of us first learned about college not through campus visits but through the magic of cinema. From our first (or in some Notre Dame cases, only) frat party to the winning football game that changed the life of everyone it touched, our vision of university life has been inspired by the movies.

While there is no perfect college movie – there are just too many pieces of the college puzzle for any film to do justice to – there are a lot of good ones. In terms of representing life on campus, each movie usually only manages to get one thing right. But if you combined the best parts of every movie, you just might end up with the perfect (but maybe not accurate) look at undergraduate life.


Clearly for any Notre Dame student, the movie “Rudy” is a hugely influential piece of collegiate cinema. It shows the beauty of the campus, the spiritual nature of the school and the intense love of football that the place inspires. Rudy’s “never say die” attitude about getting into Notre Dame may also become more relevant as it continues to get harder and harder to get accepted. The underdog story at the heart of “Rudy” makes it a favorite among sports fans and Irish aficionados alike, and it provides a fairly accurate look at the “sports” facet of the college experience.

The College Work Load

The tagline of “Old School” is “All of the fun of college, none of the education,” and if you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter in the library, you’ve probably wished it were true. While not in any way a realistic representation of the college academic load, it is an ideal one – no work and all play. It does accurately show just how much time and effort some students will devote in order to throw great parties.

Campus Life

It can be argued that there is no greater college movie than “Animal House.” It can also be argued that few films are a less-accurate depiction of university life. Does anyone care? No. We all want to save our fraternity (even girls), party hard and still manage to graduate unscathed and with nothing on our permanent records. Like “Old School,” work is a distant thought in the background of the film, which, along with singing “Shout” at a toga party, is something we all really wouldn’t mind during dreaded finals week.

“Revenge of the Nerds” is another important film in the college oeuvre. For every student who’s spent Friday night in the library, every engineer or pre-med who’s questioned their major and anyone who was ever a “mathlete” or debate team member, the movie is as inspiring as any sports film. It shows us that, like “Rudy,” the underdog can win. And they can win with brains instead of brawn, a calculator instead of calisthenics.


Sometimes – okay, most of the time – lectures are boring. It’s not so much that professors are boring but more that there’s always somewhere we would rather be than in class. Some movies present the same things we learn in class but in a more palatable, glossy form.

The strange and creepy blend of 1980s music, science fiction and giant evil rabbits present in “Donnie Darko” may not seem academic, but pop it in and watch philosophical debate emerge. Major subjects of philosophical debate, such as fate? Check. Arguments about the nature of free will? Double check. Science-related subjects like wormholes? You’ve got it. Wouldn’t philosophy class be a little more interesting with Jake Gyllenhaal and a man in a rabbit suit thrown in? The movie also gets bonus literary points for a discussion of Graham Greene’s short story, “The Destructors” and a debate about the lyrical beauty of the phrase “cellar door.”

Another movie alternative to learning through lecture is “Shakespeare in Love,” which takes Shakespeare, adds Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes and removes the physical act of reading. While it’s not exactly like watching Shakespeare in performance, it does have enough “in” jokes about Shakespeare to make every person who has studied Renaissance literature feel superior for “getting” it.

The Post-Graduation Blues

We all know that it’s coming. We can deny it, postpone it with promises of graduate school and pray to win the lottery, but the real world beyond college is fast approaching.

Few films deal with life after college, but “The Graduate” shows us that life after college can get, well, complicated. The questions about life after graduating and not wanting to be the same as the preceding generation are always pertinent, and it reveals that it can be hard to find your place in the world after leaving the insular world of academics. Benjamin Braddock’s affair at least assures us, in a strange way, that life after college will always be, at the very least, interesting.

So, to summarize, the recipe for the perfect college movie experience is as follows: one part inspirational athlete from “Rudy,” the minimal work load of “Old School,” a liberal amount of the campus life seen in “Animal House” and “Revenge of the Nerds,” free-spirited lectures inspired by “Donnie Darko” and “Shakespeare in Love” and a pinch of the postgraduate life from “The Graduate.”

There may not be a way to make your undergraduate years last forever, but you can piece together your own version of it thanks to the magic of cinema.

Contact Molly Griffin at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.