Boarding schools, tweed jackets, Latin classes, black coffee – these are just some of the things that illustrate and describe dark academia. The aesthetic became a popular trend among young adults who are genuinely keen on broadening their perspectives on just about everything under the sun, but particularly the art of literature.
Dark academia is a type of aesthetic that romanticizes the yearning for knowledge, especially in literature and classical studies. It could be expressed through fashion, photography, writing, and films. Dark academia movies are often set in Ivy League or prestigious universities and could involve a case of murder, or simply one’s pursuit of self.
UPDATE: 2023/01/16 14:00 EST BY SHAWN S. LEALOS
With the release of Wednesday on Netflix in 2022, Addams Family fans don’t only get to see their favorite characters roar back to life, but they also get to see it in the realm of a dark academia movie. However, while that was a streaming series, the only other major release this year for dark academia movies was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which itself was a commercial and critical disappointment. However, with the very popular subgenre of drama films holding such a respected spot in film history, there are plenty of movies to go back and watch that possess the dark academia traits, from the musty libraries to the love of all things art, literature, and academia.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Rent now on Prime Video & Apple TV
Released in 1989, Dead Poets Society is probably the peak of all dark academia movies. It stars the late Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson, and Robert Sean Leonard as Neil Perry, and their academic lives inside the boarding school of Welton Academy. Mr. Keating was an English teacher with unconventional methods, which inspired the boys to pursue their love for poetry.
This heartwarming as well as tear-jerking movie will teach fans the importance of self-discovery and freedom of expression. It also emphasizes the role of teachers and how their lessons can impact the lives of their students in the long run.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Stream now on HBO Max
Good Will Hunting is a dark academia movie that shows what happens when someone from a lower class moves into the high arts, and finds he no longer belongs anywhere he feels comfortable. Matt Damon stars as Will Hunting, a brilliant mathematical genius who can solve any problem, earning him a spot at a university, a goal none of his childhood friends could ever achieve.
That puts him in a tough spot, where his friends don’t understand his new pursuits. Robin Williams enjoyed a breakout performance as his mentor Dr. Sean Maguire, a man who did what he could to help Will fit into the dark academia world that he knew nothing about.
The Theory of Everything (2014)
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The Theory of Everything is a biopic about renowned scientist Stephen Hawking. Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for his performance as Hawking, as he learns about his motor neurone disease and never lets it affect his desire to achieve his goals in life.
Given that the movie starts off with Hawking’s career at the University of Cambridge as an aspiring astrophysicist, this movie slides quite nicely into the world of dark academia movies. Eventually, it is Hawkins drive that allows him to even eclipse the academics who once taught him.
The Goldfinch (2019)
Stream now on Prime Video
The Goldfinch is based on the novel by Donna Tartt with Ansel Elgort starring as Theodore Decker. When his mother dies in a terrorist bombing, he ends up moving into a life of crime, specifically the world of art thievery.
The movie follows Theodore throughout his life as he learns lessons along the way and grows into a man with no parental figures in his life, but an innate desire to both succeed and overcome his childhood trauma. The movie is a dark tale, with Theodore involving himself in the world of classic art and literature, making this a dark academia movie without bothering with the university aspects of the genre.
The Social Network (2010)
Stream now on Fubo & Showtime
The Social Network is a movie that shows what is wrong with dark academia. While the idea of the theme is a romanticism with literature and art, mostly in a university setting, this movie showed the dark side. This included toxic masculinity, snobbish Ivy League cliques, and over obsessive work habits, followed by betrayal and possible intellectual rights theft.
The movie shows the rise of Facebook by its founders, and the idea that the original concept was supposed to help connect those students at Cambridge. However, as with any good idea, there was a darkness behind it that corrupted all it touched.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Stream now on Starz
Released in 2001 by Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind told the story of mathematician John Nash. While the movie courted controversy for the inaccuracies it made to Nash’s life and his real story, the entire movie is seeped in the themes of dark academia movies.
Nash arrived at Princeton University as a winner of the Carnegie Scholarship for mathematics and meets his new roommate, a literature student named Charles Herman. However, as the movie goes on, things are not as they seem and Nash’s life ends up falling apart while he still manages to succeed when he is awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994.
Kill Your Darlings (2013)
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Kill Your Darlings is loosely based on the lives of poets Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, who attended Columbia University and got involved in the murder of one of their acquaintances. Played by Daniel Radcliffe, Ginsberg has found an unusual friendship with Carr (played by Dane DeHaan).
The film garnered positive reviews because of the two actors’ chemistry and overall plot. As for its historical accuracy, Ginsberg’s secretary confirmed some inaccuracies, which are only of small value.
Stream now on Tubi & Kanopy
Based on the novel of E.M. Forster of the same title, Maurice tells the extraordinary story of two star-crossed lovers. When Maurice Hall attends Cambridge University, he met and befriends the rich Clive Durham. Maurice confessed that he is in love with Clive, and the latter gradually realizes that he is also attracted to his friend.
Both of them pursued their own passions, but because Clive needs to protect his reputation, they decide to go separate ways. In this intense and chaotic tale of love and loss, fans will definitely love the chemistry between these two actors.
Mary Shelley (2017)
Stream now on AMC+
This historical drama narrates the early life of the Romantic writer Mary Shelley and the creation of her best work, Frankenstein. Set during the 1800s, this visually pleasing and gothic-inspired film will surely awaken the writer in every literature fan.
Played by Elle Fanning, Mary Shelley is the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Together with their friends, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, they get stranded in a house near Lake Geneva. Lord Byron proposes a game of writing a horror story, and that was the beginning of the conception of Frankenstein.
Stream now on Fubo & FX Now
Everyone knows J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and this biopic tells the early life of the English professor and his inspiration towards creating the popular franchise. Tolkien finds love and inspiration among a group of outcasts. Their brotherhood gradually strengthened as Tolkien deals with his relationship with Edith Bratt as well as the outbreak of World War I.
These experiences later inspired him to create the fantasy world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The film has all elements of dark academia movies, from their outfits to attending universities, everything displays the aesthetic.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Stream now on Netflix & HBO Max
Of course, the genius detective Sherlock Holmes perfectly fits the dark academia movie theme. Though the whole film is not set in a university, his love for knowledge satisfies every aspect of the aesthetic. Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and everyone who has a knack for mysteries and crime will surely adore his adventures.
The dark setting and atmosphere of the film give off the ambiance of old London, which is full of a sinister and wicked society. Fans will be at the edge of their seats most of the time in this action-packed and mind-blowing film.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Stream now on Netflix
The newly created British intelligence recruits Cambridge mathematics genius Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to crack Nazi codes that cryptanalysts thought were unbreakable. Turing analyzes the Enigma messages as he builds a machine to decipher them. But the supposed-to-be-happy ending turns sour as he is sent to prison when they find out he’s gay.
One of the most common themes in dark academia movies is LGBTQ+ issues. This aesthetic covers all genders and is very much inclusive, so it often presents stories of self-exploration and expression.
The Riot Club (2014)
Stream now on AMC+
Starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons, and Douglas Booth, this film follows the narrative of a group of students attending Oxford University who join a secret society where they learned that a reputation can be ruined in just one evening. The Riot Club is an established drinking club that prides itself on money and hedonism, things that most dark academia movie fans are very well aware of.
The film’s aesthetic is visually appealing, especially when the cast is all handsome boys in school uniforms. Fans will also indulge in its spectacular cinematography and the portrayal of the British Elites.
The Dreamers (2003)
Stream now on DirecTV
This French-English film stars Eva Green, Michael Pitt, and Louis Garrel, three students who found an unusual friendship in one another. Isabelle and Theo are twins who meet an American student, Matthew, and together they dream of utopian love and self-discovery in the age of revolutionary idealism.
The movie became popular on social media because of the scenes where the three were running and frolicking around a museum, a sight that will surely stir the hearts of dark academia movie fans.
Dorian Gray (2009)
Stream now on Prime Video
Enthralled by his own beauty, Dorian Gray decided to barter his soul to the devil to keep his youth. Based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray is a representation of the human desire for immortality. Played by Ben Barnes, Dorian was a student who met the artist Basil Hallward and the influential Lord Henry Wotton when he first came to London.
The three became good friends until Lord Wotton poisoned Dorian’s young mind and upon discovering that his portrait painted by Basil has some dark secrets, he decided to lock it away. The story involves murder and debauchery, which bring some wickedness into the film.