The following is a list of Henry David Thoreau movies:
(Disclaimer: This article contains Amazon affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Seven Angry Men
Released in 1955, Seven Angry Men is a Western movie directed by Charles Marquis Warren and is a fictionalized account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Starring Raymond Massey as John Brown, the movie also features Lester Dorr in an uncredited role as Henry David Thoreau, who was a friend of John Brown and was also a fellow abolitionist.
The plot is about Brown’s bloody rampage in Kansas which then leads up to his failed attempt to provoke a slave uprising in Virginia at Harper’s Ferry.
During the second half of the movie, Brown is on a fund raising tour that brings him to Boston where he meets Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson who donate money to the cause.
The film received mixed reviews when it was released with The New York Times describing it as a “misguided, bloody saga of John Brown” that is merely a “competent if hardly inspired” film.
Talking with Thoreau
Released in 1971, Talking with Thoreau is a fictionalized retelling of Thoreau’s time spent living at Walden Pond.
Starring Barry Primus as Henry David Thoreau, the movie is about Thoreau living at Walden Pond and being visited by four time-travelers from the future, Rosa Parks, David Brower, B.F. Skinner and Eliot Richardson, who each express their own opinion on Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience.
Dead Poets Society
Released in 1989, Dead Poets Society is a drama directed by Peter Weir about group of English students at an elite conservative boarding school called Welton Academy.
Starring Robin Williams and Ethan Hawke, the movie is about an English teacher who inspires his students at the boarding school through his teaching of poetry.
Thoreau isn’t portrayed in the film but his beliefs and his book Walden are. The students start a club at the school called the Dead Poets Society and each meeting of the society opens with the reading of Thoreau’s opening paragraph of Walden:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The members of the Dead Poet Society find the quote inspiring because they too wish to live deliberately and hope that when their lives come to a close they don’t “discover that [they] had not lived.”
In other scenes, Robin Williams character urges his students to follow Thoreau’s lead and embrace their individuality:
“Boys you must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
The movie received generally positive reviews but also some mixed reviews. The Washington Post called it “solid, smart entertainment” and praised Robin Williams’ performance.
The New York Times also praised Williams performance but said the film is “far less about [poet] Keating than about a handful of impressionable boys.”
Roger Ebert gave the film an unfavorable review, criticizing Williams performance as too comical and describing the movie as a “collection of pious platitudes … The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon.”
Gene Siskel also gave the movie a mixed review and also disagreed with Williams Oscar nomination and described the movie’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year as the worst nomination of the year, stating that the nomination should have instead gone to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, six British Academy Film Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, among others.
The film was voted number 52 on the AFI’s list of the 100 most inspiring films.
Released in 1991, New Walden is a transcendental-inspired fantasy film directed by Arthur Gross.
The movie features original music by Ben Moffit and dance choreography by Patricia Strauss. It also features selected writings of Henry David Thoreau spoken by voice actor J. Walker Fischer.
Into the Wild
Released in 2007, Into the Wild is a biographical film directed by Sean Penn and is an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild.
Starring Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn and Jena Malone, the plot is a true story about a young student, Christopher McCandless, who renounces the materialism of the modern world by abandoning his possessions, giving away his entire savings account to charity and hitchhiking to the Alaskan wilderness.
Although Henry David Thoreau isn’t portrayed in the film, the story is considered a modern day version of Henry David Thoreau’s real life experience of living at Walden Pond.
The film also references Thoreau when the main character, Christopher McCandless, states “I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here… rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth.”
The movie received positive reviews when it was released. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times called it “spellbinding” and praised Emile Hirsch’s “hypnotic performance.” Ebert also discussed Thoreau’s influence on McCandless, writing:
“For those who have read Thoreau’s Walden, there comes a time, maybe only lasting a few hours or a day, when the notion of living alone in a tiny cabin beside a pond and planting some beans seems strangely seductive. Certain young men, of which I was one, lecture patient girl friends about how such a life of purity and denial makes perfect sense. Christopher McCandless did not outgrow this phase.”
The New York Times praised the film for its sense of joy in the face of the film’s tragic ending:
“But though the film’s structure may be tragic, its spirit is anything but. It is infused with an expansive, almost giddy sense of possibility, and it communicates a pure, unaffected delight in open spaces, fresh air and bright sunshine.”
NPR praised the film’s storytelling and cinematography, stating “As [Hirsch] struggles with the elements, his increasing frailty and the cinematography’s increasing grandeur mesh in a way that’s at once iconic and wrenching.”
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe award, four Screen Actor Guild Awards and an Academy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, among others.
Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau
Originally airing on television in 2009, Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau is a theatrical play by folksinger and host Michael Johnathon that features documentary segments about Henry David Thoreau.
Released in 2011, Walden is a comedy/horror film directed by Joel Trudgeon that is a fictionalized retelling of Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond.
Starring Alan Michaud as Henry David Thoreau, the movie is about Henry David Thoreau living in the modern world where he buys a house in Los Angeles so he can retreat and write his memoirs but discovers that the house is actually a portal to hell.
Dancing with Thoreau
Released in 2014, Dancing with Thoreau is a documentary directed by Chris Korrow about the environmental movement.
The documentary is told from the perspective of a naturalist and organic farmer and focuses on the individual and societal connection with nature.
The goal of the film is to inspire people to become more engaged with their local environment, much like Thoreau did.
Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul
Released in 2017, Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul is a documentary directed by Huey about Henry David Thoreau.
The documentary tells the story of Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond and explores the impact that his writings on environmental issues and civil rights have on the modern world.
If you would like to learn more about Thoreau, check out this article on Virginia Woolf on Henry David Thoreau.
For more movies like these, check out this article on the best movies about writers.
“Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul.” AV Club, avclub.com/film/reviews/henry-david-thoreau-surveyor-of-the-soul-2017
“Walden: The Ballad of Thoreau TV Listings.” TV Guide, tvguide.com/tvshows/walden-the-ballad-of-thoreau/tv-listings/1000407054/
Ebert, Roger. “Off The Road.” RogerEbert.com, 27 Sept. 2007, rogerebert.com/reviews/into-the-wild-2007
Scott, A.O. “Following His Trail to Danger and Joy.” New York Times, 21 Sept. 2007, nytimes.com/2007/09/21/movies/21wild.html
“New Walden 1991.” AV Club, avclub.com/film/reviews/new-walden-1991
“Dead Poets Society.” Gradesaver, gradesaver.com/dead-poets-society/study-guide/the-poetry-of-dead-poets-society
Whalen, John M. “Review: “Seven Angry Men” (1955) Starring Raymond Massey; Warner Archive DVD.” Cinema Retro, cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/8604-REVIEW-SEVEN-ANGRY-MEN-1955-STARRING-RAYMOND-MASSEY;-WARNER-ARCHIVE-DVD.html
“Seven Angry Men (1955).” Turner Classic Movies, tcm.com/tcmdb/title/26659/seven-angry-men#overview
H. H. T. “Screen: Misguided Saga; Seven Angry Men’ Opens at Palace”. The New York Times. 2 April. 1955, nytimes.com/1955/04/02/archives/screen-misguided-saga-seven-angry-men-opens-at-palace.html