5 Ways Films Misrepresent University Life and 5 Things They Get Right

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It’s no criticism of the film industry to suggest that films are perhaps not always entirely accurate.

After all, for a realistic representation of the mundane experiences of everyday life, the real world will do quite nicely. Films provide escapism: real life with a better soundtrack and a neater resolution to storylines.
Much the same is true of how films depict university life. It’s not realistic or accurate, but then it’s not usually meant to be; it’s fiction, not a documentary. All the same, popular culture is often our main insight into experiences that we haven’t yet had ourselves, so if you’re heading to university soon, it’s sensible to find out which of the impressions that the film industry have given you are correct… and which might leave something to be desired.
We’re going to look at a variety of different films, most of them set in Britain (where the campus film has never been quite as popular as it is in the USA) and look at what they get right and wrong about university life.

The things they get wrong…

1. Implausibly gorgeous student rooms

Most student rooms look more or less the same as most other student rooms. There’s the single bed (probably from Ikea), the shelves (probably from Ikea), the desk (you get the idea), the bin, the chair, and maybe a pin-board if you’re lucky. The carpet will probably be the kind that is designed to hide all stains, as if by magic, and the blinds will either be more decorative than functional, or they’ll be the scary blackout kind that feel more institutional than homey. And all of this will be fine, because it will be your room and you will, in no short space of time, become very fond of it.
This is not what student rooms in movies are like. We understand that the usual student hamster-cage is too small for any decent long shot, but the lavish oak-panelled suites of Brideshead Revisited and The Theory of Everything are wildly unrealistic in both size and beauty, even by the standards of the Oxford and Cambridge students who came out at the top of their college’s room ballot.

2. … or implausibly squalid ones

Don’t be too depressed by the realisation that a princely suite won’t be part of your university experience. The other film stereotype of a student room is rather worse: a disgusting germ factory of stuck-together plates, teetering piles of books, dirty laundry and discarded pizza boxes.
It’s true that any university student will have a story about their one flatmate who – for instance – asked halfway through the second term where the laundrette was, making everyone wonder just what they’d been doing with their washing up to that point – or whether they’d been doing it at all. Nonetheless, these people are few and far between, especially after the freshman thrill of not being required to clean your room wears off, and people begin to realise that having clean socks is a generally desirable experience.

3. People form different cliques, and despise people from other cliques

Image shows Mike approaching a fraternity stand in Monsters University.The basis of the classic high school movie – from The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls to High School Musical and dozens more – is that high schoolers will form different cliques who will oppose one another as vehemently as different sides in a war. Whether you are a geek or a jock or any of the other dozens of possible categories, it will define your educational experience entirely. Since it’s such a successful formula, it’s unsurprising that it’s been imported into university movies as well – from Legally Blonde, which subverts high school film tropes by making us root for the popular blonde girl, to Monsters University, where the in-crowd and out-crowd are defined not by their skill on the sports team, but their ability to be scary.
The geeky underdogs succeeding against the cliquey popular kids is a good storyline, but it doesn’t accurately reflect the reality of university life, for the simple reason that most universities are far bigger than most high schools. While high school crams everyone into one cafeteria to glower at each other, in a university of 10,000 or more people, you’re simply not likely to spend that much time around people who – while probably perfectly lovely individuals – have markedly different interests from you. You meet people who are studying the same things as you, or who take part in the same sports or societies as you, and you are very seldom obliged to spend time with people with whom you have very little in common. And on the rare occasion that you do, well, by the time you’re at university most people have the maturity to deal with it pleasantly.

4. Everyone cares about where you come from and how you got there

In Starter for Ten – probably the best example of this theme, but far from the only one – the main character, Brian, is deeply self-conscious about his working class, state school background, compared to the middle class, privately educated people around him. Much of the film concerns his desperate efforts to fit in better with the people he perceives as intellectuals, trying to modify his accent and get away from his roots.
This makes for compelling drama, but doesn’t much reflect reality, at least not in modern universities. Aside from anything else, let’s look at the figures: there is not a single UK university of more than 1,000 undergraduates where private school students are in the majority any more.
What your A-levels were, what your parents do for a living or what sort of secondary school you went to are the kind of things that come up in conversation in the first term of first year when no one knows anyone else well enough to ask anything more interesting – and then, in all likelihood, they never come up again. Universities are, of course, not some kind of remarkable utopia in which all the divisions in normal society cease to exist – but since you all have the category of ‘student’ in common, they come up rather less than films might lead you to expect.

5. Flashes of inspiration and innate genius lead you to succeed, not hard work

It’s great cinema – when everything seems lost and you’re faltering on the edge of disaster, you have a moment of pure inspiration and it saves the day. What’s more, showing someone working away – particularly when it’s at a desk, not in an exciting training montage – is inherently dull. So in films, success comes from genius and identifiable moments of brilliance, and the hours of hard work that actually lead people to succeed are ignored.
This is true of the vast majority of university movies, but Monsters University and The Theory of Everything are particularly noteworthy examples; Hawking, in the latter, consistently does less work than his peers yet goes on to greater success, which given the magnitude of the real-world Hawking’s efforts and the scope of his achievements feels almost libellous.
Success in the real world, of course, usually comes from slow, plodding, uncinematic hard work. Talent plays a role, but usually people who try to coast through on genius falter by the time of their first-year exams, and with continuous assessment becoming more and more common, the freedom to do nothing all year and then make up for it by cramming has all but disappeared.

And the things they get right…

1. You have the chance to meet people you would never have met otherwise

Much of the lifeblood of drama is when two characters, who couldn’t be more different, are thrown into each other’s worlds. Given this, it’s surprising that campus films aren’t more popular in the UK – after all, this is what university is all about. Brideshead Revisited is a classic illustration of this: Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder are from very different backgrounds, but the fact that they both attend the University of Oxford leads to their friendship.
Brideshead Revisited is set in the 1920s, and universities have naturally become much more diverse places since then. Charles and Sebastian differ in class and religion, but in a modern university students can expect to meet people who differ from them in a much greater variety of ways; this diversity of people, united by a shared desire to learn, is one of the best things about the university system.

2. You can reinvent yourself

One of the great opportunities you get on going to university is the chance to begin afresh. If you’ve got a reputation for always handing in work just before the deadline (or sometimes after the deadline), you can use going to university as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf.
While you might have dismissed Legally Blonde’s story of Elle Woods, a pink-obsessed sorority fashionista, going to Harvard to study Law as a little absurd, this is the kind of opportunity that university genuinely does afford you. There are countless articles out there about using going to university as a chance to makeover your wardrobe, but this is a pretty shallow demonstration of the possibilities universities have for reinvention. For most people, university is the first time that they establish themselves as independent adults; it’s the opportunity to decide what kind of adult you might want to be.

3. Some of your peers will be scarily talented

At school, you might be among the best in your class, winning a scattering (or a shower) of prizes every year, and generally being a big fish in a small pond. At university, that will change. You can expect to be surrounded by people just as intelligent and capable as you – and some of them will be terrifyingly intelligent and capable. The movies get this right: The Social Network and The Theory of Everything are, after all, based on true stories. There will be times in your university career when you encounter people among the thousands of students at university with you who are clearly destined to go on to do remarkable things. And if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll be one of them.

4. Working hard will lead to success

The corollary to point 5, above, is that working hard really can lead you to success. Filmmakers love underdog stories, and nothing makes for such a good underdog story as students triumphing over institutional oppression to succeed. Yet the average modern university is remarkably meritocratic. The struggle to get to this point has been fierce, and continues to rage in some places, but as the furore over Bristol’s admissions policies shows, universities really are held to very high standards with regards to treating their students – current and prospective – fairly. Of course, societal inequalities are not absent from the university system, as higher education doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but they are mitigated considerably by university policy.
Legally Blonde, Starter for Ten and Monsters University all demonstrate this in various ways. While all three suffer, to a certain extent, from point 4, above, they all ultimately show their protagonists succeeding and failing on the basis of their own efforts and merits.

5. Oxford really is that beautiful

Oxford is a favourite for campus films. X-Men: First Class, Brideshead Revisited and Testament of Youth all feature the city, in the latter two to the extent that you might wonder if it should have received a co-star credit.
But just as film stars are often surprisingly short in real life, you might be forgiven for wondering if these campus films are presenting Oxford’s glorious architecture under unduly flattering lighting or tidying it up with CGI. Yet we’ve looked at Oxford in autumn, winter and spring and we can confirm that cinematic sunshine is not necessary to make it look its best.
It might seem a trite thought to end on. But it’s nice to know that sometimes, you can believe what you see.

Film stills used pursuant to the Fair Use doctrine. Film stills are from Monsters University (D. Scanlon, 2013), The Theory of the Everything (J. Marsh, 2014), Starter for Ten (T. Vaughan, 2006), Brideshead Revisited (J. Jarrold, 2008), Legally Blonde (R. Luketic, 2001), The Social Network (D. Fincher, 2010) and Testament of Youth (J. Kent, 2014).