- The films set at Harvard University often explore themes of social exclusivity, competition, and the impact of the school on underprivileged individuals.
- The Social Network depicts the creation of Facebook and the influence of Harvard’s social hierarchies on its development, while also highlighting the personal sacrifices made by its founder.
- Films like Legally Blonde and How High provide comedic takes on Harvard life, challenging stereotypes and showcasing the diverse range of stories that can be set at the prestigious university.
Harvard University is the oldest college in America; in fact, it is older than the United States itself, as it was founded in 1636. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the school is considered not only one of the best in the country but in the entire world. It has a great deal of pedigree behind it, and several popular films have found their premise in Harvard University, so much so that it almost forms its own sub-genre.
The university has been of interest to filmmakers since the days of the silent era. The prestige associated with the school adds inspirational fodder to rags-to-riches narratives, resulting in motivational dramas. These stories are mainly borrowed from memoirs or are based on real-life stories, as there are countless examples of the university’s impact on the underprivileged. However, films have not shied away from revealing Harvard’s dark side that results from its social exclusivity and cut-throat competition. From scholarships to social clubs to sports, here are some films that give a peek inside the Harvard life.
Update January 5, 2024: Considering applying to Harvard? Or a cheaper alternative, perhaps like watching a movie set at Harvard? This article has been updated with even more titles worth checking out that take place at the university and where each title is streaming.
13 The Social Network (2010)
The Social Network goes behind the real-life events that led to the invention of Facebook. According to the film, the social hierarchies inside Harvard University influenced the motive behind the social networking website. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg, who creates a campus website that allows users to rate women by their attractiveness. Three students approached him with an opportunity to work on a social networking site for Harvard students. This eventually leads to Facebook, and the film chronicles how Zuckerberg compromises his personal relationships to become one of the wealthiest people alive.
The shooting took place on the campus of Wheelock College, to resemble Harvard University. The film was based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, who consulted Facebook co-founder Edward Savarin while writing the book. The film adds Savarin’s perspective and mildly antagonizes Zuckerberg in a wealthy-fallen-hero narrative. Stream on Paramount+
12 Legally Blonde (2001)
- Release Date
- July 13, 2001
- 96 Minutes
In Legally Blonde, sorority favorite Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, gets dumped by her boyfriend, an aspiring Harvard Law student. She gets into Harvard Law to prove she is smart enough for his ambitious career. Woods combines her fashion merchandising prowess with law and excels in her new adventure. The film gives a fresh perspective to the blonde stereotype, previously characterized as intellectually inhibited and fashion-obsessed in films like Clueless.
Legally Blonde embraces the stereotype while mocking the superiority complex of Harvard students. The film was based on the book of the same name by Amanda Brown, who was inspired by her time at Sandford Law School while being a fashion enthusiast. The film has inspired several women to pursue law even when it goes overboard with Elle’s eligibility to become a lawyer. Stream on Prime Video
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11 Harvard, Here I Come (1941)
Harvard, Here I Come is another film that satirizes the exclusivity maintained by Harvard students. This comedy film was released in 1941 and scrutinizes The Harvard Lampoon, the real-life university’s long-running humor magazine. The story revolves around a nightclub owner humiliated by the magazine’s editor. He decides to enroll in the university to redeem himself.
The university has made tremendous contributions to comedy and films through The Harvard Lampoon. The magazine was founded in 1876 by seven students, making it the third longest-running published humor magazine after the Swedish Blandaren and the Swiss Nebelspalter. Its alums include Conan O’Brien and the brains behind The Office US, such as B.J Novak, Greg Daniels, and Michael Schur. Not available to stream.
10 The Paper Chase (1973)
The Paper Chase was released in 1973 and stars Timothy Bottoms as James Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard. After a rocky start, Hart settles in among his peers at the university. The film shows his experience with his temperamental contract law instructor, Professor Charles Kingsfield, and his study group, comprising eccentric characters. Hart also begins a relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter, complicating his time at the university.
The critically acclaimed film was directed by James Bridges and was based on the novel of the same name by John Jay Osborn. Actor John Houseman won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the shrewd professor. His powerful performance has led to several speculations about the identity of the real-life professor. The late Harvard Law professor Clark Byse is believed to have inspired the character’s position at Harvard Law School. However, according to Houseman, the personality traits of the professor were inspired by Professor Edward Warren, who was known for harsh teaching methods. Rent on Apple TV+
9 How High (2001)
- Release Date
- December 21, 2001
- Jesse Dylan
Easily the funniest movie set at Harvard. How High centers on two cannabis-smoking friends, played by Redman and Method Man, after accidentally smoking the ashes of their dead friend whose ghost helps them get perfect scores on their college entrance exams, which results in them applying for Harvard. It is a simple premise, and clearly, the joke is about putting two potheads in a setting as prestigious and elitist as Harvard and letting the jokes run, and boy, do they go with the premise.
How High is a great example of the go-for-broke high (pun intended) concept of the early 2000s. While hated by critics at the time of its release, the movie has become a cult classic and is considered one of the best movies about Majuranna. It now can be considered one of the best movies about Harvard. There is also a meta-commentary about the image the school would like to give. Stories as diverse and serious as The Social Network or as romantic as Love Story can also take place in the same school that How High is. Stream on Starz.
8 A Small Circle of Friends (1980)
Set in the late 1960s, A Small Circle of Friends focuses on the radicalization of the students of Harvard University during the time. It tells the story of three first-year students – Leo, Nick, and Jessica and the love triangle that develops within their group as they also slowly start to become radicalized with the rest of the rest of the academic circle.
The film portrays a time that was pretty unstable and troubled while also keeping focus on the complicated feelings developing between the three young central characters. It shows the university in a different light than what we are used to and also pairs it with the historical milestones of the time to show how world politics influenced the students of Harvard. Not Streaming.
7 Prozac Nation (2001)
Prozac Nation is based on the memoir of the same name by Elizabeth Wurtzel, detailing her experience with depression and dependence on the anti-depressant Prozac she was prescribed. The film stars Christina Ricci as Elizabeth, a late-teen who accepts a scholarship in journalism from Harvard.
She has a turbulent relationship with her divorced parents and struggles to navigate her first year at the University as the effects of addiction, self-harm, and sex dissociate her from herself. The psychological drama was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg., and was applauded for its realistic depiction of depression and the effect of anti-depressants. Rent on Apple TV+.
6 With Honors (1994)
The 1994 film With Honors stars Brendan Fraser in the role of Monty Kessler, who is a Government major at Harvard University. Monty loses his senior thesis, which is retrieved by a homeless man named Simon, played by Joe Pesci. After some legal struggle, the two work out a deal and decide that for each task that Monty completes for Simon, he will give the student one page of the thesis. Monty, along with his housemates, all slowly start to love Simon and his relationship with Simon urges Monty to look at poor people in a kinder, more humanitarian light.
The bittersweet film is funny, insightful, and heartbreaking all at once. It focuses a lot on how Monty changes his thesis, which viewed citizens in public assistance in a very negative light, into a more positive one, despite being berated by his mentor. Due to his new outlook on life, Monty also becomes more respectful of other people’s struggles and finds a light within himself with the help of Simon. The film also shows us a glimpse of the more common bits of university life, such as living with students from different backgrounds, parties, and a friendship that blossoms into romance. Stream on Kanopy and Roku
5 Soul Man (1986)
The highly controversial film Soul Man has another Harvard aspirant as its protagonist. The film was directed by Steve Miner and starred C. Thomas Howell as Mark Watson, a young man who wishes to study at Harvard but cannot afford the fees himself. He decides to apply as a black student to qualify for a scholarship. The problems start when he is accepted and changes his hair, skin, and speech to fit in as an African-American student. His ruse works, but he faces racism, making him understand the plight of African Americans for the first time.
Needless to say, the film was met with a lot of controversy as the portrayal of the character was compared to blackface by the African-American community. The makers of the film compared it to Tootsie, where a man cross-dresses as a woman to advance in his career. Nevertheless, the film grossed $35 million, over a budget of $4.5 million, making it a divisive film of the ‘80s. Rent on Apple TV+
4 Love Story (1970)
- Release Date
- December 16, 1970
- Arthur Hiller
- Ali MacGraw , Ryan O’Neal , John Marley , Ray Milland , Russell Nype , Katharine Balfour
Love Story is an adaptation of the classic book of the same name written by Erich Segal and is one of the highest-grossing films of all time. The film stars Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barrett, a wealthy Harvard law student who falls in love with a music student from Radcliffe College, Jenny, played by Ali MacGraw. The two come from different economic backgrounds, resulting in very different aspirations. Oliver’s father disapproves of the relationship and cuts him off financially, refusing to pay for Harvard. The couple marries after graduation, and the story follows their troubled married life after Jenny becomes terminally ill.
The film has gained cult status over time, and the Crimson Key Society of Harvard holds screenings during the orientation of incoming batches. Unfortunately, the shooting of the film within the campus led to the damage of several trees, also caused by the shooting of A Small Circle of Friends. Therefore, no request for filming on location has been accepted since then. Stream it on Fubo
3 Brown of Harvard (1926)
Brown of Harvard established the interest of filmmakers in the university since the early silent days of cinema. The film is an adaptation of the play of the same name by Rida Johnson Young and was made thrice between 1911 and 1926. The story revolves around a Harvard student named Tom Brown, and each film follows a different athletic adventure that Brown participates in while juggling his romantic life.
The first film was released in 1911 and was directed by Colin Campbell. Harry Beamount directed the second film, released in 1918, and Tom Moore played Brown. James Conway directed the third film in 1926, the most well-known of the three, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had only completed two years at the time. The films show Harvard’s thriving athletic spirit and the fierce competition in sports supremacy between the Ivy League colleges. Not available to stream.
2 The Great Debaters (2007)
The Great Debaters is an inspiring film directed by actor Denzel Washington. The film is based on the real-life incident when a debate team from a predominantly black college defeated an Ivy League college in the 1930s. In the film, Washington plays poet and educator Melvin B. Tolson, who teaches at Wiley College. He formed a debate team, which was new to the college then. Eventually, the team competes in Harvard’s debate competitions and becomes the first black debate team to challenge Harvard’s prominent debaters.
In real life, the team defeated the then-champions of the University of Southern California. However, they were officially not allowed to be called champions, as black people were not allowed membership in debate societies until after World War II. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes Awards for shedding light on this historical moment for the black community. Rent on AppleTV+.
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1 Homeless to Harvard: The Lizz Murray Story
Homeless to Harvard: The Lizz Murray Story is another real-life story that shows how Harvard can change one’s life. Thora Birch plays Liz Murray, a teenager who becomes homeless at 15 owing to her family’s drug addiction. Difficult circumstances force her to work to complete high school while living on the streets. Her life turns upside down when she gets a scholarship to study at Harvard University through an essay contest by The New York Times.
The television film was directed by Peter Levin and received several Primetime Emmy Award nominations. The real-life Liz Murray made a brief cameo appearance in the film as a social worker. Today, she is a best-selling author, co-founder of a youth-mentoring organization, and has received several awards, including the White House Project’s Role Model Award. Stream it on DirecTV