Directed by John Hughes, the movie featured Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, and Molly Ringwald – five of the then soon-to-be Brat Pack members who later became well known for flicks such as St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night. Yet, though I remember those equally impressive credits, it’s The Breakfast Club that I’ll most remember them for, if only because the characters all hit so close to home.
Ask anyone who was a teenager in the 80s who John Hughes is, and they’ll practically recite his biography. With credentials that include writing, producing, and directing, there is no doubt that Hughes is an 80s icon.
John Hughes became a writer for National Lampoon magazine in 1979. Inspired by the success of “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978), written by fellow magazine alum Harold Ramis, Hughes took a shot at screenwriting. “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion” (1982), “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983), and “Mr. Mom” (1983) were his first screenwriting credits, and their commercial appeal enabled him to direct his first feature film. That film was “Sixteen Candles” (1984).
With titles such as “Weird Science” (1985), “Pretty In Pink” (1986) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986), John Hughes became synonymous with “teen movies.” He tapped into middle-class suburban life and sensibilities so that his stories were believable and engaging. In particular, he portrayed teens in a way that was completely relatable to his audience. It is widely agreed that when it came to the thoughts and feelings of teens as depicted in the movies, John Hughes got it right.
Nowhere is this more evident than in “The Breakfast Club” (1985). Hughes generalized his characters into five types: the brain, the jock, the princess, the misfit, and the criminal. I’m sure everyone who has seen the movie could see themselves in at least one of the characters. I know I did. Although at my high school the labels were a bit different, I fell somewhere between the brain and the misfit. At the beginning of the movie, these five types are portrayed as having very little interaction with one another, unless it was in a derogatory way. Cliques just didn’t mix and felt there wasn’t any common ground between them. Then Brian (the brain), Andrew (the jock), Clare (the princess), Allison (the misfit) and John (the criminal) are forced to spend a Saturday in detention together. That’s when things start to get interesting.
During the course of the movie, the characters spend time talking and relating to one another. In their own way, each feels diffident and alienated. In their own worlds, they have been neglected, abused, ignored, or bullied, not only by other teenagers but by their own families as well. They realize that although they may seem completely different on the outside, on the inside they are all experiencing the same things. Inside, where it matters, they really weren’t so different from each other.
Our story begins with 5 high school students arriving for detention early Saturday morning: Claire Standish the rich-girl princess (Ringwald), John Bender the criminal/delinquent (Nelson) , Brian Johnson the brainy nerd (Hall), Andrew Clark the jock (Estevez) and Allison Reynolds the basket case (Sheedy). Each has come to detention for a different reason and as the story unfolds, we gain a much deeper insight into the human psyche than we might have expected.
Initially, the five acknowledge the obvious social status discrepancies and try to stay to themselves but it’s not long before Bender forces them into a confrontation with their own private demons. He’s crude, obnoxious, and absolutely relentless yet when he’s done, you can’t help but love him:
Bender: Uh, Sporto?
Bender: You get along with your parents?
Andrew: Well.. if I say yes, I’m an idiot right?
Bender: You’re an idiot anyway. But if you say you get along with your parents, well you’re a liar too.
As if the tense and sometimes hostile dynamics between the five aren’t enough, there’s also the bully-of-a-principal Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) who seems to thrive on the misery of his detention attendees. He has a particular itch for Bender and takes great pleasure in putting our beloved delinquent in his place:
Vernon to Andrew: You think he’s funny? You think this is cute? You think he’s “bitchin,” is that it? Let me tell you something. Look at him – he’s a bum. You want to see something funny? You go visit John Bender in five years. You’ll see how g*******d funny he is!”
Not to be outdone, Bender is happy how to dish it right back:
Vernon to Bender: What if your home… what if your family… what if your *dope* was on fire?
Bender: Impossible, sir. It’s in Johnson’s underwear.
It’s not long before you begin to realize that maybe everyone isn’t as comfortable in their skin as they’d like you to believe. Our princess Claire, for example, admits that she doesn’t talk to “certain people” because her friends expect her not to. She hates it, but that’s just the way things are. Andrew’s humiliating “prank” on a weaker student got out of hand and ended up causing actually an injury to the other student. The worst part about it Andrew confesses is that he only did it to impress his friends and gain respect from his father. Allison is in detention because she has nothing better to do but it quickly becomes clear that the truth is, she’s tired of being alone.
Besides being funny, The Breakfast Club offers a really good look at how our personalities emerge. Whether it’s abuse, neglect, peer pressure, or some other outside interference, we learn at an early age to adapt and adjust to the demands we’re confronted with. For some, that response might be angry and mean (Bender) while others simply withdraw completely (Allison). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to say. We’re just looking for someone who will listen.
Be warned, The Breakfast Club is full of language and not suitable for the very young. But for the older kids, it offers a great opportunity to see things from someone else’s point of view. These kids are not so different after all and it doesn’t matter that one’s a bully or a princess or a jock. In the end, they’re all really the same and the sooner they learn to be true to themselves, the sooner they’ll find the happiness they so desperately seek.
It is this lesson that I want to pass along to my son. And now that I think about it, it wouldn’t hurt for the rest of us to be reminded again from time to time. Because while high school may have come and gone years ago, many of those personalities seem to still be going strong. Ironic isn’t it, that a fictional group of high school students might have had the answer all along?
Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is
and an athlete…
and a basket case…
and a criminal…
Does that answer your question?
The Breakfast Club
I couldn’t have said it better myself.