By David Nilsen
No other filmmaker has ever better understood and better captured the experience of being a teenager in America than John Hughes. The teen films he made in the 1980s form a significant chunk of the Biblical canon for the American high school experience. Unfailingly hilarious, films like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) somehow manage to be both escapist and cuttingly real in their insights into the triumphs and tribulations of being an adolescent. These films are simultaneously very much of their era, and yet timeless in their appeal. Every generation of teenagers discovers these films, especially The Breakfast Club, for themselves.
Kirk Honeycutt’s new book from RacePoint Publishing, John Hughes: A Life in Film (791.43 Honeycutt), gives a solid overview of Hughes’s career, as well as the personal relationships and struggles that form the context for much of his creative work. Hughes was an eccentric and at times very difficult personality to work with, and eventually withdrew from public life altogether. One assumes he did so with countless classic screenplays still in his head, movies we will never get to see. Honeycutt’s book contains reflections from directors like Chris Columbus, who directed Hughes’s screenplay for the family holiday classic Home Alone (1990), and many of the actors and actresses who rose to stardom largely because of the John Hughes movies they starred in – Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Jon Cryer, Emilio Estevez, and others. Some of these – like Ringwald and Hall – found themselves inexplicably on Hughes’s bad side and were shunned for decades. The fascinating anecdotes about Hughes’s fickle affections are never able to crack the mystery of why he could be so hot-and-cold with collaborators, and more than likely no good answers for this exist.
The book is perhaps most useful for its behind-the-scenes information on the preproduction and production of many Hughes classics. Honeycutt takes us from the inception of screenplays through the release and marketing of these movies, detailing the frenetic work Hughes put in for two decades before retiring from Hollywood. A prolific and frenzied creative mind, Hughes wrote most of his iconic films in the space of a few days each. In one such example, Hughes stayed up one night and in the morning handed a draft to a producer. It was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The movie was greenlighted by Paramount within days, and preproduction began the next week. There was seemingly no limit on Hughes’s creativity.
The teen films Hughes wrote and usually directed presented a world in which no teen had it easy – jocks, beauty queens, nerds, wimps, outcasts, rebels, and normal kids all experienced the alienation of an educational experience that was more for adults than for them, a social world that cast all of them in rigid roles and punished deviations, and home lives in which their parents couldn’t understand them even in the rare instances where they tried. Adults didn’t get it. Being a teenager mostly sucked, even those who would come out on the other side reasonably intact, but was not without its charms and bittersweet victories. Perhaps no film in the Hughes filmography better captures all of this than The Breakfast Club.
Every teen who sees The Breakfast Club for the first time believes they discovered it. This was certainly true for me and my friends in high school. It described us at a time when it seemed impossible we could ever live in a world where our friendships were not prescribed for us based on clothes, music, and social class. Breakfast is a very simple setup that yields layers of complexity and empathy – five kids from different social groups and socioeconomic backgrounds are stuck in a high school library for an entire Saturday in detention. Their supervisor (the vice-principal) is a jerk but also very bad at supervising, so they have most of the day to interact. They irritate each other, flirt, fight, get under each other’s skin, talk, soften, realize they are not all that different. They discover they have more in common than they have in conflict. They are all trying to live with rules they didn’t right, social pressures they bristle under but don’t feel able to shed, parents and educators who ignore them or worse, an existential fear that they will end up just like the lifeless adults who inflict so much of this upon them. The film tidies too easily at the end, but Hughes was adamant his movies would always have a happy ending, and we can perhaps see the ending as metaphorical; these kids will figure it out somehow, hopefully, even if it doesn’t go as smoothly as the ending implies. The wonder of Hughes’s creation here is that while the movie is inseparable from its 1980s context, it never feels dated. Teenagers today are still discovering this film and seeing aspects of their lives reflected in the lives of The Brain, The Athlete, The Princess, The Criminal, and The Basket Case. In Honeycutt’s informative chapter on the film, he reveals how much of the film was really a collaboration between Hughes and his very talented young cast. They were teenagers, or very recently had been, and they were able to bring an even greater level of realism and insight to these roles he had sketched out.
John Hughes: a Life in Film is an excellent book for fans of this great writer and director. Every Hughes film is covered here with production information and light critical analysis, so if you’re still catching up on the Hughes canon, this would be a great companion book to help you along. Head on into Greenville Public Library and check this one out today. Be sure to let us know what you think of it!