Why John Hughes Remains Relevant

May 9, 2017

Don’t You Forget About Me

In recent memory, how many posters of The Breakfast Club have you seen in dorm rooms? Even contemporary movies like Pitch Perfect recall the generation defining Simple Minds song and iconic fist pump as an example of teenage achievement. John Hughes had many cult comedies, including National Lampoon’s Vacation and Home Alone but his coming-of-age films remain popular today. Why? The eighties are generally remembered by today’s millennials as a period of big hair and neon spandex, the weird stuff your parents thought was cool. The nineties were much grungier, more deserving of the typical brooding teenager’s attention.

Teenagers are generally not a beloved group of people. Parents fear them. They’re a hard generation to connect with because they’re usually seen as self-absorbed. A lazy age group who sleeps in too late, complains too much and puts in too little effort. Just like the overworked businessman and overbearing housewife, teenagers are easily dismissed into archetypal roles on-screen. One of John Hughes strengths as a screenwriter is his ability to imitate the teenage voice. Most teenage roles demand an ignorant caricature instead of honest relatable voices that audiences connect with.

Let’s Get Relatable

Hughes is always careful to treat teenagers with respect so they never feel looked down upon. Indignities of teenage life are something everyone agonized over when they were younger. Jeannie is furious that her parents always let Ferris get away with everything. Sam can’t believe no one remembered her birthday in Sixteen CandlesPretty in Pink’s Andie is insecure about going to prom with Blane. Are these problems trivial compared to adult struggles with their career, finances and debilitating health? Not when you’re a teenager. John Hughes movies always recall the excitement of being young and experiencing adulthood for the first time. It’s a nice reminder the small degree of selfishness that comes hand in hand with youth. Everyone enjoys a little acknowledgement on their birthday. There’s a reason Facebook sends out birthday reminders and people dutifully post congratulations for public viewing, even if they plan wishing privately as well.John Hughes acknowledges the box teenagers are put in and shows them how to see past it. He begins with something as simple as the constrictive roles as the popular girl, the athlete, the academic, the rebel and the loner in a beloved classic, The Breakfast Club. Their teacher even demands an essay from them asking “who they are.” This is a central question for most teenagers, who are struggling to find themselves as they mature. It feels as if the minute high school begins, people feel defined by one thing. Those who resist any labels get slapped with a stereotype anyway. Lost, forgotten or unnoticed. It’s how you’re remembered. Unless you are a dedicated fan of The Breakfast Club, you might not even remember the five characters names. But you recognized their archetypal roles. High school students are usually remembered in “the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”

Growing Up is Hard Work

“Life moves pretty fast” for everyone, even as yesterday’s teens become today’s adults. Probably the hardest part of growing up is the conflict between wanting to find individuality through maturity while still fitting in to feel a part of the crowd. Part of maturity is never fully accepting that everyone else is struggling to figure everything out too because it looks like everything is aligned perfectly. In Sixteen Candles, even racially stereotyped characters like Long Duk Dong are able to fit in and achieve social merit. Sam and the teenage audience are left wondering what piece of the puzzle they’re missing, what they’re lacking. He’s a stranger at a party held by Sam’s own peers, but he finds friends immediately. How did Long Duk Dong find a girlfriend in five minutes but Jake Ryan is still unachievable? Sam is missing out on her support system, isolated both at school and at home. The feeling of loneliness is mutual, responds an audience of enraptured teenagers.

Characters are allowed to have real issues, such as parental conflict, depression, and suicide that are treated with sincerity instead of humour. Even in a light coming of age movie, John Hughes reminds us that we need characters like Cameron who struggles with depression or Brian trying to commit suicide over his grades. High school is painful for many people, not light and happy like many traditional “teen” movies portray. Audience members with a generation gap might be horrified. How could characters so young be dealing with mental health issues this debilitating? This movie had an upbeat song in the trailer! Part of John Hughes crusade is reminding audiences that teenagers are just like us. We were them. Some of us still are.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Adults in Hughes films are categorized the way most teenagers see the older generation: restrictive or oblivious. These are people who either get in a teenager’s path to self-discovery or they are hopelessly unaware. Hughes points out how this is blatantly opposite to an age where teenagers are hyperaware of their place in the world and who they’re trying to become. The Buellers’ are helplessly unaware that their son Ferris is touring downtown Toronto instead of sick in bed. The principal, Ed Rooney, is furious that Ferris continues to be idolized and is determined to catch him in the act. What other principal would break into a student’s house just for proof of truancy? His unhelpful secretary reminds Ed that the other students see Ferris as a “righteous dude.” Other teachers in the school are also unconscious of the fact that most of their students are hopelessly bored of them. Repeating “Bueller… Bueller…Bueller” in a monotone voice is a simple line, but perfectly demonstrates how adults are viewed in these movies: a broken record that keeps on spinning while Ferris is a dynamic whirlwind popping around Chicago.

Not Angsty? The Movies are Still Timeless

The members of The Breakfast Club

John Hughes coming-of-age tales were released in 1980s which makes his films over thirty years old now. Remaining relevant with the present generation? This is every artist’s dream. Hughes relied on a fairly standard formula. His dialogue was snappy and fresh, with focus on real voices instead of trendy jokes that would become dated. This alone will remain one of his true legacies. There was nothing stilted or robotic about the way his characters spoke.

Several of the movies were bookended to a short span of time, so audiences were not forced to follow these characters through an entire semester of high school. Few people want to relive that. Each move’s premise usually boiled down to a fairly simple idea: a birthday in Sixteen Candles, one day off from school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or a Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club. These aren’t idea stories, they’re character studies of adolescence. Teenagers like feeling catered to. Remember how we’re all a little bit selfish?

Does music make the movie? No, but those songs will be stuck in your head long after the credits roll. Perfect for setting the mood in scenes, Hughes picked timeless soundtrack choices that remain critically acclaimed today. A few choice tracks:

  • Simple Minds “Don’t You Forget About Me”
  • Beatles “Twist and Shout”
  • Karla DeVito “We Are Not Alone”
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “If You Leave”
  • Thompson Twins “If You Were Here”

And even today’s generation and all their weird house music can remain satisfied. Try “Oh Yeah” by Yello. Parodied constantly in pop culture, it’s a song you’ll never forget.

A Little R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There’s a good chance the next generation will seek solace in John Hughes films as well. No one doubts being a teenager is a tumultuous time. Hormones are pumping, the social hierarchy at school is a class in itself and everyone is maturing at their own speed. There are still teen movies that garner attention, like Mean Girls, but most are dismissed. Millennials have joined the hordes of teenagers who love John Hughes and keep his movies playing on the Movie Network on Saturday nights. Maybe teenagers are comforted by the recognition that some people are still taking them seriously. At the end of the day, they’re just looking for a little respect.

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