Warning, this is a long read, but these first five pars distill it down if you don’t want to read it all. The essay is, I hope, an interesting look at one of my favourite films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I think the film is especially helpful when considering story structure and slight-of-hand storytelling.
It’s been very influential for me in constantly trying not to write the obvious line, in searching for the original. In critical theory terms, it’s a narratological and psychoanalytical analysis of the film and earned me a first on my MA in January. In terms of references, I keep McKee’s ‘Story’ next to me at all times. It is my bible for storytelling.
In short, if you don’t have time or inclination to plough through it all (and I absolutely don’t blame you), it argues that the film isn’t about Ferris at all, but his friend Cameron, although in volunteering to help steer Cameron through his Hero’s Journey, Ferris is ultimately also a hero, because in actively showing Cameron what his life could be like, he takes his own risks.
After asking ‘how could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?’ he goes on to show Cameron, and the audience, how to live life to the full, without fear of punishment and when Cameron then says ‘it’s the best day of my life’, Ferris has some of that Elixir for himself. Ferris couldn’t be expected to go to school because he had a far more important job to do and while Cameron’s catharsis is at the film’s heart, it is only enabled by Ferris’ selfless actions.
Hughes made a film about the self in which the two main protagonists could be considered to be opposite sides of the same whole. The conflict between the id of Ferris and the super-ego of Cameron is what drives the story and us all. We are all part-Ferris and we are all part-Cameron and that is why the film endures. When Ferris tells us that ‘life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’, he is acting as mentor to the audience, telling us to look beyond the film’s pretence as a shallow teen comedy. Indeed, Cameron’s catharsis at finally standing up to his father is incredibly powerful.
The whole film is currently on YouTube if you want to check it out.
Here’s the full thing…
This essay uses narratological theory to argue that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was neither about Ferris Bueller, nor a day off, but a highly-orchestrated series of events designed to help save his friend Cameron Frye. By analysing the film in line with Christopher Vogler’s Jungian model, which adapts The Hero’s Journey as set out by Joseph Campbell, the essay questions Ferris’ role as hero of the story and examines who else might fulfil that role while touching on psychoanalytical theory to examine the relationship between the two friends.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an American teen comedy made in 1986, written and directed by John Hughes. Set in Chicago, it depicts approximately 12 hours in the day of Ferris Bueller, an 18-year-old who cons his parents into believing he is ill before a day of fun in the city with his best friend Cameron and girlfriend Sloane.
Superficially, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a straightforward feel-good teen comedy from the Hughes stable, echoing many of the themes of his earlier work Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985) and The Breakfast Club (1985). Like those films, it is set in middle-class suburban Chicago, features a likeable protagonist and examines issues of Reagan-era individuality and teenage rebellion, specifically against education and in the absence of parents. Where adults do appear in Hughes’ films, they are generally hapless authoritarians or gullible do-gooders and as Thomas Patrick Doherty points out the ‘adult villains… are overdrawn caricatures, no real threat; they’re played for laughs’.
From the opening moments, the viewer is encouraged to believe that Ferris will embark on the Hero’s Journey. He is the titular character after all and the first two meaningful words we hear are ‘Ferris, Ferris’ over an establishing shot of the family home. The first person we see, close-up indeed, is who we assume to be Ferris, lying on his side in bed, staring just off camera. He looks catatonic. The shot then changes to Ferris’ point-of-view, with his parents looking concernedly down into the camera. Within 48 seconds of the film’s opening, we are seeing the world through Ferris’ eyes.
His parents cannot find any symptoms, but take him at his word that ‘he has a stomach fever and is seeing spots’. This is a world manipulated by Ferris. He makes an exaggerated movement to sit up, saying with barely concealed irony that he wants to ‘go to a good college so he can have a fruitful life’, but his parents urge him to stay in bed. He complies.
Our acknowledgement of Ferris’ deceit is immediately supported by the impatient foot-tapping of his sister Jeanie, who isn’t fooled. Less than 90 seconds into the film and the dynamic of this suburban family has been established. Vogler would regard this as showing Ferris’ ‘Ordinary World’, which if he is to embark on the Hero’s Journey must be established to provide ‘a baseline for comparison’ with the ‘Special World’.
Ferris continues to over-act, pretending he can’t see his sister and again the camera switches to Ferris’ POV as Jeanie blurs in and out of focus. When his parents finally leave his room, Ferris sits up, stares into the camera. ‘They bought it,’ he says. Three minutes in and Ferris has broken the fourth wall and is addressing the audience directly. Self-reflexively, he even states, ‘One of the worst performances of my career and they never doubted it for a second.’ The word ‘career’ instead of ‘life’ is instructive here, giving a clue as to his true role within the story.
Celestine Deleyto would grant Ferris the role of ‘explicit narrator… with a similar status to that of the narrator in prose fiction.’ He is steering the story. He is good-looking, clever, affable and, as will soon be established, has a beautiful girlfriend. Sitting within the genre of teen comedy, there is nothing to suggest he is not the hero. Additionally, as Mieke Bal contends, ‘the fact that a character focalizes the first and/or the last chapter, we label it the hero(ine) of the book’.
Ferris is indeed the focus of the final scene of the film, but close analysis reveals why, in narratological terms, he is not the hero. After a day in Chicago, Ferris sprints home to avoid being caught by his parents, taking shortcuts through people’s houses and gardens, but ultimately it is Jeanie, Ferris’ primary antagonist, who succumbs to his cause and saves the day. Ferris races upstairs in time to fool his parents once again. Yet this ending is unsatisfactory on two counts.
Firstly, Ferris may have been the driver of both plot and Ferrari, but he is passive to his fate at the moment of crisis, allowing Jeanie to save him. According to Vogler, ‘the hero should be the one to act in this climactic moment’ (CV, p. 206), while Robert McKee states that the protagonist ‘must make a decision to take one action or another’.
Secondly, the conflict between Ferris and his sister and Dean of Students, Ed Rooney, has been one-sided, acted out in his absence, and so at the end of the film we encounter the same Ferris POVs, over-acting, and words of wisdom to the camera. Ferris has learned nothing. He begins the film with a girlfriend and ends it, after not a word of anger, with the same girlfriend.
As McKee states, ‘[T]he protagonist seeks an object of desire beyond his reach’ (MK, p. 147), while Vogler suggests a common denominator that unites heroes across ‘boundaries of culture, geography and time’ (CV, p. 90) is the fact they lack something. At the start of the film, the only thing Ferris desires is a car, but 15 minutes in and this problem is solved as he commandeers Cameron’s father’s prized Ferrari. In narratological terms, there is no Hero’s Journey, leaving McKee to conclude, ‘[i]f we’re introduced to a character […] and by the end of the tale he’s still what he first appeared to be […] we’ll be very disappointed’ (MK, p. 103).
Ferris is universally popular among his peers – ‘the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads… they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude,’ says school assistant Grace – but as Catherine Driscoll points out, ‘[t]he fact that Ferris fits no “type” is intimately linked to the fact that he has and constitutes, no problem.’
Closer analysis reveals Cameron to be the one to complete The Hero’s Journey. Furthermore, unlike Ferris, Cameron’s arc satisfies Aristotle’s three key elements of plot; that is the ‘hamartia’, ‘anagnorisis’ and ‘peripeteia’.
Cameron also begins the film in bed, although he appears genuinely sick. The white drapes around his bed give his bedroom the appearance of a hospital ward or a tomb. Various medication and tissues lie on his bedside table. This is Cameron’s ‘Ordinary World.’
‘I’m dying,’ he says to himself. Ferris then calls and after being put on speakerphone, says: ‘You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.’ Cameron’s problems are internal. He is paralysed by self-doubt, anxiety, boredom. Here is his hamartia.
Ferris pleads with Cameron to go to his house, occupying the role of the ‘Herald’ in the ‘Call To Adventure’. Cameron has been ‘getting by, using an arsenal of crutches, addictions, and defence mechanisms. The job of the Herald is to kick away these supports’ (CV, pp.101-102), but first there is a ‘Refusal of the Call’. Sitting in his battered old car, a tormented Cameron starts the engine, turns it off, pounds the passenger seat in frustration, turns the engine on again and leans on the horn as he revs the engine. Finally, we see Cameron throwing punches at an imaginary foe. In Freudian psychoanalytical terms, we are watching the super-ego of Cameron wrestling with the id of Ferris – a conflict that will drive the story to its conclusion. Campbell speaks of this conflict in mythological terms, lending credence to the theory that Ferris and Cameron are one and the same:
[T]he two sisters, light and dark respectively, together represent …the one goddess in two aspects; and their confrontation epitomises the whole sense of the difficult road of trials. The hero[…] discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed[…] Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.
Cameron’s refusal cannot last long for the story to progress and he is soon at Ferris’ house to ‘Meet the Mentor’ (CV, pp. 117-26), only for Ferris to contrive a reason to go to Cameron’s house. He wants the Ferrari. Cameron is aghast: ‘You remember how insane he went when I broke my retainer. That was a little piece of plastic, this is a Ferrari.’
The stakes are high for Cameron. Damage the car he will face the wrath of his father, for whom the Ferrari is ‘his love. It is his passion.’ As the Shadow archetype, Cameron’s father ‘represents the energy of the dark side… the rejected aspects of something’ (CV, p. 71) – specifically his rejection of his son. He is absent from the film, but his control over Cameron is absolute. Ferris says they can run the mileage off by driving home backwards before driving out of the garage, leaving with Cameron no choice but to go with him. This is what McKee terms the ‘Inciting Incident’, which ‘radically upsets the balance of the forces in the protagonist’s life’ (MK, p. 189).
After picking Sloane up from school, Act One ends with the three of them driving into Chicago. The licence plate on the back of the Ferrari reads ‘NRVOUS’, but Cameron is nevertheless ‘Crossing the First Threshold’, in which ‘the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure’ (CV, p. 127) and enters the ‘Special World’ of Act Two.
Act Two sees the three of them visiting various Chicago landmarks. It is interesting to note semiotically that Cameron wanders around Chicago – a fanatical hockey town – in the jersey of their biggest rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. Whether he genuinely supports Detroit or is wearing the jersey as a statement isn’t known, but it instantly places Cameron as an outsider.
His ultimately justified mistrust of the garage attendants to look after the Ferrari in the city centre demonstrates one example of his progression onto the next stage of the Hero’s Journey, that of ‘Tests, Allies and Enemies’, but the centrepiece to Act Two is the visit to the Art Institute. Here, the three friends contemplate the museum’s artwork until eventually Cameron stands alone in front of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. He stares transfixed for almost a minute as the camera alternates between him and the painting, moving closer to both each time until Cameron’s vacant stare fills the screen and we are then so close to the painting for it to be meaningless.
Hughes explained in a director’s commentary that, ‘the more he looks at it, there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him, the less you see.’ This is what Vogler would term Cameron’s ‘Approach to the Inmost Cave’, his crisis of identity that is the heart of the film. Campbell writes of this moment, ‘if anyone[…] undertakes[…] the perilous journey into the darkness[…] into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures’ (JC, p. 84).
But Cameron soon has more practical concerns, when, having picked up the car, they realise the Ferrari has been taken for a joyride in their absence and the odometer is far higher than it should be. Cameron has entered ‘The Ordeal’, where in such a story ‘facing the greatest fear is depicted as youth standing up to the older generation’ (CV, p.176).
The fear of his father sees Cameron genuinely go catatonic, which eventually leads to him falling into a swimming pool. As Vogler says, ‘[A]n ordeal crisis, however frightening to the hero, is sometimes the only way to recovery or victory’ (CV, p.161). Ferris dives in to save Cameron – offering a literal symbolic moment – with Cameron even laughing and saying ‘Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero’ for good measure when he comes around.
Back home, they then try to change the odometer by putting the car up on bricks and running it in reverse. As the car’s wheels spin backwards, Cameron explains what he was thinking about in his unresponsive state.
‘I watched myself from inside and I realised it was ridiculous, being afraid, worrying about everything, wishing I was dead, all the shit. I’m tired of it.’ After a pause, he says, ‘It’s the best day of my life.’
This is Cameron’s anagnorosis or ‘a change from ignorance to knowledge’ (AR, p. 18) – Vogler terms it The Hero’s Reward – his moment of self-awareness, the realisation that he must take responsibility and stand up to his father if he is to live a happy life.
The ‘peripeteia’ quickly strikes however, as Cameron realises the miles are not coming off the car. We are into McKee’s Crisis, which ‘places the protagonist under the maximum pressure of his life… This scene reveals the story’s most important value’ (MK, p. 304), and Vogler’s ‘The Road Back’, a ‘sudden catastrophic reversal’ (CV, p. 199) of Cameron’s fortune. It is here we get confirmation of Cameron’s hero status, that he has changed and must stand up to his father or live the rest of his life in misery. ‘I’ve gotta take a stand. I’m bullshit. I put up with everything. My old man pushes me around. I never say anything. Well he’s not the problem, I’m the problem.’
This epiphany releases a repressed rage against his father, which he takes out on the Ferrari. ‘Who do you love?’ he shouts repeatedly as he kicks the car with genuine fury. As Vogler states, ‘it is not enough to have people around a hero notice that she’s changed[…] to have her talk about change. The audience must be able to see it in her… actions’ (CV, p. 217). The Rubicon has been crossed, but the stakes are then raised even higher for Cameron as the car rolls off its jack and spins in reverse out of the garage and careens into the valley. It is a wreck. Ferris tentatively offers to take the blame saying he made Cameron take the car, but Cameron refuses, as he must for the story to work. This is the ‘Resurrection’, where Cameron puts ‘The Hero’s Reward’ to the test to demonstrate he really has changed and is prepared to commit to his new course. ‘When Morris comes home, he and I will just have a little chat. It’s cool. No, it’s gonna be good,’ he says.
Finally, the Shadow has a name and Cameron saying ‘Morris’ for the first time represents the climax to his arc. These are Cameron’s last words and his final shot, 15 minutes before the end, is a slow zoom into his face, where there is a hint of a smile. Cameron is relieved to have made the emotional journey from the tortured soul in the art gallery to one ready to face up to his father in an honest, adult manner. He has passed into post-adolescence and ‘Returned with the Elixir’ of bravery and maturity.
So, what of Ferris? In the words of Jeanie, ‘what makes him so goddamn special?’
According to Vogler’s archetype’s Ferris ultimately performs two roles in the film – those of Trickster and Mentor. Vogler states that Tricksters ‘bring about healthy change and transformation, often by drawing attentions to… a stagnant psychological situation’ (CV, p. 77). They are also ‘often catalyst characters, who affect the lives of others but are unchanged themselves’ (CV, p. 79).
As the ‘Mentor’, Ferris stands ‘for the hero’s highest aspirations. They are what the hero may become’ (CV, p. 48). Early on, he says to the camera ‘if anyone needs a day off it’s Cameron. He has a lot of things to sort out…’ Ferris is volunteering to help steer Cameron through his Hero’s Journey and it is here that Ferris is ultimately also a hero, because in actively showing Cameron what his life could be like, he takes his own risks. After asking ‘how could I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?’ he goes on to show Cameron, and the audience, how to live life to the full, without fear of punishment. In outwitting the education system, he is actively challenging what Louis Althusser argues is the dominant state apparatus for controlling ideology, supporting his words with action against those that would repress him and when Cameron says ‘it’s the best day of my life’, Ferris has some of that Elixir for himself. Ferris couldn’t be expected to go to school because he had a far more important job to do and while Cameron’s catharsis is at the film’s heart, it is only enabled by Ferris’ selfless actions.
Campbell ended The Hero With A Thousand Faces by concluding that the modern obsession of self has left individuals bereft of clear meaning or direction, suggesting, ‘[T]he lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two’ (JC, p. 334).
Hughes made a film about the self in which the two main protagonists could be considered to be opposite sides of the same whole. The conflict between the id of Ferris and the super-ego of Cameron is what drives the story and us all. We are all part-Ferris and we are all part-Cameron and that is why the film endures. When Ferris tells us that ‘life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it’, he is acting as mentor to the audience, telling us to look beyond the film’s pretence as a shallow teen comedy.
This essay has demonstrated that by analysing Hughes’ slight of hand as writer and director, it is Cameron’s arc, not Ferris’, that satisfies all aspects of The Hero’s Journey. It has revealed the narratological and thematic complexity of a film made during the height of Hollywood high school comedies in the 1980s and shown me the possibilities of misdirection in storytelling and how to impart meaning and depth with nuance and subtlety. It also provides the basis for further psychoanalytical and postmodern study of the relationship between Ferris and Cameron.