In a classic moment—referenced on Community among other shows—Bender complains about Claire's diamond earrings, saying they were probably a gift from her dad. He contrasts them with the harsh reality of Bender-family Christmas presents:
BENDER: You know what I got for Christmas this year? It was a banner fuckin' year at the old Bender family! I got a carton of cigarettes. The old man grabbed me and said "Hey! Smoke up Johnny!"
This reveals a few things: Bender's dad doesn't care about the health risks associated with smoking, and he doesn't want to buy his kid a nice, normal Christmas present. So, it highlights the dysfunction of Bender's home…
However… An article from the AVClub on horrible Christmas presents from TV and movies makes a good point. It might be harsh and unfair toward John Hughes and Judd Nelson personally, but it does say some perceptive things about the carton of cigarettes itself:
The scene in John Hughes' angst-rific The Breakfast Club where wildly overacting quasi-hoodlum Judd Nelson mocks the diamond earrings sported by pouty rich girl Molly Ringwald is supposed to be a dramatic high point. Instead, it shows how out of it Hughes really was: When Nelson rails about how his big Christmas gift was a carton of cigarettes, his dad's "Hey, smoke up, Johnny!" comes across as more gregarious than abusive. Hughes' childhood in the tony Northbrook suburb of Chicago probably left him ill-prepared for the notion that some kids would be perfectly happy to get a carton of cigarettes for Christmas, as opposed to, say, nothing. And hey, it isn't like Nelson's old man only bought him a pack… (Source)
Still, regardless of whether Hughes knew what he was talking about, the carton of cigarettes is meant to expose how Bender's father doesn't really care about him. Even though Bender probably loves cigarettes, maybe, on a deeper level, he doesn't want his parents to just cater to his delinquency? He wants them to actually care, the way parents are supposed to, which is why he finds the carton of cigarettes such a lousy and disappointing gift. He secretly wants the sort of idyllic Mr. Rogers-as-dad home life that he thinks Brian has.
If you didn't find the carton of cigarettes a very convincing example of abuse and familial dysfunction, you probably will find this one more compelling. It's hard to find a more stunning example of child abuse than a scar from a cigar.
After Andrew says he doesn't really think Bender's home life is as terrible as Bender acts like it is—with Bender's dad yelling "Shut up, Bitch! Go make me a turkey pot pie!" at his mom and screaming the F-word at him—Bender provides the physical evidence. He shows Andrew a scar on his arm, saying,
BENDER: Do you believe this? Huh? It's about the size of a cigar. Do I stutter? You see, this is what you get in my house when you spill paint in the garage. See, I don't think that I need to sit here with you fuckin' dildos anymore!
So, Bender's home life is pretty terrible—that's one thing we can gather from this. And it also seems to indicate that Bender isn't just talk: He's not just pumping up his image. He has the physical evidence of real abuse, and he presents it with conviction. Bender's dad's evidently a pretty sick dude. So, Bender isn't just a goofball with an attitude problem: He's an abuse survivor, and you could argue that all of his misbehavior is really just a way of coping with his situation.
But, interestingly enough, John Hughes intended this to be taken in a totally different way than how Judd Nelson presents it. As Nelson interpreted the character, Bender's dad really did burn him with a cigar. Audiences would agree that that's the way it comes across in the movie, given the way Nelson plays the scene.
But Hughes agreed with Andrew: Bender is all talk. In Hughes's interpretation of the scene (which he, of course, wrote) Bender actually got the scar by catching his arm on a fence. So, it's a good example of how an actor can add a new and different dimension to a scene—possibly to the movie's benefit.
Early in the movie, Bender (verbally) attacks Claire for wearing diamond earrings that her rich dad probably bought her: He hates such an ostentatious display of wealth and privilege. But by the end, Claire actually gives him one of her earrings—which, if it really has a diamond in it, is a super-expensive gift.
Bender puts it in his own ear, which symbolizes the lessons they've learned: They're not really all that different from each other. By donning the markings of a rich person, Bender is acknowledging their shared humanity… or something. (Plus, if things don't work out with Claire, Bender could pawn that earring for some serious cash.)
In a symmetrical, parallel instance of gift-giving (or gift-taking), Allison takes a patch from Andrew's letter jacket as a token of remembrance. Of course, they're probably going to see each other again when the school week begins, so it's not a "token of remembrance" in that she's never going to see him again. Like with Bender and Claire, it's a way of solidifying the moment of recognition they've all shared with each other, the sense that their experiences overlap.
We never thought something as ludicrous as an elephant-shaped lamp could lead to trouble. But Brian's in detention all because of a ceramic, non-functioning elephant lamp.
Basically, he took shop class because he thought it would be easy. How wrong he was… Brian's more of the cerebral type. He excels at considering projects that exist in a more mental realm, not in the physical world. So, he ends up making an elephant lamp for shop class that doesn't work: You pull the trunk but the light doesn't come on like it's supposed to. It highlights Brian's lack of physical competence—something that distinguishes him from Bender.
When they argue about the elephant lamp, Bender's offended that Brian thought shop would be easy. Brian defends his own intellectual prowess in other areas:
BRIAN: Bender, did you know without trigonometry there'd be no engineering?
BENDER: Without lamps, there'd be no light!
Touché. So, Brian's F in shop wrecks his GPA and spurs him into an ill-conceived suicide attempt that never really happens. He brings a flare gun into school and it goes off in his locker—landing him in detention.
So, what's the greater meaning of the elephant lamp, if anything? For Brian's life, it's the fly in the ointment, the one thing ruining everything else—or at least, it seems like that. You could even say that it has some sort of symbolic importance, like it's the proverbial "elephant in the room," the big thing in Brian's life that he hasn't mentioned yet.
Obviously, it's an absurd way to ruin your GPA—a non-functioning elephant lamp—and it just adds insult to injury. But, on another level, it's the thing that brought him to detention, the place where he'll learn a deeper lesson than anything he's learned in school. It's got a providential, serendipitous quality to it.
At the beginning of the movie, after Vernon assigns them their essay topic, Brian is musing to himself,
BRIAN: Who do I think I am? Who are you? Who are you? … I am a walrus…
He's not just gibbering bizarre things to himself: He's quoting The Beatles. Specifically, he's quoting the song "I am the Walrus" written mainly by John Lennon (recall that Carl the Janitor says he wished he was John Lennon when he was a kid).
If you look at the lyrics to "I am the Walrus" they actually summarize the moral of The Breakfast Club—the idea that each one of the students transcends their stereotypes, sharing the experiences of "a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal" instead of just being limited to one of those identities.
The first lines of "I am the Walrus" run: "I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together." That's basically what everyone realizes at the end of the movie. And it makes sense that this is where Brian's train of thought is headed, because he's the one who actually writes the essay expressing this big realization on behalf of everybody else.
Also, this is just one example of an "I am the Walrus" reference in a John Hughes movie. In Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which he made the year after The Breakfast Club came out, the main character says,
"I quote John Lennon, 'I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.' Good point there. After all, he was the walrus."
John Hughes: The guru of '80s teen comedies and the biggest Beatles nerd working in Hollywood.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary world is the parental world: the boring world where Mom and Dad are hounding their kids to do things. When we see all The Breakfast Club kids arriving at school, we see the moment accompanied by some sort of parental failure or neglect.
Before Brian gets out of the car, his mother nags him to use detention to do homework. When Claire's dad drops her off, he spoils and coddles her, telling her that playing hooky to go shopping is no big deal. Allison's dad drives away without turning to look at her, and Andrew's dad acts like the horrible bullying thing that Andrew did is no big deal—but potentially losing his athletic scholarship is. Bender walks to school alone.
In detention itself, Vernon is slickly harsh. When Bender back-talks him, Vernon swiftly dishes out another session of detention next week. So, these kids are totally under the thumb of the adult world, and they're all discontent. But they don't realize that they're all in the same boat… yet.
Bender, being the prankster bad boy, gets things started. He pretends that he needs to go pee, and acts like he's going to do it under the desk, which prompts Andrew to tell him to knock it off.
This spurs the main personality conflicts that characterize the rest of the movie—their different stereotyped personalities all bounce off each other. Andrew plays his cool athlete role, while Bender acts like a criminal and a goof ball. When Bender starts pestering Claire and jokes that he and Brian should close the door and "impregnate" her, it furthers the conflict even more.
Initially, all five of the kids in detention refuse the call by continuing to perceive each other as stereotypes. Andrew denigrates Bender as someone who's worthless and "[doesn't] count," while Bender sees Claire as a "richie" and Brian as a mere dork. He tells Andrew, "I wanna be just like you! I figure all I need's a lobotomy and some tights." Brian and Allison might be relatively free from these negative pre-conceptions, though.
There isn't really a "meeting with the mentor" moment in the movie, since all the adults who might instruct these kids are too flawed to really have any impact on them. At one point, later on, Carl the janitor shows up and explains that he's not the peon they assume he is, and he has some insight into the life of the high school. But he doesn't really come back to confirm that insight or dispense it in any way—except to Vernon.
Overall, the kids have to mentor themselves—when Claire defends Bender after Vernon accuses him (correctly) of removing a screw from the library's door, maybe they're starting to root for each other a little more. But Andrew and Bender almost get into a fight, and Bender pulls a knife on him. Bender also tells Claire she's going to wind up fat… so there are still a few social hurdles to jump.
Their personalities bounce off each other for a surprisingly long amount of time. No real progress is made in terms of understanding each other, even though lots of amusing and some serious things happen—like Bender's revelation about the abuse he experiences at home.
The "crossing the threshold" moment probably comes when they venture out of the library with Bender, after he shows his cigar burn to Andrew. It turns out Bender wants to retrieve his stash of weed from his locker. This journey proves to be a bonding experience: Bender hides the pot in Brian's underwear, but then sacrifices himself by leading Vernon onto his own trail, allowing everyone to get back to the library safely.
After Bender gets himself apprehended, Vernon takes him into a closet and tries to get Bender to take a swing at him so Vernon can beat him up without getting fired. But Bender seems scared and put off.
After Vernon leaves, Bender ends up escaping the closet and rejoining everyone else in the library. They hide him and act like nothing's happened when Vernon checks in. (See the enemy vs. ally dynamic here?) They all smoke Bender's pot with him—except Allison—which proves to be another bonding experience.
At any rate, Andrew, Brian, and Allison hang out and talk in a relatively civil manner, while Claire and Bender discuss their divergent attitudes toward romance. Allison reveals that she has an unsatisfying home-life, and Andrew is sympathetic.
They all sit around in a circle on the floor. Allison ends up claiming that she's a nymphomaniac and that she's slept with her shrink. Eventually, she uses this to force Claire to reveal that she's a virgin—before Allison explains that she's a compulsive liar and made the whole thing up.
Then, the conversation turns even more serious. Andrew explains why he's been sentenced to detention: He's there because he bullied a kid by taping his butt cheeks together—but when they tape came off it removed a lot of hair and some skin. Andrew feels guilty about what he's done and he cries explaining the expectations his father's put on him and how it's warped his attitudes.
After these stories, they all wonder if they're going to grow up to be like their parents—clueless adults who just don't get it. Allison says when you grow up "your heart dies" and feels genuinely concerned about this. But, despite all this bonding, doubt remains.
The real ordeal comes when Claire says that they probably won't remain friends beyond the day: She and Andrew hang out with cool, popular people who wouldn't tolerate their new friends, Brian, Allison, and Bender. Everyone objects, including Andrew.
Eventually, Brian tells the story of how he was sentenced to detention after Claire says he doesn't understand the pressure her friends put her under. After he failed shop class and ruined his GPA, Brian brought a flare gun into school as part of a half-baked suicide attempt. He didn't shoot himself, but it was found in his locker. Everyone reacts seriously, but they start laughing when he reveals it was a flare gun. Allison reveals that she just came to detention because she had nothing else to do. The tension has dissipated, and the ordeal is past.
So, now they really are friends. To demonstrate this, Brian agrees to write their essays for them—though he just writes one that represents their collective viewpoint. Claire gives Allison a makeover so you can see her face better (and to make her less Goth-looking—this is the most controversial part of the movie, in a way).
Afterwards, Bender sneaks back to the closet, and Claire goes to visit him. She makes out with him, and gives him her diamond earring, which he puts on. It seems like they're going to be together now. The same proves true for Allison and Andrew.
Brian writes their essay for them, and after they leave, we see Richard Vernon pick it up. Brian reads the essay—which Vernon assigned on the topic of "who you think you are"—via voiceover.
Brian explains that they realized that they're not their respected stereotypes—each one of them is capable of understanding and relating to the others, so "each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal." They've found their way to the heart of the truth of their situation and are ready to go back home.
In the end they get picked up by their parents and they're wiser than they were in the beginning. Bender walks home and thrusts his fist in the air triumphantly as the song "Don't You (Forget About Me)" by Simple Minds plays.
They've all realized that their true identities aren't their stereotypes. They're human beings and not the roles they play. This is a "resurrection" experience, in a way, since they've discovered their true identities and dispensed with the fake ones. It's like coming back to life.
They're bringing what they've learned back into the world—but can they hold onto it? This remains to be seen. If they can remain friends, they'll have really brought the mystical healing elixir back into their lives with them.
But if they fall into their old patterns of behavior—if Claire and Andrew spurn Brian and Allison and Bender for their popular friends—it'll slip right through their fingers. It remains an open question, but since the movie ends with Bender triumphantly pumping his fist in the air, it seems to end on a pretty hopeful note.
At the very beginning of the movie, Brian's voiceover spells out the setting for us: "Saturday... March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois." So we know where we are, and when. When the movie was released, 1984 would've been roughly the present day (the movie came out in 1985). Fortunately, the world hadn't become a totalitarian dictatorship by that time—excepting the USSR and China. So put that in your curvy old English pipe, Orwell!
The Breakfast Club is set in Shermer—a suburb of Chicago and the center of John Hughes's fictional universe. Practically all of Hughes's movies are set there or involve characters from Shermer, from Sixteen Candles to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to Home Alone.
Hughes grew up in Northbrook, the basis for Shermer: a family-friendly, upper-middle-class to upper-class Chicago suburb. But Hughes wasn't as rich as many of his ultra-wealthy classmates. The Hughes family was middle-class, and Hughes's dad sold roofing tiles.
So, Hughes felt a little discontent with this atmosphere, which seeps into The Breakfast Club: You can see it in the verbal conflict between rich kid Claire and impoverished Bender (also, Brian doesn't seem rich either—he's more middle-class, probably similar to Hughes). The wealthy side of Shermer becomes clearer in Home Alone—where Kevin McCallister's family takes off for a Christmas vacation in France. (Source)
Shermer lies at the center of America. It's an ultra-typical kind of place for the Midwest, although it seems pretty ethnically homogenous (everyone in The Breakfast Club is white). In the movie, we really get to see just one location within Shermer—Shermer High School. It doesn't look too bad, really, for a school. The library is massive, at any rate (probably because the actual school library was too small for the filmmakers' purposes, so they built a giant library set in the school gym).
The Breakfast Club was filmed at North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois—a location spiritually and physically pretty close to where Shermer would actually have been. It was right in John Hughes's native stomping grounds near Chicago. (Source)
Since there's not that much to do in a library aside from read—or, if you're Bender, desecrate books—these kids are forced to either interact with each other or stay quiet. At first, they stay quiet—but Bender's antics force them into a confrontation. The relatively confined space they find themselves in helps spur this action.
We also get to see other parts of the school, like the hallways, a closet, a room with confidential student files, and the football field (at the very end). It's all deeply typical—the kind of high school anyone could imagine themselves in.
That's part of the charm of The Breakfast Club: It's shooting for that intensely relatable sense of normalcy and trying to access everyone's high school experience. Ultimately, The Breakfast Club's setting feels universal and yet totally '80s. It's timeless and timely all at once.
The Breakfast Club doesn't involve flashbacks or a "fractured narrative" (a la Pulp Fiction) or anything like that. It's just a good, old-fashioned narrative. But it doesn't focus on just one main character—it focuses on five. So you couldn't compare it to a third-person limited perspective. It's observing all the characters, which would make it more like a third-person omniscient perspective—if you can say that about a movie, since it doesn't really take us into anyone's interior monologue.
However, Brian begins the movie reading his essay in voiceover and ends the movie in the same way—though the voices of the other four chime in at that point too, reading off the names of their respective stereotypes. So you could argue that the lesson Brian personally learned frames the whole movie—not that this makes Brian the main character or anything, since everyone else apparently learned the same lesson too.
The Breakfast Club is the teen movie. Arguably (or maybe inarguably?) it defines the whole genre. It's why Molly Ringwald has a prominent cameo in the teen movie parody Not Another Teen Movie: She's the definitive teen movie actress who starred in all the famous John Hughes teen movies.
Really, the concept of a teen movie is pretty self-explanatory: It's a movie directed at a teenage audience and starring a teenage cast (or a bunch of older twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers). So, frequently, the subject matter involves high school and relationship issues, with forays into sex and drug use. It can be light, frothy, and wholly amusing like Clueless or Sixteen Candles, or it can have a serious edge like The Breakfast Club, Juno, or (the original teen movie) Rebel Without a Cause.
The teen movie is pretty closely allied to the coming-of-age movie. In order to "come of age" you kind of need to be young. Were an older person to attempt to "come of age" all over again, it would end up being a mid-life-crisis, like with Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. But there's sort of a distinction—teen movies are usually more high school-oriented, whereas a coming-of-age movie could have a collegiate or post-grad setting (like with Good Will Hunting, for example). And it specifically relates to dealing with the trials of growing up and attaining some kind of maturity (or failing to attain it).
That's basically what happens in The Breakfast Club: The students go from an immature understanding of each other, as defined by their respective stereotypes and cliques, to perceiving one another's shared humanity. Of course, the students all view adults as people whose hearts have died—so it's unclear if they're actually attaining maturity, or some other, more enlightened state.
Also, The Breakfast Club is a comedy-drama for obvious reasons: It's part comedy and part drama. You have Bender pretending to pee under his desk and you have Bender showing us the scar where his dad burned him with a cigar: the amusing and the serious mixed together.
A good amount of the comedy in The Breakfast Club actually relies on really old formulas: Back in Shakespeare's time, the Elizabethan Era, playwrights frequently used the four different humors (bodily fluids that were supposed to determine someone's basic attitude and personality) to guide their creation of character.
The five Breakfast Club members function in a similar way, since they represent broad ideas about cliques and certain characteristics associated with them: Claire's snobby, Bender's rebellious and funny, Brian's quirky and neurotic, etc. But, of course, the movie actually subverts all this, since the characters transcend their stereotypes by the film's end.
The title describes what the main characters are: a bunch of kids who get together at breakfast time because they've all been sentenced to detention. But will they continue to get together for breakfast in the future, without being sentenced to detention? Or will they get sentenced to detention again, because Brian's the only one who bothered to complete the assignment Vernon gave them and write an essay? These questions are left hanging at the end of the movie.
At the beginning of the movie, the five kids aren't really a cohesive "club" of any sort. They're just a bunch of people who all happen to have been sentenced to detention. The movie details the process by which they develop this solidarity with each other and really do become "The Breakfast Club" of the title.
Once they've seen into each other's lives and gained understanding, they all start to relate and identify with each. In the last lines of the movie, Brian signs off by reading the essay he wrote to Vernon:
BRIAN (voiceover): But we found out that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.
Vernon's question was, "Who do you think you are?" That's supposed to be the prompt for the essay—and it is. Brian actually does a great job of answering it, giving a thoughtful answer that goes way beyond what Vernon was expecting.
By referring to themselves as "The Breakfast Club" he highlights the unity and togetherness they've developed through the day, and the fact that they don't view each other as being separate species anymore. Now, whether Vernon is going to enjoy this unique approach to the essay is another question in itself….
You'd probably have to say that the movie's climax really comes when they're all sitting around in a circle having big revelations and crying. When Brian talks about his suicide attempt after failing shop class, it might be the emotional high point of the whole movie.
It's the point at which the other kids stop seeing Brian as just some quirky weirdo and realize that he has issues that are similar in magnitude to their own. Claire thinks he doesn't understand "pressure"—meaning the kind of pressure her friends put her under—but it turns out he understands pressure, in the full meaning of the word, perhaps better than she does.
So, that's the climax—but there's still a bunch of important summing-up and realization stuff that still needs to happen.
Since some things never change, Brian gets stuck writing a collective essay for them at Claire's behest. Meanwhile Claire gets rid of Allison's black eyeliner and puts a bow in her hair, giving her a full makeover. This allows her to get with Andrew, while Claire goes to Bender and makes out with him.
Claire gives one of her diamond earrings to Bender, and Allison takes Andrew's athletic patch from his letter jacket as a token. They're solidifying the bonds they've formed with each other, taking tokens and giving gifts because they want them to last. Now that they've learned deep truths about their experiences, they're ready to reap the rewards of all that learning and romantically connect. And Brian gets the pleasure… of writing an essay.
The Allison makeover part of the movie is pretty controversial, and it's worth delving into. A lot of critics were disgusted that she needed to change herself and look more like a Claire-type girl in order to fully win Andrew's affection. Defenders have said that the scene is less about getting rid of Allison's punk or pseudo-Goth look and more about being able to see her face clearly for the first time in the movie.
But if it is about how she needs to change for Andrew, then it does sort of undercut the message of the movie, this newfound acceptance of different kinds of people. The relevant exchange of dialogue goes this way, once Andrew sees the made-over Allison:
ANDREW: What happened to you?
ALLISON: Why? Claire did it! What's wrong?
ANDREW: Nothing's wrong, it's just so different. I can see your face.
ALLISON: Is that good or bad?
ANDREW: It's good!
Of course, the scene also might be showing how change has limits—like with the way Brian doesn't wind up with either of the girls and has to write the essay by himself.
But, at the end, Brian's the one who brings the movie's message into focus. Even if he's on the losing end, romantically, he gets to express the deeper truth they've all realized. And isn't that really the greatest reward of all? Maybe? (Maybe not.)
Anyway… Brian expresses it succinctly at the conclusion of his essay:"[…] we found out that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal."
They've all shared their experiences and successfully identified with each other. Sweet, right?
Whereas Brian expresses this realization in words, Bender expresses it through a fist pump as he leaves detention at the end of the day and walks across the football field. He's triumphant—he's learned something.
The film's final image freezes the pumped fist in place as Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" plays, highlighting their need to not forget about each other and mindlessly fall back into their old, habitual patterns of behavior. They have to keep the faith alive.
There's no nudity in The Breakfast Club (although there was going to be—a totally gratuitous scene where Vernon spies on a lady who's swimming naked in the school's pool). There is a moment where Bender sees Molly Ringwald's panties, but they're actually a body double's—Ringwald was only sixteen years old at the time.
So, The Breakfast Club doesn't have any overt nudity or sex scenes, but what it does have is colorful profanity and adult themes. Bender frequently yells things like this (to give an actual sample): "See, I don't think that I need to sit here with you fuckin' dildos anymore!"
There's also a lot of sex talk, like when Bender verbally imagines Claire losing her virginity, and when Allison pretends that she's a nymphomaniac who sleeps with her psychiatrist.