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.
Call to Adventure
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.
Refusal of the Call
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.
Meeting the Mentor
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.
Crossing the Threshold
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.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
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.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
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.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
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.
The Road Back
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.
Return With the Elixir
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.