How does Ferris Bueller’s Day Off follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages in simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But there’s a twist. The titular character isn’t the hero of this journey. It’s his best friend Cameron.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
The Ordinary World
As we mentioned, the twist to this journey is that Cameron is the hero. He is the one with the true character arc that goes on a journey of challenges and awakenings.
So let’s begin with Cameron, shall we?
We first see Cameron in bed, suffering from a cold — and possibly depression.
Call to Adventure
Cameron’s best friend, Ferris Bueller, has decided to take a day off from school. He’s gone to great lengths to call in sick and now wants his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane, to come on his adventures with him.
Ferris tells us a little bit about Cameron, “If anyone needs a day off, it’s Cameron. He has a lot of things to sort out before he graduates. He can’t be wound up this tight and go to college. His roommate will kill him.”
And that is Cameron’s Call to Adventure, which he receives in a literal fashion with multiple calls from Ferris trying to talk him into doing something fun.
Refusal of the Call
Cameron refuses Ferris’s multiple calls to adventure, until he finally, and begrudgingly, accepts the call.
Meeting the Mentor
Cameron and Ferris’s first interaction is through the many phone call exchanges. The first sign that Ferris is a mentor comes during their first exchange where Cameron says that he can’t come over because he’s sick.
Ferris’s reply? “That’s all in your head, come on over.”
This single message of wisdom encapsulates Cameron’s journey. Yes, Ferris is also being selfish because he doesn’t have a car and needs a ride throughout the day, but Ferris is clearly Cameron’s mentor in how to live life with abandon.
Crossing the Threshold
When Cameron arrives at Ferris’s house, he has crossed somewhat of a threshold, but it’s not until he helps Ferris get his girlfriend out of school by impersonating her father over a prank call with Principal Rooney that he truly crosses the threshold.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Cameron’s first test comes when Ferris talks him into taking his father’s Ferrari with them to pick up Sloane. This could also be considered another version of him Crossing the Threshold as well. But it’s Ferris’s comment that makes this moment more of a test for Cameron.
“Come on, live a little.”
This is Cameron’s first test. He can either not get into the car — which Ferris has already driven out of the garage — or refuse to allow Ferris to take it. But when Ferris utters those five words, Cameron gets into the car. He has chosen to take a risk.
His second test comes after they’ve picked up Sloane. They drive to downtown Chicago and Ferris decides to leave the Ferrari in the capable hands of a parking garage and its attendants. Cameron initially scoffs but allows the garage attendant to take the car.
We now have gotten to know Sloane a bit, one of Cameron’s allies on this journey. We’ve also gotten to know his enemy in the form of Principal Rooney, as well as his worst enemy, himself.
They visit the Sears Tower, the Chicago Board of Trade, dine at a fine restaurant, go to a Cubs game, and visit the Art Institute of Chicago — all while Cameron talks with Ferris and Sloane about his life and faces the conflict within himself throughout their adventures.
Having gone through many adventures with his friends, Cameron’s spirit is on the upswing. The negative and cynical sickly young man we met early on is now beginning to lighten up a bit.
Until they pick up the car and Ferris realizes that the car attendants have taken the Ferrari on a joy ride, amounting to an extra 175 miles on the odometer.
Cameron goes into meltdown mode. He screams in horror.
The next time we see him, he’s shocked. He’s not talking to Sloane or Ferris. He’s not even blinking.
Ferris goes on to tell us how horrible Cameron’s life will be if he continues on this path.
While Ferris and Sloane are sitting in a hot tub next to a pool, Cameron is sitting with a blank stare on a chair that sits on top of the diving board. Cameron suddenly thrusts himself into the water as Sloane and Ferris panic.
Ferris jumps in and pulls him out. Cameron is unresponsive at first until he opens his eyes, smiles, and says with a grin, “Ferris Bueller you’re my hero.”
Cameron has had an awakening in his life. And it’s this realization that will help him turn the corner.
The Road Back
There is light at the end of the tunnel. They’ve had a great day. Cameron has had an epiphany about life and how he should be living it. And now they’ve got the Ferrari back home and running in reverse to reduce the miles on the odometer. However, something is wrong. The numbers aren’t reversing.
Ferris insists that they go to extra measures. But Cameron isn’t having any of that. Thanks to his earlier epiphany, he has a new outlook on life.
Cameron opens up about his struggles with his father. And he finally unleashes his frustration instead of bottling it up, as he has his whole life. He kicks the car in anger over and over, denting it.
Sloane and Ferris expect him to freak out, but he doesn’t. He accepts the responsibility and looks forward to his father seeing his precious car damaged.
And then the car suddenly comes loose from the grip of the jack and reverses at full speed through the garage glass wall and down into the woods below. It’s totaled.
They once again expect Cameron to go berserk, but he’s surprisingly content.
Ferris wants to take the heat, but Cameron insists that he wants it. He’s no longer going to be afraid of his father’s rule.
He has been resurrected as a better version of himself.
Cameron’s return to his Ordinary World doesn’t happen onscreen, but because of his awakening and resurrection, we know that he’s going to be just fine.
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