1980s

The Great Unknown: Reading ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Alongside Homer’s ‘Odyssey’

Ferris Bueller's Day Off Movie Film

Believed to be written in the eighth century BC, Homer’s Odyssey is one of literature’s most familiar journeys into the unknown. The epic Greek poem describes the events occurring 10 years after the fall of Troy, told through the experiences of Odysseus, who is captured on his return home after the war. His wife Penelope waits for him in Ithaca, wrestling with the uncertainty of his survival alongside alternative offers of marriage.

The Odyssey is about the difference between the outward journey and the return. It is an exploration of separation and the irrevocable scars of conflict. Odysseus himself describes it as an examination of how “A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.” It revels in this perverse pleasure. Stripped back to its bare bones, it is an expansive work about a specific, nagging temptation to do the wrong thing. For this, the beloved John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can be considered its analogue.

Matthew Broderick’s Ferris, who narrates the film by staring directly down the camera lens, is not so forthright that he specifically acknowledges his entrapment in a Homeric cycle of wrongdoing. That would spoil the fun. Even the purest form of cinematic self-reflexivity does not grant unlimited access to the storytelling mechanics subjugating the protagonist, from the experiments of Jean-Luc Godard to the “fourth wall” breaks of Woody Allen. But it is there in plain sight, substituting Odysseus’ timeless heroism for Ferris’ desirable swagger, his expertise in tricking his parents to get the day off school: the most coveted luxury for teenagers anywhere. Homer’s ancient Greek setting is exchanged for modern, suburban Chicago; the time span of years is switched to the 24 hours of a single day; the psychological gravity of marital fidelity, war and PTSD is replaced by a teen’s propensity to truant. Unlike Odysseus, Ferris’ journey is succeeded by a swift return — brevity that speaks for comparable efficiency and success as opposed to the obstacles Homer’s protagonist must face. So, a more productive hypothesis might read: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as the anti-Odyssey.

Here, the characters awaiting the return manifest as cinema’s single strongest case of the “conveniently oblivious parents” cliché, justified before the journey even begins. Following the cut from a quaint middle-class house, complete with white picket fences and three parked cars, Hughes introduces the eponymous hero via an address from these parents: “Ferris?” With his wife beside him, Mr. Bueller peers down at his son (to inspect the apparent illness) not dissimilar to the way his son does the camera, an image also recalling the horrifying frontal glares in Rosemary’s Baby. Responding with a half-formed mumble about getting into college, Ferris proceeds to feign blurred vision, which Hughes’ camera replicates, which the protagonist’s sister calls out as BS. The Buellers leave, doors close and the instantly deific protagonist turns 45 degrees to the camera: “They bought it.”

La grande illusion, which Ferris dubs “one of the worst performances of my career,” opens the gate for the film’s journey. Contrary to Odysseus, Ferris’ first objective is assembling the companions to join him on it. The solitary march into war is replaced by an impossible day of doing everything fun around Chicago imaginable, with best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) at his side. The trio visit the Sears Tower and Chicago Mercantile Exchange, eat at the ritzy restaurant “Chez Quis,” watch the Cubs at Wrigley Field, spend time at the Art Institute of Chicago and disrupt a Von Steuben Day parade, in that order. At no point in the day is the strength of Ferris and Sloane’s relationship in question like Odysseus and Penelope’s, with Ferris going as far as casually asking Sloane if she would marry him one day. Rather, the vulnerable dynamic susceptible to the threat of breakup lies with Ferris and Cameron.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off Movie Film

The downward trajectory is forecasted in their first scene together. Unlike Ferris, Cameron (a hypochondriac) is off school for legitimate reasons, but persuaded to join the mischief because, as Ferris tells him, “You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything to do.” The impressionable Cameron concedes to admiring Ferris as much as the whole school, which Hughes crosscuts to often enough to show that students are raising money for a “Save Ferris” fund, to afford the new kidney his absence lie claims a need for. More often, the initiative is a license for the spread of Ferris’ legend through classrooms and along hallways, as if the cross-generational dissemination of Homer’s tale were being passed between schoolkids in real time. Cameron and Ferris’ friendship is founded on a similar appeal, which Dean Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) summarises as “What is so dangerous about Ferris Bueller: that he gives good kids bad ideas.” Viewers are reminded of this perennial anchor no matter how much the characters  argue and fall out during the day, for example when Cameron discloses how “Ferris can do anything” while he and Sloane weigh up their own more realistic options after graduation. But the idolisation is never exclusively Cameron’s, as seen when a teacher tells Rooney that “He’s very popular, Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads — they all adore him.”

Ferris’ reputation is established within the internal confines of the film, almost second-guessing external, post-screening discourse amongst schoolfriends or siblings at the dinner table. This also renders such projections obsolete. Hughes’ film is a vehicle for Ferris’ slacker attitude — its entire design is Ferris, so it does not care what you think. It includes no ambiguity nor ambivalence in his characterisation, and will certainly not devote screen time to the complexity of a three-dimensional character study. Like its protagonist, the film is cool personified — self-referentiality, cinematic pastiche, in-jokes aplenty. It is littered with nods to classics released earlier that century, including a 007 routine, the claim that Rooney “sounded like Dirty Harry just now,” and the iconic sound of John Williams’ Star Wars theme when parking attendants take Cameron’s Dad’s Ferrari for a joyride.

The self-awareness of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off establishes its artifice, which is both a stylistic approach and an idea staged at conversation level. Hughes’ screenplay is punctuated by many, but Ferris and Cameron’s first argument is their most significant, triggered by the perceived execution of Ferris’ “phony phone call” giving the school Cameron’s excuse (achieved by masquerading as his father). Cameron’s word choice is an interesting one. If comparisons between Ferris and Holden Caulfield are also there to be drawn, Hughes’ aesthetic signifies the fun to be had in embracing cinematic phoniness instead of lamenting it, as J.D. Salinger’s iconic literary character so famously does.

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Ferris Bueller's Day Off Movie Film

The emphasis on pretence reflects the film’s complete awareness of its own construction. This is perhaps a good point to introduce a key interlocutor in a comparison of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Odyssey: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Imbued with self-consciousness, Hughes’ film rewrites Homer’s model rather than replicating it, which is precisely why it can be aligned with the 1922 novel, itself a loose reimagining of the Odysseus story (his Latinised name giving Joyce his title). Ulysses is defined by its sense of modernist play, with its structural experimentation reminding the reader that they are experiencing a written story: a similar engagement to the spectator’s with Hughes’ film. The Homeric temptation driving Ferris Bueller is also applicable to the novel’s Molly Bloom. Ferris’ journey is directed by where and how he can satisfy his appetite for rebellion; the central journey of Ulysses, meanwhile, is underpinned by the anxiety of whether wife Molly is committing adultery back home, the Penelope to Leopold Bloom’s Odysseus.

Joyce condenses the Odyssey into a single day, covering Bloom’s meetings and escapades in quick narrative succession, a similar map of Dublin to Ferris’ travels through Chicago. Also beginning at the home, Bloom instead visits pubs, brothels and libraries, breaking up his day by travelling on foot (and on one occasion, funeral carriage) in place of Ferris’ taxi rides. Hughes’ film therefore acts as a pivot, drawing on Homer’s text and then Joyce’s, which are themselves inextricably connected. The mutual ground of all three is the inclination of wrongdoing, to the detriment of the two literary protagonist’s feelings but not to those of Ferris, who dictates the terms of his cycle but also gets away with it, and hurts nobody along the way.

After all, Ferris’ day represents the perfect model of a success story. By sacrificing naturalism or believability, he and his film embrace their near impossibility. His journey is a relatable one in theory, but its flawless execution in practice is only a high schooler’s dream. As Ferris informs viewers in the opening scene, this is his ninth day of the semester. By this point, his ploy is a mastered, well-oiled machine. The film is too, its cinematic mechanics only strengthening Ferris’ perfect Hitchcockian crime — take the on-screen “FAKING OUT PARENTS” bullet points, or internal narrative contraptions such as the fake cough/sneeze keyboard buttons, or the door-to-bed string mechanism creating the illusion of a sleeping Ferris. The last of these foreshadows the work Hughes would do a few years later, writing the screenplay for the equally beloved Home Alone. If that film’s over-reliance on DIY contraption becomes repetitive, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off uses it more tactically, building it into a broader aesthetic of self-awareness.

This transparency is an honest communication. The film tells you truthfully that it is a lie, which its story is entirely predicated on. Delivered by Cameron himself after the disagreement over his phone call, Sloane’s absence excuse involves an invented “dead Grandmother.” Here and throughout the film, death only functions as deception, as highlighted by Cameron’s persistent association with it. This takes a more sinister turn later in the film when he is left catatonic, a far cry from Ferris’ innocuous joke about him “not dying” in the first half hour. With most of the day behind them, the trio return to Cameron’s house with his Dad’s Ferrari. Cameron suppresses a rebellious impulse of Ferris scale for the film’s duration, but reaches a breaking point after another argument. Returning the Ferrari to the garage, Cameron finally cracks, kicking and denting it, incited by Ferris to proclaim that he is “tired of being afraid” of his overbearing father, that he must “take a stand.” The car rolls out of the garage, shattering the window and landing in a ravine below. Cameron’s shift from inaction is cathartic, inviting another comparison with Ulysses, echoing the conversation between the Blooms when Molly is finally confronted about her affairs.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off Movie Film

Cameron’s action is the kind Ferris is defined by. It comes after discovering the attendants’ addition to the car’s odometer, which means his Dad is going to kill him. The revelation leaves him in a vegetative state for a whole 15 minutes of screen time, a spell only broken after Ferris saves him from drowning in the family pool: “I was meditating […] I sort of watched myself from inside.” Through Ferris’ heroics, and by achieving what he desired throughout the film (becoming him), Cameron is reanimated as an equally iconic teen rebel. In an earlier cut to the school day in their absence, Hughes shows an English class discussing “the protagonist’s struggle.” Rather than imply what will happen to these characters, the idea is established only to be contradicted by Cameron’s evolution, eradicating the only example of “struggle.” Ferris does not go on such a cathartic journey — for him, travel remains exclusively geographical — and Cameron’s only restores the same symbolic perfection embodied by Ferris from the outset.

Cameron’s destination confirms the film’s departure from the Homeric model it feigns reproduction of. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off engages with this only to transgress it, parallel to a similarly noncommittal relationship with Ulysses. There are examples of similarity in both cases, but these are outweighed by the active contradictions of their familiar framework. Both Odysseus’ journey to war and his return home are defined by their obstacles, just like Bloom’s through Dublin and then back to Molly; whereas Hughes’ comedy only presents hurdles to showcase Ferris’ ability to navigate around them. Cameron struggles to start the Ferrari, threatening to derail the entire operation before it is even underway, but it starts. The trio repeatedly run into Mr. Bueller around Chicago, but despite close shaves successfully evade him. The car attendants land Cameron in a spot of bother over the car, so the problem is eliminated via an apathetic shrug.

The premise of the “day off” never malfunctions because it belongs to Ferris, who may as well be God. When Dean Rooney consults his file on a desktop computer, checking how many days off adding a new one equals, Ferris inexplicably hacks him from home and changes the number until it drops to zero, to Rooney’s disbelief. The film never really explains Ferris’ ability to do this, coming long after establishing itself as an artificial construct viewers are not to question nor take seriously. The countdown also complicates the film’s compliance with the Odyssey and Ulysses. Its major digression is subverting the adultery theme, only appearing here in Cameron’s Dad’s relationship with his car as opposed to his wife, which he “loves” and “hates,” respectively, as Cameron states. Furthermore, Ferris gets the girl and keeps her, unlike Odysseus and Bloom. Ferris’ hacking works counteractively to these diversions, reducing the day count to zero as if to indicate Hughes’ conformity with a single day narrative structure, akin to the novel that reinvented Homer’s poem because it is the stepping stone in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s transfiguration of that original text. This structure pervades the history of cinema, from American Graffiti to Clerks to the Before trilogy, all likely influenced by its earlier literary mutations.

If Ferris Bueller and his day off resemble something else universal, it is liberation. In the context of the journey, this is best understood as the ability to be in transit. Ferris’ mic-drop suggests that “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Declared just before the closing credits, this is actually in plain sight from the opening. The idea can be summarised by the poster on his bedroom wall: Voltaire, a philosopher whose understanding was that “It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” Ferris is clearly not a fool, and he hopes that, like Cameron and Sloane, audiences will join his untouchable rebellious elite. After the credits have finished rolling, he stares at the camera and addresses viewers for the final time, asking why they are still watching.  It might be overreaching to extract a lesson from Hughes’ film, which so willingly and heavily leans into ironic play, but if it is not, one may come out of the experience watching it with a renewed belief only consolidated by Ferris’ parting demand. The condition invokes the viewer’s own journeys into the unknown or otherwise, which must also be determined by the promise of motion rather than the limitations of stasis.

George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a published short fiction and freelance film writer. He is also a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Recent and upcoming film publications include Bright Lights, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Luma Quarterly, and Off Screen.

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