Why Ferris Bueller Never Existed

Happy Ferris Bueller Day Off Day, Ferris! That is, of course, if you even exist.

A scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" shown during a John Hughes tribute in 2010 (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)
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This is a great day. And I’m flooded with gratitude, as John Hughes’s masterwork played no small part in leading me to screenwriting. But why do we still care about it? Why exactly does it continue to take hold and resonate? Is it the joyride in a sports car? A rogue song-and-dance number on a parade float? Some improbable parental-deception tactics? Well, these things are exactly what the picture isn’t about. It’s about the soul-sickness of an abused and neglected teenager and the extent to which a hero figure is necessary to mitigate it, and we do the movie and Hughes’s memory no favors by forgetting this.

The aforementioned teen, of course, is Ferris’s go-to pal, Cameron, and the film’s staying power draws less from Ferris and more from Cameron’s formidable depth.  Is it possible that Hughes was presenting something intricate about competition and rebellion in the Ferris/Cameron relationship?  And did he purposefully cast a nearly thirty-year old actor, Alan Ruck, to provide the gravitas needed to effectively say something complex about adolescent self-image?  Cameron, of course, is the emotional core of the movie, without which Ferris Bueller is less an idol and little more than a cartoon-cutout.  But it may take more than a hero, perhaps even a fantasy projection, to help Cameron.  One theory of the film goes so far as to say that Ferris Bueller doesn’t even exist.  And it’s not at all stupid.

I had heard about the “Ferris/Fight Club Theory” here and there, had seen the clever mash-up trailer it inspired and found it interesting enough to screen for an apartment full of dubious friends.  It took all of about forty-five seconds for them to thaw into the idea.  So, is Ferris really a fantastic alter-ego?  Let’s look.

Cameron awakens ill–though his physical symptoms all but disappear once he’s out and about–and he intends to spend the day wishing that his mother never returns from Decatur.  But if Cameron were a more audacious version of himself, what would he do?  Start off by wearing a funky hat, maybe even a vest.  Then pick up his beautiful girlfriend and journey into the big city in a quarter-million dollar automobile, go to Wrigley, eat at Chez Luis, hit the museum, deceive authority, be bold, devilish, virile ... All the things that Cameron’s afraid he’s not.

So Ferris becomes a creation Cameron uses to finally assert himself against his fathers cruelty and more importantly, his own hypercritical conscience.  I think the theory can go further, though, in that Cameron never actually leaves his room.  That everything is imagined but the catharsis is real, which is Cameron - egged on by ‘Ferris’–finally taking his rage out on the Ferrari and then accepting the consequences.  We know, of course, that Ferris Bueller, grotesquely self-seeking, would never take the heat, so his false sincerity in offering so is just more fantastic bravado from an imaginary friend.

There’s so much more to look at, and it’s fun.  I don’t necessarily think that Hughes did this intentionally, but purposefully?  Maybe.  So on this holy teen-movie holiday do yourself the favor of watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with this theory in mind.  You’ll never watch it the same way again.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.