Harry Potter and the Legacy of John Hughes

Movies Features Harry Potter

In light of The Breakfast Club re-release, which debuted at SXSW on Monday and has a wide release March 26, we take a moment to ponder the unlikely influence of John Hughes on the Harry Potter franchise.

“Oh, to be young and to feel love’s keen sting.” —Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The fever pitch in the sixth Harry Potter film, 2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, comes when nervous, angsty, 16-year-old Harry crosses paths with a freshly bathed Ginny Weasley. By this time in the story, our hero has faced all the requisite beasts and villains: giants, dragons, confidants-turned-werewolves, a psychopathic mage set on murdering Harry and leading a global genocide. Over six years, horror and heartbreak have forged a nerdy outsider into a bold champion. But confronted on a dimly lit landing by a cute, forward, 15-year-old girl, Harry becomes a puddle. He melts like Molly Ringwald’s Sam next to super hunk Jake Ryan.

No films since John Hughes’ awesome ’80s streak of high school chronicles—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful—explore the emotional lives of teenagers with the same honesty, insight and humor as the Potter series. For huge chunks of the later films, wands and broomsticks disappear and let hormones and pubescent existentialism steer the action. Generally, these are the best parts of the franchise.

The Potter films have a direct lineage to Hughes. Frequent Hughes collaborator Chris Columbus helmed the first two Potter movies and served as a co-producer on the third. Columbus’ work with Hughes came after the latter slipped from R through PG-13 into PG territory—Columbus directed and Hughes wrote and produced the early Home Alone installments, and the pair teamed for the forgotten John Candy vehicle, Only the Lonely.

But Columbus didn’t adopt much of his mentor’s mid-’80s aesthetic. Columbus filled Hogwarts with children mugging for the camera and delivering plucky lines. The second film added a whiff of romance—we get a flustered Ginny who’s obviously sweet on Harry and a hint she’ll be the fulcrum pushing Harry into adolescence. But mostly these kids exist in a pre-sexual world. Yet Columbus saw the future and wisely selected a successor who knew young actors and hot threesomes: Alfonso Cuarón’s résumé included the World War I boarding school drama A Little Princess and the wild, sensual romp Y Tu Mamá También.

For part three, The Prisoner of Azkaban, director Cuarón inherited a cast who had recently figured out how to act and, because the unexpected death of Dumbledore actor Richard Harris delayed shooting, aged a year and a half. Many label Cuarón’s chapter the pinnacle of the series because he distilled the essence of the book while expanding the wizarding world and inserting art into a simple Hollywood blockbuster. But the next three films are better. They’re better because they’re more John Hughesian.

Cuarón ushered in a burst of arousing energy complicating schoolyard friendships, but the story had yet to take up the inexplicable, unavoidable attractions that occur in any odd constellation of teens. (See The Breakfast Club for the definitive example). Mostly, Cuarón decides whose shoulder Hermione should cry on, literally—most of the intimate tension comes when Hermione picks a hand to hold or boy to hug first or chest to collapse upon and whimper into. But the Gryffindor gang need a few more variables to make the hormones volatile. Hey, how about taking a close knit group of 14-year-olds, mixing in some devastatingly attractive, seemingly unattainable upperclassmen from other schools and forcing them all to go to their first dance a la The Goblet of Fire?

A fun, flimsy argument can be made from The Goblet of Fire that each movie corresponds with something from the John Hughes cannon. The Order of the Phoenix and The Breakfast Club throw together individuals who have no business being together —jocks and nerds and know-it-alls and space cadets—who ultimately bond over their common rejection of authority. Sixteen Candles and The Half-Blood Prince challenge the players to jump from puppy love fantasy to imperfect reality. (Oh, and it’s where the protagonists turn 16.) In The Deathly Hallows, trio Harry, Ron and Hermione abandon school for a road trip echoing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—surprisingly, Harry isn’t Ferris but the tortured Cameron who nobody gets: “I’m going to make a stand. I’m not going to I am not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it.”

(Side note: Both Hughes’ and the Potter stories get loads of tension and energy from creating triangles, or a pentagon in the case of the The Breakfast Club, with mismatched boy-to-girl ratios and everyone looking for love.)

But hunting for perfect plot parallels or obvious homages misses the point. Yes, Hermione’s duckling-to-swan transition when she descends the stairs in a very pink, very ’80s-inspired dress at the Yule Ball (Hogwarts’ prom) manifestly alludes to Molly Ringwald’s Andie in Pretty in Pink. But the significant overlaps come in tone and approach. Hughes never condescends to his characters.

Instead of making a joke out of growing up, the bursting young lives outweigh the sad, dull, dead existence of adults. Love, friendship and a mutual dismissal of the inevitability of adulthood trump logic, obligation and surrender: Harry’s refusal to be elevated above his peers by tabloid gossip-monger Rita Skeeter, Ron’s slow epiphany that snogging with pretty dingbat Lavender Brown doesn’t match just being near Hermione, substitute headmistress Dolores Umbridge’s failure to convert a united group of kids to her hoary, establishment values.

Much of the nuance comes not from the directors (capable craftsmen if not auteurs Mike Newell and David Yates), but from J.K. Rowling’s books. Rowling has a gift for writing teen angst and elation. (See her surprisingly wise and intense adult novel A Casual Vacancy for further proof). Leads Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint and the supporting players are also integral. Like Hughes’ chief muses Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall always did, Radcliffe, Watson and Grint play characters their own age. This matters: I doubt a 25-year-old could bite her lip and look adorable but not sexy like Ringwald or twirl and flush with the glee of a first romance like Watson.

But isn’t young love and battling authority the subject of every high school movie? Yes, but so few do it with any insight or respect for the subject matter.

After Hughes gave up high school dramas, his ghost lingered through Can’t Buy Me Love, Say Anything… and Can’t Hardly Wait. But the more reductive Porky’s and Friday the 13th templates dominated into the new millennium. Boys wanted to plant their dicks in baked goods; girls didn’t have time for introspection while shrieking and dodging butcher knives. Caricature replaced truth in American Pie, Scream, Napoleon Dynamite, Rushmore and Bring It On—some terrible and some fine works here but all with different aims than Hughes.

Ironically, the success of the Potter franchise set the adolescence film back. Hollywood took away from Potter that audiences wanted fantastic melodramas with new heartthrobs (and they were mostly right): more than ever, and teens became a demographic to be exploited not celebrated. So we get a hunky 22-year-old playing a 107-year-old vampire stuck in a 17-year-old’s body falling for a Plain Jane in Twilight. Then the Hunger Games and Divergent force children to abandon innocence for a big-budget Lord of the Flies reenactments.

Vampires and dragons and high-tech gladiatorial games can’t sustain a work of art. Like having your hero stick his penis in mom’s apple pie, monsters and spaceships only work for a laugh or gasp or plot device. Smart, true filmmaking has to care about its characters more that its tropes. It has to let characters be as conflicted and complex as they need to be. The Potter films do this. Take a look at Harry and Ginny’s awkward, wonderful staircase conversation and you see that.

Jed Gottlieb is the senor music critic at the Boston Herald and unashamedly loves John Hughes and Harry Potter. Follow him on Twitter.

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