Reader poll write-up, Fall 2022 | ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985) + its school library setting

As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll — thanks again to everyone who voted in the poll! — I am analyzing the 1985 classic The Breakfast Club, and in particular, its school library setting. The Breakfast Club earned 75% of the reader poll votes, easily outpacing Good News (1947), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and Personals (1990, TV movie). I rewatched this movie from my own personal VHS copy, as seen below.

Stack of VHS tapes, with the Breakfast Club on top
Stack of VHS tapes. Does this photo look like a still life portrait of media to you?

There is no actual reel librarian in this “Brat Pack” coming-of-age movie, which means this movie lands in the Class V category, films with library scenes but no actual librarian characters. Almost the entire movie is set in a school library, so I found it a very interesting exercise to rewatch this movie and focus more on the background and library setting.

The film, written and directed by John Hughes (1950-2009), features five teenagers who serve detention together on a Saturday in the school library: “athlete” Andrew (Emilio Estevez); “criminal” John (Judd Nelson); “princess” Claire (Molly Ringwald); “basket case” Allison (Ally Sheedy); and “brain” Brian (Anthony Michael Hall). The cast list also includes the school principal, Mr. Vernon (Paul Gleason), and janitor Carl (John Kapelos).

The Breakfast Club Official Trailer #1 – Paul Gleason Movie (1985) HD” video uploaded by Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License

Before detention, these teens know of each other, via their groups/stereotypes, but the film explores how they get to actually know each other. About 90% of the film takes place in the school library, so we also get to know this library setting very well. By the end of rewatching this movie, the school library setting felt as much of a supporting character as the school principal and janitor!

Film’s legacy & criticism

This movie was a legitimate hit in the year it was released, earning over $50 million worldwide. The film’s dialog and themes struck a chord in teenagers who felt seen in the movie, with their fears, trauma, and anxieties validated in a way that had rarely been explored in such depth before on the big screen. It was also respected critically at the time of its release, as well, earning praise from Roger Ebert for having “a surprisingly good ear for the way [teenagers] speak,” and Kathleen Carroll from the New York Daily News highlighting its “exceptional cast — who deserve top grades.”

And the film’s teen classic status endures. For example, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list in 2003, and in 2010, Entertainment Weekly ranked the film #1 on its list of the 50 Best High School Movies. In 2016, the Library of Congress selected The Breakfast Club for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Some critics, however, were not so generous; for example, critic James Harwood from Variety wrote that the movie “will probably pass as deeply profound among today’s teenage audience.” I laughed at this because that was true for me! When I was a teen, I did think this movie was very deep and profound! Watching this movie has become like a rite of passage into young adulthood for many teens. In this respect, this film has aged well, as a lot of the fears and anxieties that the teens express — pressure over getting good grades, pressure to fit in, pressure living up to your parents’ expectations, feeling like a pawn in-between squabbling parents, not knowing how to express your anxieties, etc. — still ring true today.

But other aspects of this film have NOT aged well, and need to be called out today as problematic, including, but not necessarily limited to: sexual harassment (Claire endures both slut-shaming and virgin-shaming); fatphobia (“That’s a fat girl’s name”); physical violence and abuse (Andrew’s reason for detention, the principal’s violent threat against a student); violation of personal privacy (the principal looks up students’ personal records without authorization, the janitor looks through students’ lockers); anti-LGBTQ+ slurs (the word “faggot” gets tossed around a lot); the blinding lack of diversity (everyone in this movie is White — in a film set in Chicago!!); and lack of accountability (sexual harasser John “gets the girl” at the end, yikes — and Judd Nelson also bullied Molly Ringwald off-screen). It can be uncomfortable to rewatch old favorites, and realize just how racist, misogynistic, and/or otherwise problematic they seem now — because the discomfort is really about how that reflects on you, right? But it’s necessary to sit with that discomfort and call it out. A movie can be both a beloved classic and simultaneously problematic in different ways. It’s necessary to recognize that we each contain multitudes, and that we can continue to grow and change. After all, isn’t that the ultimate point of this movie?

“Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.

Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

The Breakfast Club”

Opening and closing lines of The Breakfast Club (1985)

Filming locations & school library setting

John Hughes set many of his iconic films in and around Chicago, where he grew up. The Breakfast Club takes places at Shermer High School — the first shot of the entire film!

"Shermer High School" front entrance in The Breakfast Club
“Shermer High School” front entrance in The Breakfast Club

Shermer, Illinois, is also the setting in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983, written by Hughes), Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). “Shermerville” was the original name of the current town of Northbrook, Illinois, located north of Chicago, and the high school Hughes attended in real life, Glenbrook North High School, was located on Shermer Road.

The building used for Shermer High School was an actual school that had closed down in 1981, the Maine North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois, located northwest of Chicago. Maine North High School had opened in 1970, and the architectural style of blocky concrete is in the Brutalist style, which was a popular low-cost building option for schools and colleges from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Hughes had planned to shoot the film in the actual school library, but it was too small. Therefore, the school library set was constructed in the high school’s gymnasium, but the design of it was based on the school’s actual library. In fact, before rewatching this movie for this post, I was convinced that this movie had been filmed in a real school library, and I was shocked to discover that it was a set! I think it was a smart move to base it on an actual school library; the Shermer High School library is one of the most convincing school libraries I have ever seen onscreen!

School library spaces & collections

Below are the first and final views of the school library in the movie. It seemed fitting that the first view of the library space (at 5:43 mins) was filmed from the front perspective, and the final view of the library (at 1 hour and 34 mins) was filmed from the back perspective.

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

The shape of the school library is more or less a long rectangle, with squared-off corners like an emerald shape, with a ground floor plus a mezzanine level lining the sides and overlooking the ground floor. The layout is mostly symmetrical, with skylights mirroring each side of the mezzanine, exit doors at the back of the library on both levels, and two open staircases in the middle of the library on either side. A large clock anchors the center back of the mezzanine level. The central open space of the library has lounge seating, a large statue, and tables and chairs toward the front. Blue-ish fluorescent lighting lines the bottom of the mezzanine level.

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

The front part of the library consists of glass-panelled rooms, two rooms per level, set slightly higher the rest of the library and accessible by a ramp. A concrete staircase wraps around one side of this front section — yes, this school library has 3 staircases! The entrance to the library is asymmetrical, opening to the front right side, with a wrap-around counter and book return.

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

We get to see glimpses of the library’s resources, collections, and equipment throughout the movie — particularly during the “getting high” and dance sequences — including:

  • Current periodicals (e.g., magazines) and newspapers line the back wall on the ground floor
  • “Librarians selections” collections flank each back corner of the mezzanine level
  • Foreign language room on the mezzanine level
  • Tall bookcases line the walls of the library on both levels, along with lower, mid-height bookcases.
  • Listening booths (or possibly group study booths?) along the mezzanine level
  • Overhead projector tucked away in a corner on the mezzanine level
  • Map and atlas case in the center of the ground floor, below one of the staircases
  • Rolling book carts
  • Microform/film/fiche readers along one side of the ground level
  • Black-rimmed computers/OPACs on one side of the center ground level
  • Sound system room, with records and a microphone, in one of the front glassed-in rooms on the ground level
  • Reference storage room, with film reels and archival boxes, in the other front glassed-in room on the ground level
  • Group study rooms — or small classrooms? — on the top level of glassed-in rooms

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

Card catalogs & call numbers

This school library has an entire wall of card catalogs, with 3 separate card catalog units, as well as computers/OPACs (online public access catalogs). This feels accurate to me, as it reflects the transitional nature of the time period, when libraries had and used both the old-fashioned card catalogs as well as more modern computers. Card catalogs had drawers full of index cards, where you could look up resources in the library’s collection by Title, Author, or Subject Area.

The library also has a lot of signage, in blocky, black letters, on the walls to indicate the location of different collections and resources. This signage also reveals that the library uses the Dewey Decimal classification system, which is a common way for school libraries to organize their non-fiction collections. This system uses combinations of numbers in 10 main classes, from the 000s (General works) to the 900s (History and geography). In this movie, we see glimpses of the sections for Reference, General Works, Philosophy, History, and Language.

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

In a confessional scene between Allison and Andrew, we get more close-up glimpses of call numbers on the library books in the 900s area for history and geography. If you’re a regular reader (thank you!), then you’ll know that I look for call number stickers on books in library scenes and settings, because they are a tell-tale sign that indicates actual library books.

The trivia page also revealed that the the Chicago Public Library donated over 10,000 books for use in the movie!

We also see bits of realistic-looking posters around the library, including bulletin boards, a rainbow-colored “library” poster — I remember from my own childhood that my mom had one of these in her school library! — as well as a few large athletic shoe cut-outs that seem kind of random (but kind of realistically random, if that makes sense, like they’re part of a poster campaign from the athletic clubs or something). Props to the propmasters on this movie, as these kinds of details really add to the verisimilitude of this school library setting.

Click on any image to view in a larger window.

It’s also interesting to note that card catalog drawers also get a cameo outside the library! When the principal locks John in a storage room in his office, at 50 minutes into the film, we see an old set of card catalog drawers along the back wall.

Old card catalog drawers in the principal's storage room
Old card catalog drawers in the principal’s storage room

A library by any other name…

The library is actually titled the “Learning Resource Center,” a common term/phrase used for school libraries, and this signage is visible at 17:10 minutes into the film on the outside of the front doors, along with the hours. The library is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and closed on the weekends — except when it’s being used for Saturday detention, of course.

A closeup look at the school library's hours and "Learning Resource Center" signage
A closeup look at the school library’s hours and “Learning Resource Center” signage

And from my notes, Brian is the only character who actually says the word “library” out loud. At around 19 mins, Brian reveals that “the school comes equipped with fire exits at either end of the library.”

Of course, the brain of the group would say the word library, and know where the fire exits are, right?! 😉

Library vandalism & destruction

Throughout the movie, we witness how the students — mostly John the “criminal” — casually and nonchalantly destroy, vandalize, or otherwise meddle with library property and resources, including:

  • John pockets cards from the front counter as he enters the library, and later swipes everything off the front counter as he exits
  • John rips pages out a book (the ensuing conversation reveals that it’s a work by Molière, a French playwright)
  • John reshuffles cards in a card catalog drawer and also throws cards on the floor
  • John falls through the library ceiling (after escaping the principal’s storage room through the dropped ceiling)
  • Allison throws a piece of bologna onto the center statue during lunch (it falls off), and John later climbs atop the statue during the dance scene
  • Andrew screams and shatters the glass door for the “foreign language” room during the “getting high” scene

Can you imagine the school librarian(s) coming in Monday morning and having to deal with ripped-up books, shattered glass, and holes in the ceiling? And it will probably take weeks, if not longer, to find and fix/replace all the misfiled or missing cards. Does the principal use the school library for every Saturday detention, and does this kind of destruction happen every time?!

The principal boasts to the janitor that everyone likes him at the school, but I know one person at the school who likely does NOT like him — the school librarian!

Fun facts & trivia

  • As per the IMDb’s trivia page, one of the original proposed titles for the movie was “Library Revolution” ❤
  • The large sculpture in the center of the library resembles a work entitled “Standing Figure, Knife Edge” by British artist Henry Moore
  • After the film wrapped, Hughes gifted the actors pieces of the banisters from the library set
  • Hughes had written other characters in the original script, including Dr. Lange, a Social Studies teacher, and Robin, a gym teacher — but no school librarian character!
  • And as I mentioned earlier in the post, the Chicago Public Library donated over 10,000 books for use in the movie

Continuing the “library revolution”

Is The Breakfast Club a personal favorite of yours? Is the school library set also convincing to you? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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