Steven Spielberg or John Hughes: Whose films were better in the 80s?


Fact Box

  • Rotten Tomatoes ranks John Hughes’ most critically-acclaimed movies from the 80s as 1987’s Planes, Trains And Automobiles and 1985’s The Breakfast Club, while Steven Spielberg’s are 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  • Steven Spielberg is the highest-grossing director of all time and has won 32 Oscars.
  • The United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress chose to preserve two of John Hughes’ films as part of America’s film heritage, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club.
  • Steven Spielberg’s highest-grossing film worldwide in the 80s was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, while John Hughes’ was Mr. Mom.

Bill (Hughes)

John Hughes' 80s output defined the genre of teenage coming-of-age movies with such classics as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He tapped into teen angst by creating unforgettable characters whose struggles touched and spoke to a generation. School-related anxiety, teen romance heartache, and parental control/conflict were universal themes for the mostly Generation X audiences of Hughes' films. He also created a stable of young actors— affectionately known as the 'Brat Pack”— to fill his movie roles.

He effectively used music to advance his storylines, creating iconic and memorable scenes: Duckie's impassioned record store lip-syncing in Pretty in Pink, the Misfits' detention-day rebellion in The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's defiant parade sequence. Hughes also helped to advance the careers of groundbreaking new wave artists by showcasing their music throughout his films. The Thompson Twins, Simple Minds, and New Order all benefited from Hughes' patronage. 

In addition to his 'Brat Pack' movies, Hughes extended his entertainment reach to create iconic box office triumphs focusing on travel, vacation, and holiday misadventures for comedic effect, such as Vacation, Christmas Vacation, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. But Hughes was careful to include moments of subtle poignancy to bring his movies back from the edge of slapstick and back into the human realm. His deft hand at revealing truths wrapped in laughs connected with audiences. Hughes' groundbreaking work that spoke to 80's youth, and his masterful blending of comedic and dramatic elements to weave compelling narratives punctuated by musical interludes, place him at the top of his craft among his peers, eclipsing even Stephen Spielberg during that era.

Amanda (Spielberg)

Though John Hughes certainly created some classic cinema in the 1980s, at the end of the day, Steven Spielberg was simply the better filmmaker.

Firstly, compared to Hughes' seven movies from that time, Spielberg was undoubtedly more prolific, directing eight full-length films, one short film (for a Twilight Zone segment), and three television episodes. These hectic years allowed him to focus on honing his craft and laying the foundation for his award-winning work in the nineties, a period where he probably created his most mature films. Hughes, however, swung between directing and writing, which ultimately affected the quality of both. While his writing credits of the era are certainly impressive, Hughes' later efforts were unable to reach the heights of his earlier films.

Spielberg also tackled far more varied topics than Hughes. While he's best known for genre fare, the eighties also saw Spielberg produce movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, period dramas far removed from E.T. or Jaws. Though Hughes successfully nailed down the teenage comedy, he never really figured out how to tell other types of stories. His directing jobs were almost solely focused on comedic work, and his screenplay protagonists seemingly grew younger over time.

Finally, much as one might love a good dance montage or visual ode to Chicago, Spielberg's films and characters from that era have simply had more staying power. Let's face it, no one's really crying out for a sequel to The Breakfast Club, while Indiana Jones may be headed for his fifth outing to the big screen.

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