Image by Courtney Nicholas
The 1986 classic Stand By Me is one of three celebrated films—The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil are the other two—adapted from Stephen King’s short-story collection Different Seasons. The book was published in 1982, well after King had proved his popular appeal and commercial dominance in the horror genre. This book, however, included four novellas that didn’t fit squarely within the confines of ghosts and goblins. Stand By Me was adopted from the Different Seasons story “The Body,” and was directed by Rob Reiner. The cast included River Phoenix, Will Wheaton, Corey Feldman following his performance as Mouth in Goonies, a pudgy Jerry O’Connell, and a switchblade-wielding Kiefer Sutherland, whose unflappable maleficence was perfected with his rock star vampire in Lost Boys.
What’s so great about Stand By Me? Everything. The kids are shown in their full splendor through camera positions, close-ups, timing, and most importantly, Richard Dreyfuss’s voice-over. Dreyfuss's voice perfectly conveys an older man looking back on his younger days, giving the film’s childish feelings, worries, and adventures a gravity of adulthood. (Two years later The Wonder Years would use the same device to great success.) With Stand By Me, the childhood genre is a lens through which it can delve into universal issues of mortality, identity, loyalty, and morality—the same issues explored by adult films. The film is also bolstered by the additional benefit of having young protagonists, who can be rawer than mature characters. The film capitalizes on the fact that kids can say and do anything, because they’re still experiencing everything for the first time.
Stephen King often uses characters who are writers. He includes tidbits of their stories in the text, similar to the plays within plays that you find in theater. In “The Body” there is the mise en abyme of Lardass and the pie-eating contest. It is expertly depicted in the film. There is also a whole 12-page story in the novella called “Stud City,” about sex and death. It is ostensibly written by Gordy years after the events depicted in “The Body.” I haven’t researched if this is an old story published by a young King, but it makes sense if it was. In his book It, King uses another writer character to espouse a kind of Ars Poetica about King’s own kind of writing. He says that he believes story writing should be about telling stories, rather than consciously instilling politics or sociological critiques, because those things always change, but stories never do. He probably set this story in the 50s, because it is a time that we all are familiar with in which mores are cemented, so it can be played with and manipulated. The 50s are also a time when King was a young boy and witnessed a friend get hit by a train. The boys in the story don’t see the eponymous body get hit by the train, but “The Body” is indeed killed by one.
River Phoenix. What a stud. How does he make even a young boy with young boy problems seem wise and good. In some ways it seems as if casting him as Chris Chambers was against type. River doesn’t strike me as a macho, leader of a gang. But possibly this is what makes it work. River makes Chris becomes a deep sensitive character caught in life circumstances that have forced him to erect a rough exterior. We see that he is really a misunderstood youth. And more than anything, this is what so many of King’s early books seem to be about: children facing hostile worlds, forced to be tougher than they want to be. Some of them find a way out through writing, and some of them succumb to the darkness. That is what all the horror is about: fantastical symbols for all the very real darkness of everyday life. In “The Body,” the horror is not fantastical, it is just death, and violence, and adult misunderstanding.
At the end of the story Gordy as the narrator reveals that all three of his companions died prematurely: Vern by fire, Teddy in an accident, and Chris Chambers by an incidental stabbing. The characters in the film are spared such fates, changing the emphasis of the film. In “The Body,” death and abuse are crucial themes. All four of the boys have either mentally or physically abusive families and all but one will die early, and the survivor, Gordy, lost his brother at a young age. The emphasis on death makes the trip to see the dead body a meditation on death and small-town strangulation of imagination. The body is a touchstone for all of them, before it they are equal. After seeing the dead, they will all go on their respective paths—as King says in the book and not the movie, some will have to drown.
In the film only River Phoenix’s character dies, and his death is the occasion for the narrator to reflect on the trip to see the body. Once the boys see the body, they forgo their plans of claiming it in order to get famous on the radio and call it in anonymously. If the Gordy character didn’t recount the tale then the act trip would have died in the characters’ memories, but because the story exists, they still get the fame they once sought while still renouncing the immediate attention. The story is an enshrining of the act and the characters. The movie emphasizes friendship, the pure friendship of 12-year-olds. And because River is the only one who died prematurely, the movie has become a shrine to his preternatural greatness.