Stand by Me (1986)

I read The Body when I was not too much older than the characters depicted in the story and Stand by MeDifferent Seasons was a different kind of Stephen King experience for me.  I had started with Pet Sematary and had read several other books, but at this point the ones I liked best were his short story collections, Skeleton Crew and Night Shift.  I expected Different Seasons to be much the same.

At the age of 13 I wanted to read what I liked to read.  I loved King, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Andre Norton.  The only material I liked that was considered "classic" literature at the time was Edgar Allen Poe, since I had not yet discovered H. P. Lovecraft or had taken time to read H. G. Wells.  Although I was in advanced English classes I had no interest in reading what the teachers wanted me to read.  I realize now why many of those works were important but, as a young kid, they didn't connect with me.  Tom Sawyer took place before the Civil War and, though it was a story about young people, it wasn't one that contained anything I recognized.  My introduction to Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet rather than his shorter, more action-filled plays that could hold a kid's attention like Macbeth or Titus Andronicus. 

So, here I was with a book by Stephen King filled with material that it felt like my teachers would want me to read.  I had already experienced this with Bradbury's non-fantasy work, and had felt hoodwinked, though I stuck with it.  I stuck with this as well.  Apt Pupil was decently creepy in its own way, while Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption I ended up liking quite a lot.  He did throw horror fans a bone with the forgettable The Breathing Method, but it was The Body that connected with me.  Much of what was in the story reflected Stephen King's own childhood in the 1950s, and it was not idealized.  The kids all had troubled families and often were knocked around by the local bullies when their dads weren't wailing the living tar out of them.  

My parents were not saints, but they were good parents.  The bullies, however, I could relate to, and I knew many children going through the same things as the boys in the story.  It was the 1980s when I read it, which was a time when the 1950s were idolized as "the good old days" when things were simpler, similar to the way many people speak of the 1980s today.  They were about as right then as they are now, and I appreciated that King did not sugarcoat what being on the cusp of a teenager was like, since 12 and 13 were the worst years of my childhood when it came to bullies and learning, much like Chris Chambers does, that adults are just as bad as kids.  The reason that Stand by Me works so well is that Rob Reiner, as well as writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans, didn't bowdlerize King's story.  It is still an accurate portrayal of what growing up as a boy was before the internet age.  It makes no excuses nor pulls punches, and it had the perfect group of actors to bring the story to life. 

Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) is a 12-year old boy growing up in the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon, in 1959.  It is six months since his brother Denny (John Cusack) died and his parents, who didn't pay him much mind while his brother was alive, have checked out.  His best friend is Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), one of a large family that has a reputation for always being up to no good.  His other two friends are Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), whose father has been incarcerated in an insane asylum after attempting to kill him, and Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell), an awkward heavyset boy.  Vern overhears his brother Billy (Casey Siemaszko) talking with his friend Charlie (Gary Riley) about finding the body of a young boy whose disappearance has recently been on the news.

Vern tells his friends and the four boys decide to go seek out the body themselves so they can then bring it back and notify authorities.  Problem is that Billy and Charlie, after agreeing to keep it secret, eventually break the news to Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland), the leader of a local gang of teenagers.  They decide to go to the location and report it themselves to collect the reward money.  Meanwhile, the younger boys go through a number of trials of their own hiking to the location on foot, as recounted by an adult Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss).  

At this time Sutherland was still cast as a young heavy in most films he was in, while Feldman had not yet gone fully off the rails with the problems fame brought him.  Both bring great performances to the film while O'Connell, who would grow out of his awkward stage, is able to do more with Vern than make him simple comic relief.  The big two are Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix.  A couple years ago I made my way through the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time since the 1990s, or possibly ever since I probably missed a lot of the first two seasons when they were on.  One of the things I wondered was why Wil Wheaton was cast as Will Crusher when it seemed he could hardly act.  Stand by Me makes it clear why, as it is obvious that it was many of the production troubles on those first seasons that undercut Wheaton's ability to give a convincing performance.  

He and Phoenix carry the movie, with the latter giving one of the best child performances I have ever seen in a film.  It is sad to see a boy who has barely entered puberty already giving up on life as well as almost being a father figure to Gordie despite only being a year older.  Phoenix had his own problems and it is a shame we lost him as early as we did.  This is one of his earliest roles and it is one of his best, giving Chris both the toughness and the vulnerability the character needs.

The main quibble I have is changing the location from Maine to Oregon, which is rumored to have been confusion on the screenwriters' part about the mention of Portland and them going with the most well-known one.  To his credit Reiner filmed the story in and around Brownsville, Oregon, rather than doing the common thing and substituting a different state.  It does confuse things a bit with all the French names flying around, as part of the reason mentioned in the story for certain attitudes toward different families is because of lingering bigotry between French and English settlers in that area of Maine.  Castle Rock, though fictional, is still a conglomeration of the rural areas of the state where King grew up.  

The other problem is that, after the final confrontation between the boys and Ace Merrill, there is no wrap-up.  In the story it turns out like it would in reality, with the boys severely hurt after Merrill's gang gets their revenge.  It also gives some of Gordie's friends happier endings.  One thing it does right is keep the one story within a story, the pie-eating contest, that was a highlight of the novella.  The other, a sample of Gordie's adult writing, drags the original down a bit, and I was glad that it was skipped. 

Stand by Me remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations and it is no surprise that he enthusiastically allowed Reiner to also adapt Misery.  It introduced the general public to the fact that Stephen King was more than just a writer of spooky stories and was, in fact, a writer to take seriously, though at the time that was still just as hard of a sell to any of my English teachers as they had trying to sell the school-board-approved classic literature to me.  The Body, as well as Apt Pupil and Shawshank, did open my eyes to the fact there was other literature out there as well and that, with a more open mind, I just may enjoy it.  Both the story and the film also reassured me that what I was going through wasn't unique, and that it could be much worse.  This is still a good story for someone that age, and it hits a bit harder as an adult who has started to see many of his own friends and family pass away.  

Stand by Me (1986)
Time: 89 minutes
Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss
Director: Rob Reiner



  1. I watched that movie a while ago and remember liking it, though it wasn't really my experience growing up. I haven't read the story, though I did read some of his non-horror ones like The Long Walk, Green Mile, and Joyland. I liked all of those. I didn't love The Stand as much as other people but I don't read a lot of horror. There's probably an alternate universe where Stephen King is a midlist literary fiction or mystery writer instead of a horror superstar.


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