Stand By Me (1986)
Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon
Directed by Rob Reiner
Stephen King’s name is mostly associated with horror, rightfully so, as that’s the genre he primarily works in. However, he’s written some realistic dramatic fiction that has resonated with readers as much as his horror books. The Body was one of four novellas in the collection Different Season, published in 1982 as a way for King to present some of his non-horror work. Included in this book alongside The Body was Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and The Breathing Method. The last novella is set to become a film in 2020, meaning that the entirety of Different Seasons will be adapted at that point. The Body has a complex structure, being told as the memories of an adult, but with chapters about characters separate from the narrator’s point of view present information he likely never knew. There are also short stories written by the narrator in the middle of The Body, presented as if they have been published later in his life.
The original director of what started production as The Body was set to be Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Flashdance). He’d done one coming of age drama at this time, the Jodie Foster led Foxes, but today he’s known primarily as a deeply psychological filmmaker, focusing mostly but not always on sexuality. Lyne was too much for the production to afford so Rob Reiner ended up being sent the script and saw it as an opportunity to make something very special. He’d previously directed This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing as he transitioned from acting to filmmaking. It was Reiner who chose to center the film around Gordie and his relationship with his dad and the effect of his older brother’s tragic death.
Stand By Me is set in the summer of 1959 as four young boys, transitioning from elementary to middle school, hear about a boy their age who has been hit by a train and lies alone and dead in the woods. The adults are searching for the child, but it’s the children who have discovered the truth and want to be labeled as heroes for finding him. This means they begin an odyssey across a span of 20 miles, following the tracks and spending the night in the woods so they can face down mortality. Along the way, we learn about the conflicts in their homes and in their minds. One boy’s father is mentally ill and, after abusing him, has been sent away to an institution, another boy lives under the shadow of his family’s maligned name in the community, yet another is continuously judged as a “fat kid”, and Gordie’s family still reels from his golden boy brother’s sudden death.
Stand By Me is the sort of film that we don’t see big studios promote very much. It’s quiet and contemplative, ultimately character focused with only a light plot structure. The hook of the film is there to get the four boys moving, but once they are on their journey, it’s all about who they are and how they interrelate. There is the expected pop culture nostalgia that King revels in, the boys sing the theme song to “Have Gun, Will Travel” as an anthem, one boy opines on Pez being the perfect food, the soundtrack is filled with pop classics of the era.
My problems with the film come with how the characters have their personal issues presented, which seems to be in individual tearful monologues. There’s no stylistic aspects to these scenes, just characters, in particular, adolescent boys articulating their internal frustrations. I really wish there had been some more care put into crafting these moments to be more organic and for the language to fit the voices of the characters at these ages. What we have on-screen feels like adults writing kids, which is never a good thing when you want us to connect emotionally with the boys. On the flip side, when the boys are allowed to be crude and contemplative, they shine. A debate about how Pluto and Goofy can both exist in the same universe or who would win in a fight, Superman or Mighty Mouse showcase the more innocent worldview of children to contrast against the moment they see a dead body and their view of the world shifts.
Stand By Me isn’t a perfect movie, but it has beautiful moments where the craft of the filmmakers and the themes of the narrative come together. It’s also another showcase for River Phoenix, a reminder of what we lost with his passing. His monologue is delivered with the most genuine emotion, and I could hear so many former students of mine in the expression of his pain. Phoenix’s story involves a betrayal by a teacher, and that hit pretty hard because trust with students is such a vital part of teaching. If you haven’t seen Stand By Me, like I had until this weekend, I think you’ll find some beauty amongst the awkward bits.