‘It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant.’
Stand By Me began life as a Stephen King novella called ‘The Body’. It was published as part of a four-story collection that provided the basis for the movies The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil. Illustrious company, but given the affection in which the movie is held, even 30 years after it’s release, it is certainly not out of its depth. The name, ‘The Body’, was changed because director, Rob Reiner, was worried audiences would think it was a horror (it was Stephen King after all) or a bodybuilding movie, so it was given the name of Reiner’s favourite soul track – considered the least objectionable of the alternate suggestions.
The story is about four friends who, in 1959, go off in search of the dead body of a boy hit by a train. While on this adventure they discover more about themselves, and their friendships, than they had ever intended. It is oft seen as the quintessential coming of age movie, reminding us of a time when our worlds were much smaller, and of the friendships you thought would last forever. Wil Wheaton (Gordie Lachance) encapsulated the movie perfectly during his interview on All Things Considered when he said:
“Stand by Me, it sort of talks about this time in your life that feels incredibly complicated, but as you get older you realize it’s actually incredibly simple,” Wheaton says. “And we get the tremendous gift of not knowing that it’s never going to be like that again for the rest of our lives, so it’s just pure and it’s uncomplicated. And it’s a time that stays with us even as we become adults.”
The characters showcase great depth and complexity. They were not diluted to suit a younger audience, despite their age, the R rating ensuring an adult direction. Gordie is dealing with the loss of his older brother and the issues this causes with his father. Chris (River Phoenix) is considered a deadbeat because of his criminal relatives, believing this means he will amount to nothing. Vern (Jerry O’Connell) is overweight and fearful, being the butt of many jokes. The group is rounded out by Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), a troubled boy who has suffered at the hands of an abusive father, making him quick to anger.
Originally River Phoenix auditioned for the role of Gordie, but Rob Reiner felt he suited Chris better. Reiner ended up picking actors who were very close to their characters in real life according to Wheaton:
“Rob Reiner found four young boys who basically were the characters we played. I was awkward and nerdy and shy and uncomfortable in my own skin and really, really sensitive, and River was cool and really smart and passionate and even at that age kind of like a father figure to some of us, Jerry was one of the funniest people I had ever seen in my life, either before or since, and Corey was unbelievably angry and in an incredible amount of pain and had an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.”
The four boys were joined by Kiefer Sutherland (Ace Merrill), their chief tormentor and John Cusack, Gordie’s older brother Denny, who he idolised. Sutherland and Cusack stayed through to character during filming when they rolled a car into a ditch. Sutherland terrified Jerry O’Connell throughout the shoot as he continued his torment of the boys as part of his acting process. O’Connell also had a bad experience when he tied up his babysitter and sneaked off to a Renaissance Fair. He was found crying in a parking lot two hours later, the effects of unwittingly eating pot cookies causing filming to halt for the day!
The journey to find the unfortunate Ray Brower forces the boys to face up to many of their own fears, turning to each other as they have no one else. These moments are poignant and memorable because of their emotional honesty. Their problems are heartbreaking, and the story doesn’t attempt to find a neat solution for any of them. Rather it allows the boys to understand who they are as individuals, and this realisation gives them the strength to endure. This resonates with the viewer because life is not a series of neat solutions, nor is it meant to be faced alone.
Stand By Me has stood the test of time for many reasons, not least of which is it’s depiction of the friendships we all experience at that age and how they shape us in later life. The young cast are pitch perfect, with many going on to become icons at different times in their careers. When Rob Reiner showed the finished film to Stephen King he was visibly shaken and had to leave the room and compose himself. He considers the movie the first successful translation to film of any of his works.
Some spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the movie, so proceed at your own risk – although it has been around for 30 years now!
As anyone who has seen the movie knows, Chris goes on to become a lawyer but is fatally stabbed trying to stop a fight in a fast food restaurant. This is made all the more heartbreaking by the death of River Phoenix at the age of 23. The sight of Chris disappearing is a reminder of his passing with every viewing. The movie version of Vern and Teddy’s adult lives are in stark contrast to the book.
In the movie we learn Vern gets married straight after high school, has four kids and drives a forklift. Teddy tried enlisting in the army but is turned down because of his eyesight, spending time in prison and doing odd jobs around the town. The book versions are very much Stephen King at heart – Vern dies in a house fire after a party in 1966 and in 1972 Teddy, strung out on drugs and alcohol, crashes his car, killing himself and his passengers.
If you haven’t watched it in a while, go and treat yourself. It really is as timeless and magical as it was in 1986. I leave you with my favourite line from an adult Gordie, which speaks to every one of us.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Please take some time to check out JWKartstudio, whose wonderful art adorns the top of this blog post.