Standing by Stephen King

Rob Reiner’s 1986 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body, is one of the most heartrending and excellent leaps from page to screen that I’ve ever seen. Nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe in 1987, Stand by Me is proof that not all Stephen King stories have been butchered by Hollywood directors.

In fact, on a recent episode of the Today show, when Matt Lauer asked Mr. King for names of favorite interpretations of his work, King mentioned Stand by Me. I would have to agree, especially since The Body is my favorite fictional piece by the author. I like the novella for many reasons, but mostly due to the way it captures the magic of childhood, and also the fact that the horror genre that King typically works in merely serves as a backdrop, allowing the characters to be the front and center of the story.

As the book opens, it’s 1959 in fictional Castle Rock, Maine. On the cusp of Labor Day weekend, four 12-year-old friends (Gordie LaChance, Vern Tessio, Teddy DuChamp, and Chris Chambers) hear a rumor about the location of Ray Brower — a kid who went missing in the nearby town of Chamberlain while out picking blueberries. The boys decide that they will set out for a weekend of adventure, find Brower’s body, and become heroes.

Each boy has a reason for wanting such notoriety — for earning a reputation as being brave and heroic. Vern, Chris, and Teddy are all victims of troubled home lives and are considered kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Gordie is the square peg of the bunch because he’s school smart with a talent for writing. He also comes from a “good” family. But his parents begin to neglect him after the death of his older brother, Denny. Thus he easily identifies with his friends’ problems.

With junior high looming on the horizon, it’s clear that the boys will be split up when they are assigned classes in the fall. Before the end of the summer, however, the hunt for Ray Brower’s body will become a way to bond one last time — as well as to face their many demons.

The story is told from Gordie’s point of view, now a middle-aged man and novelist. He has just learned that Chris, his best friend from the time, was stabbed to death while trying to break up a fight. Gordie is now the last of the four boys living. He reveals that Vern died years earlier after falling asleep with a cigarette in his mouth. Teddy, sadly, was killed in a car crash. The news of Chris prompts our narrator to write a book about the weekend they went in search of Brower.

Despite the fact that the corpse serves as a catalyst for what the story is really about — the loss of innocence and childhood friends — it doesn’t mean King’s signature chill is missing. There’s a startling creepiness that hangs over the pages. The fear of the unknown is always at play. None of the boys has ever seen a dead body and the fact that they will soon interact with one is constantly lurking in the background — especially for Gordie who recently lost his sibling.

In addition to the fact that they’re looking for a dead boy around their own age, the landscape is equally ominous. The desolate fields and woods the guys traipse through have a menacing quality to them. Even the name of the road where Ray Brower’s body is supposed to be — The Back Harlow Road — is unsettling.

While Reiner’s Stand by Me has its thrilling moments, it never strays from the fact that it’s a coming of age drama and not a horror film. Fortunately, Reiner is successful in keeping The Body’s quiet mood and concentrates on the boys’ friendships that are so elemental in King’s story.

Despite already having This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing under his belt, Reiner has said that Stand by Me was the first film he directed that was 100 hundred percent his own and free from the influence of his father, famous comedian and television legend Carl Reiner.

The younger Reiner does do a good job of placing the emphasis on the journey out of youth with wide shots of the looming wilderness. This technique reiterates just how big and scary the world can still seem to a 12-year-old. In addition, the film matches the novella’s sense of place despite a definite change of locale. The story’s setting is still Castle Rock, but in Stand by Me it’s moved to Oregon instead of Maine. The Pacific Northwest works well for shooting due to its abundant back country, and the abstruse scenery emphasizes the eeriness lurking beneath the story’s surface.

Wil Wheaton does a superb job of portraying Gordie’s elfishness and understated smarts. Chris is played by the late River Phoenix who was 15-years-old at the time of filming. His presence offers poignancy to the movie, since like his character he, too, would die young. Corey Feldman’s role as troubled Teddy is also befitting as the actor came to struggle with drugs later in life. Jerry O’Connell rounds out the cast of boys as the rotund tag-along, Vern, whose squeamishness and anxiety often leads to some hilarious moments.

At the end of the book, when the boys do find the dead boy, Vern’s and Chris’s older brothers show up with their gang to claim it as their own. Keifer Sutherland plays Ace, the leader of the pack. He works well as a hoodlum in a leather jacket and pocket knife, which he uses to threaten Chris during the showdown over Brower’s corpse. It’s at this moment that Gordie makes a stand and pulls out a gun.

In the book it is Chris who pulls out the weapon (he had taken it from his father). This character switch is an example of one of the few discrepancies between story and film. Here the switch works because soft-spoken Gordie is protecting his tougher friend and hinting at the man he will soon become. It also works because he’s the story’s main focus.

Richard Dreyfuss, who narrates the film, gets a few minutes of face time in the last scene as the adult Gordie. He sits at his typewriter, contemplating the enchantment of childhood and the sad certainty of its end. Searching for a sentence to finish his book with, he looks out the window at his own kids playing in the yard. This prompts the perfect words, which encapsulate the timeless quality at the heart of the story:

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

The answer, of course, is no one does — just as no one has done a better job of bringing King to life than Reiner and his remarkable film.