Revival House: “You guys wanna go see a dead body?”

Twenty-five years ago, on August 8, 1986, Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me opened in limited release (opening in wide release on August 22).

In 1982, one of my favorite Stephen King books Different Seasons was published, consisting of four novellas that each correspond to a season of the year. I love this book so much because three out of the four tales do not have anything whatsoever to do with the supernatural — a bit of a departure for King. One of his strengths as a writer is his ability to create real flesh and blood people who populate his stories, no matter how crazy things get. This ability especially shines in Different Seasons, and anyone who doubts the writing talent of Stephen King should read at least one of the stories from this book.

Three of the four stories, the same three that do not rely on anything supernatural, have been made into films — the first being Stand By Me which was adapted from The Body. The second film to come from this source was The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Frank Darabont’s flawless adaptation of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Unfortunately my favorite of these stories, Apt Pupil, failed as a film (released in 1998), mainly due to the fact that director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce changed the ending so significantly that they pretty much rendered the rest of the story pointless.

The screenplay for Stand By Me, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (who also wrote 1984’s Starman) is remarkably faithful to its source, right down to the moment where Gordie encounters the deer — one of my favorite little incidents from King’s story that I couldn’t believe made it into the movie. Future adapters of Stephen King material take note: it’s the small character moments like this that make me an admirer of the author’s work, and leaving such moments out of the movie — even though they might not advance the plot — is utterly stupid.

Something else that is generally lost in other King adaptations is his wonderful prose. Fortunately, since The Body is told in the first-person, it lends itself well to using voice-over, and the screenplay beautifully depicts an older version of Gordie, played by Richard Dreyfuss, narrating the story. Thus, we get to keep such observations of friends drifting apart over the years such as, “Friends come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant.“

It is a testament of Rob Reiner’s directing skills that he was able to not only so successfully cast the four young leads, but also that he managed to get such honest performances out of each of them. Corey Feldman has never been better as the crazy, bitter, angry Teddy Duchamp. Jerry O’Connell is perfect as Vern Tessio. And of course River Phoenix shines in the role of Chris Chambers, the kid who believes he was born with no chance in life, who in one heartfelt moment confesses to Gordie that he wants to move away to a place where no one knows him.

Playing Gordie Lachance is a very young Wil Wheaton, in what I was certain at the time was a star-making performance. He’s so downright perfect in this role, it will always remain a mystery to me why his acting career never quite took off the way I imagined it would, especially after demonstrating his ability to carry a movie like he did. Of course all of us nerds are well aware that Wil Wheaton grew up to become — not unlike the adult version of his character — a great writer.

25 years ago, I sat in the theater pretty much stunned by what a solid adaptation this was. I couldn’t believe the entire Lardass Hogan story even made the cut. I had snuck a bottle of Mickey’s Big Mouth into the movie theater, and by the end, with a little buzz going, was profoundly effected by the ending, which I found even more emotional than the book — probably because of the way Chris Chambers disappears from the frame, or the way that the older Gordie looks back on his childhood while at the same time watching his own young son interact with his friend.

Ultimately, Stand By Me is my favorite film about kids beginning the transition into adulthood, a coming of age story that made me reflect the most about my own childhood and the friends that I had when I was twelve. I just don’t understand how this movie is now older than I was when I first saw it. Jesus, does anyone?

  • Chris Holmes

    This is EASILY one of my most beloved movies ever. My childhood hardly resembled that of any of these characters, but this movie made me want to be part of their gang in the worst way.

    As for Wil Wheaton, the answer to why he didn’t become a bigger star is simple – he’s really not a very good actor.

  • Casey Chambers

    The Body is a great story and it still amazes me how SK so accurately captured young friends  interacting from the long ago…Without a single false note.  Everything rings true. Unforced.

    And SK’s line, “…I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” is so sadly true. Time hits us with a feather so we don’t feel it until it’s much too late. And Reiner’s “Stand By Me” is a tremendous adaptation of the book. And it’s not really about a dead body at all, is it?  Leastwise, not in the full scope of the summer.Your observations on the film/book are terrific and made for a pleasurable read on this mundane morning. Thanks.Good stuff!

  • Cinemascribe

    Excellent artivcle, Jeff. Can you believe it’s been 25 years already? I just wanted to add that if you can get a hold of the DVD from a few years ago, there’s a retrospective on there where they interview Stephen King, Rob Reiner and other members of the cast as they  reflect on their experiences shooting the film. They actually set aside some time to specifically address the passing of River Phoenix and,man, after you see that, the scene where Chris vanishes from the frame takes on a whole new resonance. Stand By Me rmeains one of my all time top five favorite films, regardless of genre.

  • Anonymous

    Well done. I haven’t seen the film in years but I do remember it fondly (and yeah, the deer scene that you mentioned). I devoured anything Stephen King wrote when I was a kid and I also remember thinking how the film stayed pretty true to the short story. Terrific performances all around.

    They certainly don’t make films like this anymore.

  • Anonymous

    Well done. I haven’t seen the film in years but I do remember it fondly (and yeah, the deer scene that you mentioned). I devoured anything Stephen King wrote when I was a kid and I also remember thinking how the film stayed pretty true to the short story. Terrific performances all around.

    They certainly don’t make films like this anymore.

  • Gigi

    “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime-store hood.”

  • Kboyle

    You have captured my feelings about a film and a writer better than I would have been able to.  I’ve long held that King’s genius as a writer is not is not widely recognized because of the genre the write in most of the time.  This film is not only a great adaptation of a novella but also the best, in my opinion, coming of age store in all of cimema.
    Fortunately, I have one freind “later on like the ones I had when I was twelve”, my son Scott who shared this link with me and shares my love of Stand By Me and Stephen King.
    Thanks for the article.