Stand By Me (1986): Classic Review
Posted on February 25, 2015
The writing of Stephen King is notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen. It has something to do with the writer’s gift for character. King can spend hundreds of pages establishing his dramatis personae before a plot is set in motion. Countless King adaptations have left audiences affronted – The Graveyard Shift languishes on IMDb with a score of just 4.7 and The Mangler has accrued just 3.9 – while other adaptations like Christine and Cujo have merely disappointed. But when King’s work is adapted with faithfulness, skilfully compressing all of its complexity into the limited run time offered by film, it can result in some of the world’s most adored and acclaimed cinema; look no further than Carrie (1976), The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999).
Like Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me is based on one of King’s short stories (The Body) from the 1982 collection Different Seasons and sits alongside it, comfortably, as one of the finest King adaptations to date. It’s a coming of age drama with the merest undercurrent of horror; four boys embark on a journey through the woods in search of a missing boy’s dead body.
“Stand By Me is one of the finest Stephen King adaptations to date”
Stand By Me is not as macabre as it might sound. Director Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap, Misery), captures the boys’ friendship and safeguards its prominence. He’s blessed with creative cinematography from Thomas Del Ruth who frames shots from the boys’ perspective (just watch how he composes the shot of Vern eavesdropping in the clip below) and four enthralling performances from the film’s young cast. Stand By Me launched the career of River Phoenix (Running On Empty) who won a Young Artist Award with his co-stars Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. The chemistry between these four young performers as they talk ‘the kind of talk that you thought was important before you discovered girls’ is Stand By Me’s biggest draw. Yet, beneath the surface, Stand By Me has even more to offer.
Screenwriting duo Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans (who received an Oscar nomination for their work here) identify the deliberately perverse interactions at work within King’s story, primarily between our natural curiosity about death and its painful reality. It’s a matter of perspective that Stand By Me probes and scrutinises and is reflected in the boys’ changing feelings about their journey. At the outset, the boys are fascinated – their adventure is filtered by movies, television, comics and World War legends. As they approach their destination, the presence of the dead boy begins to overshadow the adventure. When night falls and coyotes howl, the boys come to an unspoken realisation they are sharing the woods with a dead child who is not so different from themselves. The body becomes a catalyst for their maturation and, on their return, the town appears ‘smaller’. ‘We’re going to see a dead kid, maybe it shouldn’t be a party,’ says Gordie (Wil Wheaton) who, having recently lost his older brother, knows death’s cruel truth. For Gordie, the journey represents more than just morbid pre-occupation, it’s a way of coming to face to face with his grief.
“The boys come to an unspoken realisation they are sharing the woods with a dead child who is not so different from themselves”
For Gordie, this grief has some unexpected repercussions. His father’s preference for his now deceased older brother manifests itself in an ever widening emotional distance between them. Gordie is an aspiring writer (one of his stories is vividly and comically narrated by the campfire). But his passions fail to measure up to his brother’s masculine enthusiasm for sports. Teddy (Corey Feldman) has issues with his father too, but masks his father’s proclivity for violence with admiration and proud war stories. Despite the father-son relationships which bubble beneath the films surface, it’s the bonds between childhood friends that inform Gordie’s future attitude to parenting.
Ultimately, Stand By Me’s staying power owes much to the resolve of Gideon and Evans’ to acknowledge the wisdom of youth and credit the boys with self and social awareness uncharacteristic of the genre. Musical cues accentuate this refreshing dynamic as Vern and Teddy’s rendition of The Chordettes’ Lollipop proceeds an insightful conversation between Chris and Gordie. Chris (River Phoenix) is conscious that he comes from a ‘bad’ family and is judged as such. He advises Gordie to to mix with the brainy kids at high school and says, ‘you hang with us you’ll just be another wise guy with shit for brains’. Stand By Me asks; how is it possible for a kid to wipe the slate clean? Reiner’s answer is not entirely pessimistic and the director confidently explores these intractable societal problems; something that continues to make Stand By Me relevant cinema today.
Focussing on its coming of age threads, Stand By Me’s horror comes from smaller places (from a boys reaction to a pool full of leeches to an awareness of being alone) and from somewhere much deeper in our consciousness; the realisation that the dead bodies we hear about on the news are, in fact, not so different from ourselves.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ 5/5
Running Time: 89 minutes
Images: © 1986 – Columbia Pictures
Stand By Me is now streaming on Netflix UK. Also available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Ent.
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