From Book to Screen: Stand By Me
We return to the Stephen King Book to Screen series to cover the last adaptation from Different Seasons to be distributed, but the first one to be produced. The only novella from Different Seasons not to receive an adaptation, The Breathing Method, is currently in production and will be directed by Scott Derrickson. We will return to that adaptation whenever it comes out. For now, we cover King’s powerful coming-of-age tale The Body, better known as Stand By Me!
Like the rest of the novellas in Different Seasons, The Body was first published in 1982. Contemporary reviews pegged The Body as one of the better novellas in the collection. In it King travels territory that his fans will be familiar with: it’s set in Castle Rock, Maine and is another exercise in boomer nostalgia. The Body is set in 1960 as a group of four twelve-year-olds, in the twilight of young childhood, set out on a quest to find the body of a dead kid and get some reputation for being the ones to discover him.
The nostalgia is heavy in this piece, which is written in first person from the perspective of one of the boys, Gordon, who is now an adult and a successful writer looking back at a formative summer. One might excuse King for making matters too easy in this story — each of the boys comes from a broken home — but the tale is awash in genuine emotion. Representing the season of autumn, this section of the collection is subtitled “Fall from Innocence,” and one can’t read this tale without looking back on their own youth with a bit of a twinkle in their eye.
The sentiment of never getting better friends than one had at 12 may not ring true for everyone, but King opens a window into that feeling whether you experienced it or not. Each of the four youths abounds in personality. The characters feel alive and visceral, and their struggle with their various family issues, as well as their dawning awareness of the twilight of their innocence, can’t help but stir memories. King’s prose is to the point, and he plugs in song references and other bits of Americana to give the story a familiar, wistful tone. As the youths tackle the very real concepts of death and mortality, they learn that their bonds mean all the more.
In what can be seen as theme of the collection, King proves quite capable of writing outside of the horror genre. The Body does use some of his horror trademarks to create moments of tension. The boys trapped on the railroad tracks, seemingly set to get plowed down by a train, is great King moment. But the story’s strongest points derive from just sitting among the boys as they wonder about the world to come.
The film emerged after two screenwriters became fascinated with the novella. After securing the movie rights from King, they wrote the script, though they struggled to deal with King’s demand for 10% profit share and the prospect of having no established stars to sell the film, given the young age of the protagonists. Adrian Lyne was initially attached to help sell and direct the project. The eventual director, Rob Reiner, was fresh into his directing career; when he was first approached, he felt the script lacked focus, and he had promised himself a vacation after the production of 9 1/2 Weeks. But Reiner eventually grew attached to the character of Gordie and signed on to produce the film with Embassy Pictures after a new script focusing on Grodie had been written.
Embassy was shortly thereafter purchased by Columbia Pictures, who almost canned the film. But a screening of a finished print to Columbia Pictures’s production head at his home garnered his daughters attention. He decided to have Columbia Pictures distribute the film after all. Perhaps it was because of the casting of the four young boys, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. Rob Reiner looked for young actors who had similar mannerisms to the youths in the novel. He had the quartet spend several weeks together playing theater games prior to filming to foster genuine camaraderie between them. Both Feldman and Phoenix would later comment that their trauma-filled pasts helped them convey the characters as well.
The movie was a success. Stand By Me debuted as a box office smash in August 1986 and garnered $52 million on a $8 million budget. While some reviewers found the film trite, most gave rave reviews and praised all of the young actors’ performances, especially that of River Phoenix. The film garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and two Golden Globe nominations. During a test screening, King himself had to excuse himself briefly before returning to declare it the best adaptation of his work yet. Reiner continues to call the film his personal favorite, and its reputation has continued to grow.
Columbia Pictures requested the title be changed out of concern of it being misleading, and Reiner ultimately came up with Stand By Me. The movie also changes the setting from Maine to Oregon to match the filming location, and it changes the year to 1959. Yet Stand By Me still captures the best elements of the novella. The friendship of the young men feels natural and authentic, and each displays the pain of their character without falling into melodrama. Even Kiefer Sutherland impresses as a fairly cookie-cutter King greaser baddie. The name change and the inclusion of the Ben E. King song sparked a renewed interest in the song, which re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986 and reached #9 by December.
Reiner’s direction does a good job capturing the King voice. The use of 50s hits and boyish humor, combined with a darkly cynical undertone, bring the novella to life. The journey the boys undertake is fairly modest in the scheme of things, but that is the point. The boys’ journey was a life-changer for them, and their feeling of experiencing a life-altering event comes through to the audience. Reiner’s choice to use the storytelling frame of the book by having Richard Dreyfuss narrate from the future works, too. It’s the same kind of tone that the recent It adaptation aimed for somewhat less successfully.
When we look at the past we look at what were and what we’ve become, and Stand By Me captures this most of all.
Stand By Me is indeed one of the best adaptations of King’s work. It feels like a perfect realization of the content of King’s short story, changed setting aside. One cannot imagine better casting for these characters, and there is no need for a remake. Both the novella and the film are excellent, and both can be enjoyed even by non-King fans.
- Ranked #122 globally
- 63,185 users have ranked it
- Wins 58% of match-ups
- 562 people have it at #1
- 3/91 on the Stephen King filter
These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Stand By Me (1986)
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Cujo (1983)
- The Shining (1980)
- Apt Pupil (1998)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Firestarter (1984)
- The Dark Tower (2017)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)