Page to Screen is a monthly free-form column in which Matt Melis explores how either a classic or contemporary work of literature made the sometimes triumphant, often disastrous leap from prose to film. This time, he hikes off into the woods along the train tracks to discover how Stand by Me became a timeless coming-of-age tale.
“I think most good stories about boys are about journeys,” Stephen King says in Walking the Tracks, a featurette on the making of Stand by Me. All these years later, it’s hard to believe that this classic journey of four friends hiking into the woods to see a dead body almost never came to pass. For years, King had tried to find a story that could connect to the events of his Portland, Maine, boyhood but had little luck. Finally, after completing ‘Salem’s Lot, he had enough gas left over to concoct the Ray Brower scenario, which became the catalyst for his novella “The Body”. Unfortunately, practically zero markets existed for novellas. As King puts it, “I couldn’t publish these tales because they were too long to be short and too short to be really long.” So “The Body”, along with three other long stories (including “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, later adapted into another award-winning film), spent several years collecting cobwebs until King finally convinced his publishers to combine them into 1982’s Different Seasons collection.
Director Rob Reiner had just as little initial luck in trying to get Hollywood to let him adapt King’s novella. “Every studio in town had turned us down,” remembers producer and co-writer Bruce A. Evans. “The consensus was that no one would be interested in a story about four 12-year-old boys on a railroad track. It was dark, there was not a girl in it, and no one knew how to sell it.” Eventually, the film found a home at Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio’s Embassy Pictures; however, when the company was sold to Columbia, the new studio decided to axe the risky, starless project just three days prior to shooting. At the last minute, it was Reiner’s old All in the Family friend Lear who stepped in and secured the film. “Norman [Lear] said, ‘I like the script. I like Rob. I like the boys,'” recalls producer and co-writer Raynold Gideon. “And out of his pocket he gave us seven and a half million dollars to make the film.” And Lear wasn’t the only person who ultimately stood by the movie. It would later take a private screening at the home of Columbia Pictures production head Guy McElwaine, whose two daughters, according to Evans, fell in love with River Phoenix, for the movie to get distribution. As Reiner recalls, Evans cried during the screening and told him, “I just want this picture. I don’t know if it’ll make money or not.”
So Stand by Me got made and distributed and became an unlikely box office hit for Columbia late that summer of ’86. But why are we still talking about the film 30 years later? And why have subsequent generations also latched on so tightly to a movie about four friends cracking jokes in the woods and going on a half-baked adventure hike? The answer rests with those boys: Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) as well as King and Reiner, whose own boyhoods clearly bled into the production. Together they created one of the rare films about children that treats the bonds, fears, and pains of youth with the same emotional depth and weight reserved for movies about adults. It’s a boyhood coming-of-age story that doesn’t rely on nostalgia — that understands that a trip into the woods with buddies can reroute lives and that sometimes boys begin to become men only because life leaves them no alternative.
I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to write kids for the screen — or the page for that matter. Surely, it should just be a matter of thinking back to one’s own childhood and tapping into those memories. But it’s clearly not that simple because too often child characters reach the screen annoyingly precocious, painfully diluted, or thinly drawn characterizations able to do little more than spout catchphrases on cue. As tempting as it might be to apply labels like the shy kid (Gordie), the leader (Chris), the hot-tempered spaz (Teddy), and the goober (Vern) to the boys of Stand by Me, neither King’s novella nor the film’s script let us off that cheaply. And it’s more than that the minutia of boyhood is captured so fondly here — the singing, the ranking, the roughhousing. King and Reiner portray real boys who have been damaged, hurt, and devastated and are already searching for means to reconcile the way things should be with life’s cruel realities. Teddy, for instance, stands up for the same father who disfigured him, Chris wants to get out of Castle Rock but knows the odds are stacked against him, and Gordie fights to emerge from his dead brother’s shadow and realize his own worth. These trials are as heavy as anything they’ll ever face in life and all before any of them can even piss straight.
Remarkably, we never doubt for a second the performances of those young actors. Wheaton has directed much of that credit over the years to Reiner, saying: “Rob was able to cast four teenage boys that could just show up and be themselves.” According to Reiner, that was precisely his plan. “You can’t ask kids of that age to go very far away from who they are,” he explains. “So, I tried to find kids who had the qualities of those characters.” Once Reiner had Stand by Me’s four friends cast, he took them to the shooting locations in Oregon two weeks ahead of filming to play theater games and get to know each other. “I can see now that he was taking this time to get us comfortable with each other,” Wheaton says, “so that we would feel like we really knew each other and really had some bonds together.” It’s those bonds — part genuine, part crafted — that make us believe and embrace the most critical, life-altering moments in Stand by Me.
“The most important things are the hardest things to say,” King’s novella begins. The worst is when “the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” Gordie and Chris are that ear for each other in Stand by Me, that friend whom each can reveal his true self to without being judged. In the famous “Milk Money” scene, tough Chris breaks down as he tells Gordie how a teacher — someone who should have his best interests at heart — betrayed him, and he explains how his fate is already sealed by his family’s seedy reputation. Later, just before the final showdown with Ace, Chris puts an arm around a sobbing Gordie who wails that his own father hates him. There are no kid gloves in this film. In moments like these, two 12-year-old boys are negotiating the hurdles unfairly strewn in their paths and contemplating what the rest of their lives could hold for them. The stakes could hardly be higher, and Phoenix and Wheaton turn in performances that pierce our cynicism and remain with us forever.
If you have good parents, like mine, you’re often lucky enough to spend most of your childhood believing nothing too terrible can ever really happen. In some ways, that childhood ends when life first flashes its fangs and proves to you that really isn’t the case. King saw “The Body” as a series of rites of passage that boys go through. Some, like a first time away from home, are more or less innocuous, but others — facing death or something frightening alone — invariably damage our protective force field of childhood in a way that can never be totally repaired. Not many coming-of-age films address these rites in realistic ways, where you have serious doubts that the characters you’ve spent an entire movie getting to know will come out safely at the other end of the tracks. Stand by Me is one of the few.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the film is how truly on their own the boys are. Who can really help them? Their parents, all but absent in the film save for Gordie’s dreams and flashbacks, are either neglectful or outright abusive. Other adults, like Chris’ teacher, the grocer, and the junkyard owner, shirk their societal duties towards children and come across as inchoate and childlike themselves. And Ace Merrill (Keifer Sutherland) and his gang, the Cobras, seem to have the run of the town as long as their misdeeds are done semi-covertly. After seeing an unflinching Ace play chicken with a truck hauling logs earlier in the film, I had no doubt that he’d have slit Chris’ throat had Gordie not pulled the gun on him. In a fictional world where we quickly learn that a boy can go missing in the woods and get knocked out of his Keds by a train, what’s to stop a “cheap, dime-store hood” from making a boy the latest notch on his switchblade?
Maybe an even scarier prospect is that it doesn’t get better. In King’s novella, Vern dies six years later in a house fire following a drunken party — he falls asleep with a lit cigarette. Five years after that, Teddy, unfit for the army and having done time, bites it when he slams a car full of people, all high and drunk, into a utility pole. Ace Merrill, well, he takes a job at the local mill and rots away on a bar stool. For someone, like me, who grew up in a small town, these stories are commonplace. These towns can suck out your hopes and prospects like a swamp of leeches drains your blood. In some ways, it’s scarier than a dead body or Ace’s switchblade. It’s this small-town fate Gordie and Chris have a chance to avoid, a peril perfectly captured along the train tracks as Chris reacts to Gordie telling him he’s not going to enroll in college prep courses. “It’s like God gave you something, all those stories you can make up,” Chris tells him. “And He said: ‘This is what we got for you, kid. Try not to lose it.’ But kids lose everything unless somebody looks out for them, and if your folks are too fucked up to do it, then maybe I ought to.” God, everyone should have a friend like Chris Chambers.
“Books and movies are apples and oranges,” King says when asked about Reiner altering his novella. “They’re both delicious, but they don’t taste the same at all.” In “The Body”, King paints Chris more as a tragic hero, and Gordie acts as the eyes through which we see him. That was the very first thing Reiner changed after he read Stand by Me’s original script. “Gordie has to be the main character,” the director says. “It’s all about a little boy who doesn’t feel good about himself, who’s looking for approval, can’t get it from his father, and looks to his friends to be bolstered.” To achieve this, Reiner doubles down on the Denny factor (Gordie’s older brother who died in a recent jeep accident), making it clear that Gordie was robbed of the one person (other than Chris) who believes in him and cares about his talent as a writer — someone who would’ve made sure he didn’t squander his gift. And then there’s the gun.
If you’re reading this far, you’ve no doubt seen Gordie lower that forty-five, point it at Ace, and glare steely-eyed down its barrel dozens of times. In King’s novella, it’s Chris who pulls the gun and comes to Gordie’s aid. But if this is now Gordie’s story, it has to be him who makes that move. “It was the emergence of Gordie,” Reiner explains. “That rite of passage happens in that scene. We had Gordie do it because it was his evolution.” That idea of evolution goes back to King’s point about the differences between books and movies. Of course, all the boys change — they go from giddily setting out to find a body with childish visions of getting their pictures in the paper to all solemnly agreeing that Ray Brower deserves better than being a trophy for them — but Reiner’s version offers a more clear-cut transformation than the novella. With Chris’ help, we see Gordie change from an invisible, insecure kid into a young man who isn’t going to let others dictate his life or how he feels about himself any longer. In turn, we learn Gordie will do the same for Chris, which makes that sad ending a bit more bearable. Although he was cut down early, we know that Chris did get out of Castle Rock with Gordie’s help and became so much more than just Eyeball Chambers’ lousy kid brother.
Stand by Me is one of those movies that touches upon something universal. Something that isn’t specific to a time, place, or even gender. It speaks in broader terms than that about what it is to start growing up. Most people I know see themselves in one or more of the characters and can cast people from their own childhood to fill the remaining roles. And I imagine, if we think about it long enough, many of us can recall those moments in our own lives — maybe not a hike to find a dead body or pointing a gun at someone — that signaled a change or from which there was no turning back. In my case, maybe because I became a writer and escaped a small town, I’ve always identified with both the book and the film’s narrator, an older Gordie.
I come from Castle Rock — not Gordie’s, but my own. A small town in western Pennsylvania. There’s a steel plant rather than a mill and nothing much else but churches and neighborhood bars. In the valley below my childhood home, train tracks cut through the thick, forested hillside. There are stories. I’m told an elderly couple once turned onto those tracks late one foggy night — thinking they were a road — and met a midnight freight head-on, headlights to headlight. Nearly every night of my youth, I woke up to those trains that only pass through after everyone’s asleep — to that hulking, lethargic rumble or the howling of dogs. Coal comes in those long, rusted freights. Odd lumps spill over the top sometimes. They pull in full and leave empty, always empty. Almost nothing ever leaves my hometown. It’s incestuous in that way. Students have the same teachers that their parents did two decades earlier. Guidance counselors shuffle them off to the same handful of nearby colleges and trade schools. Those kids marry local sweethearts and move in next to their parents and have children of their own. It’s nearly as predictable as those late-night freights.
But it’s home, so I still visit a couple times each year. And I bump into the Teddy Duchamps and Vern Tessios of my youth at the grocery store or while pumping gas. Time has mostly stood still for them, and I can’t even begin to turn it back for me. We try to talk but run out of ammo in a hurry, each of us, I suspect, a bit grateful. As King writes, “Some people drown. It’s not fair, but it happens.” On the odd occasion that an old friend drags me out to a local bar, I even see the Ace Merrills: warming a stool, shooting pool, or lording over the jukebox. The same j.d. asshole who used to repeatedly punch my shoulder each day in study hall now looks too weary to raise his arm for anything more than a swig. It’s depressing. I tell myself that isn’t me and never could have been. But I can’t know that for certain. I always had parents and a couple Chris Chambers in my life, fanning and protecting that spark I pulled in with and making sure it never went out. It’s why in the rare moments that I think back to my boyhood, I come away with a sobering feeling of gratitude. And it’s probably why I never get tired of watching Stand by Me.
Jesus, does anyone?