What Stand By Me Means to Us
There are three films that come to mind when I think of films that I needed to rewatch as an adult in order to truly understand and appreciate them. The first was Grumpy Old Men; the second was My Big Fat Greek Wedding; and, the third was Stand By Me. The first time I watched this 1980s classic, the only thing I remember was the instantly quotable line, “Chopper! Sic balls!” That line earned me some laughs when I repeated it during the next school day, but beyond that, I never really gave the film a second thought. It wasn’t until years later when I popped the film back in as a young adult and saw the film’s events click into place. Here were four kids tip-toeing the line between youthful innocence and adult reality with the search for the dead body being acting as their gateway from one to the other. It’s a film I almost recommend watching twice. Once as a child, and another as a recent high school graduate. I guarantee you’ll look at this film differently each time, and it will only make you appreciate the film even more.
Oh, and no matter the age, “Chopper! Sic balls!” will always be a great line.
– Marmaduke Karlston
I remember the first time I saw Stand By Me back in 1987 on HBO, I had NO IDEA it was a Stephen King story at all. I had seen so many of his movies at that point that I was in utter disbelief that he wrote it. That being said, I was also glad that it wasn’t like anything else of his that I had seen. It felt real. It felt believable. And it had a good ending. Now I never read King’s novella The Body, so maybe Rob Reiner fixed that for the film. I’m sure someone will let me know in the comments. Even though the film is set in the 50s, the movie feels timeless. Sure, not every one of us has gone looking for the dead body of a missing boy, but we’ve all had adventures with our friends that probably changed our lives forever. This movie depicts that in an extraordinary way. When watching the movie, it makes me think back to the good old days when I would just hang out with my buddy, ride our bikes, and find new places to explore. I miss those days.
– King Alvarez
When Rob Reiner was sent the script for the adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, The Body, he saw promise but felt that it lacked focus. Frankly, he couldn’t quite place what the story was supposed to be about. It wasn’t until he decided that quiet observer and narrator, Gordie LaChance, would be the main character of the film that it started to come together for the new director. Reiner felt that this story was about a boy who felt uncomfortable in his skin, who felt unloved and neglected by his parents who were mourning the death of their favored son.
The story was poignant to Reiner in another way. He had already directed This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, but he saw The Body as a way to step out from under the shadow of his legendary father, Carl. The Body was his chance to prove that he could be the kind of director who could not only tackle comedy and romance but films with depth and meaning as well.
After financial issues became a problem for the film, Norman Lear gave the production $7.5 million of his own money to finish the movie. Despite Lear’s faith in Reiner and the cast, studios simply weren’t interested in the finished product. It appeared for a while that the movie would never see the light of day until Guy McElwaine, the new studio head at Columbia, agreed to watch the film. After screening the movie for some friends, an emotional McElwaine agreed to distribute the picture. However, they decided to change the name of the film from The Body to Stand By Me based on a suggestion by Rob Reiner. According to screenwriter Raynold Gideon, “It sounded like either a sex film, a bodybuilding film or another Stephen King horror film. Rob came up with Stand by Me, and it ended up being the least unpopular option.”
Taking a chance on the film was a wise choice on the part of Columbia Studios, as Stand By Me went on to become that summer’s sleeper hit, earning $52 million on an $8 million budget. It also scored an Oscar nomination for best-adapted screenplay.
The Boys and Lard Ass Hogan
While the premise of Stand By Me is interesting enough – four boys go on a quest to find a dead body – the only way to make the movie work was to cast four actors talented enough to pull off the story’s darker, more emotional moments. After a rather lengthy audition process, Reiner finally settled on River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman. Before he found Feldman, Reiner had considered switching Phoenix from the role of Chris Chambers to Teddy Duchamp, as they had yet to find an actor capable of expressing the abused boy’s anger in a believable way. Enter Feldman, whose own home life was as dysfunctional and chaotic. According to Feldman, he had no problem delivering Teddy’s lines with the resentment and simmering anger that Reiner expected of him. For Wheaton, he found playing Gordie quite relatable, as both character and actor were shy, insecure, and awkward.
The real challenge was making sure the four boys’ friendship came across as authentic. Reiner had to ensure that there was a sense of camaraderie. We needed to believe that these boys cared about each other and we needed to care about them. Their chemistry became the heart and soul of the film. Whether they were insulting each other, having deep meaningful conversations about Goofy and Donald Duck, or comforting one another when the pain of adolescence and loss became too much to ignore, there was never a moment where you doubted the sincerity of their friendship.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
There is a delicate balance between humor and heartache that makes the film feel all the more real. The boys have to contend with a bloody thirsty dog who likes to go for the nuts, leeches, a near-death experience with a train, and town bully Ace Merrill. But they also camp out under the stars, make fart jokes, and listen in enraptured awe as future novelist Gordie LaChance tells them a story called The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan, in which a bullied, overweight teen decides to get revenge on his tormentors during the town’s annual pie-eating contest. With a combination of raw egg, castor oil, and blueberry pie after blueberry pie, well… you get the idea. Originally Reiner was reluctant to include the projectile vomiting scene, finding it a bit too juvenile for the serious LaChance, who is meant to be this master storyteller. But given the fact that LaChance is also a twelve-year-old boy, an age where puke and farts are comedic gold, Reiner was persuaded to keep the scene intact and I don’t think Stand By Me would have been the same without it. It’s a horrifically disgusting scene, but a hilarious one as well, a welcome breather from the more emotional aspects of the story. It’s a reminder that while these four boys are going through their own growing pains, some more serious than others, they’re still four young boys who enjoy a good barf story. It’s the kind of carefree summer they should be having, instead of searching for dead bodies or going home to abusive, neglectful parents. It’s a summer of lost innocence that will affect all four boys into adulthood.
“It’s the film that I feel most connected to. It’s the film that probably most reflects my personality, my sensibility.” – Rob Reiner
The Legacy of Stand By Me
When Reiner first showed the film to Stephen King, he was understandably nervous. Adaptations of King’s novels prior to Stand By Me had not been very well received, nor had they been very good, save for Carrie and The Shining, and most people were aware of King’s very vocal dislike of Kubrick’s vision of his novel. After the screening, King told Reiner that he had to step out and think for a moment or two. When King returned, he told Reiner that Stand By Me was the best adaptation of his work and even praised Reiner for changing one important aspect of his book – originally it was Chris Chambers who took a gun and faced down Ace Merrill and his goons during the groups’ confrontation, but Reiner had changed the scene to put the gun in Gordie’s hand instead, thus completing Gordie’s coming of age journey.
While King is known for horror, one of his greatest strengths lies in writing the emotions and inner turmoil of children. Reiner was able to take the bond forged by these four boys in print and transition it seamlessly to the big screen. I first saw Stand By Me when I was a young girl, barely recognizing what the film was really about. Instead, I found myself caught up in the fantasy of lying to my parents and going on an overnight adventure with my friends, or even better, River Phoenix himself. Even now when I drive past railroad tracks, I lose myself in the thought of just walking beside them and seeing where they take me.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure you can watch Stand By Me and truly appreciate it for what it is until you’re an adult. The passage of time allows us to look back on a film like Rob Reiner’s masterpiece with nostalgia and fond memories of our own childhoods and the friends who filled those summer days and nights, people we were sure we would keep in touch with forever, but who have, for whatever reason, drifted away from us as the years passed. Nobody is ever going to have your back as fiercely and loyally as the friends you made in your childhood. It’s a bittersweet truth. But thankfully, we’ll always have Vern, Chris, Gordie, and Teddy to relive those memories with.
What are your fond memories of Stand By Me? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!