Review: Stand By Me (Reiner, 1986)
Stephen King’s stories are extremely difficult to bring to the big screen. Not only because of such things as the complexity of the overall narrative, the multi-character plots, or the lack of a pivotal driving force; but the fact that most of his stories contain ‘horror’ that can only be suggested in print, that is so surreal, and largely created in your own mind that putting it on screen is totally useless.
Stanley Kubrick had to create a new vision for The Shining to the point where Stephen King couldn’t make out his version of the story and consequently hated it. Children Of The Corn lacked any intensity, for instance, and languished in a wave of cliché. Such television movies such as The Stand and IT could not recreate the terror cerebrally suggested in the books, nor could they handle the multi-character laden layers which were such an intricate part of the narratives. More accomplished director’s had more success such as Brian De Palma’s Carrie and Rob Reiner’s Misery but when compared to the novels, there was always an essence missing, especially in terms of the major ‘evil’ characters of the films in question. Consequently, it came as a surprise that Stand By Me was based on a story written by Stephen King, because the film is so good. Perhaps because the film is based on one of King’s shorts (so was the The Shawshank Redemption); perhaps because the story is a lot more human than others he’s written. Whatever it is, director Rob Reiner has created a simple story of four kids coming of age in the beautiful surroundings of a perfect fictional town. Superbly adapted for the screen by Bruce Evans and Raymond Gideon, the two bring out the essence of a very ‘real’ story, while Reiner provides the roots for the actors to bloom.
Gordon Lachance (Wil Wheaton), Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) are four friends living in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Oregon. They’re brought close by circumstance, and they’re brought even closer by their turbulent and indifferent backgrounds. Another day hanging out in their tree house seems imminent, however, when Vern eventually is allowed into the tree house after forgetting the secret knock, he tells them he knows where they can find a dead body. Totally intrigued, they decide to look for this body laying miles away. Packing their belongings, they set off along the railway track not really knowing why they are going, not knowing what will happen on the way, and certainly not knowing what they’re going to do when they get there.
There aren’t many directors that can claim to have made an adaptation of a Stephen King story, of which the writer actually likes, however in this case King is pretty much smiling from ear to ear with glee over the production. The man himself say’s the film is probably the best film based on his work ever made, but puts it down to the very human aspect of which the film gains its driving force. It is this aspect that writer’s Gideon and Evans tap into most, concentrating on building strong, multi-layered characteristics for the four boys, each having their own traits and quirks.
As Reiner explains in the documentary accompanying the DVD, to get the four leads to give such good performances all he needed to do was give them a pointer or two and then start rolling the camera. The four actors give such effortless displays in bringing their respective roles to the screen. Partly due to Reiner’s background in acting, helping him get in touch with their needs, and partly due to allowing the boys to be themselves, allows the group to create a wonderful rapport as they almost perfectly bring the characters to life.
Wil Wheaton as Gordie Lachance at times appears bland, but what on the outside looks like a flaw shows itself to be far from it, as we learn more about him. The cardboard exterior only covers a complex mind brimming with idealism, prospects and magic, and what shadows it is the death of his brother and his parents rejection. Corey Feldman is probably the liveliest of the bunch, whilst having the darkest character playing Teddy. He eases through moments of joy, to sadness, and back again to joy. His melancholy tenderness, and his outbursts of rage mimic the love/hate relationship he has with his father who spends his days in the local lunatic asylum. Vern, played by a chubby Jerry O’Connell, is the most annoying of the bunch yet his ‘silly’ comments and innocent over-eagerness make him a lovable, sweet natured, nice-but-dim addition to the group. Last but not least, the late River Phoenix who graces the screen at such an early age in the role of Chris. The most multi-layered character is also the most interesting, and with some honest moments of true heart-wrenching tenderness he outshines the rest. Phoenix seems perfect for the role; he’s the lovable rogue who brings a heart and soul to the character, and while his problems linger there’s always a question about him, an enigma, that hooks you into the story.
Reiner allows the actors to flow with their characters, and frequently has them all in shot at the same time. This enables the chemistry between the four boys to come to the fore without intrusive cuts; and never allowing the camera to invade the action, the rapport and ‘real’ friendship shines through.
The most disappointing thing about the movie is the wooden performances, and hollow-written supporting roles such as Gordon’s parents and Kiefer Sutherland as bad-boy, Ace Merrill. Ace’s so-called gang, come across as wannabe ‘T-Birds’, while Ace himself seems like a bad guy caricature cut out and copied from every King novel. He’s there to offer one more obstacle for the boys, and largely has nothing else to do except be extraneous.
It’s the four leads that carry the movie brilliantly, and their performances raise the simple story above many imitators. One of the best King adaptations, it stands the test of time and will continue to do so with it’s ability to connect to even the most hardened heart.