Adapted From: 'The Body' from Different Seasons by Stephen King
Starring: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack
Written By: Raynold Gaydon & Bruce A. Evans
Directed By: Rob Reiner
Like his relationship with Frank Darabont, the collaborations between director Rob Reiner and Stephen King have yielded astonishing results in both Misery and the subject of today's post Stand By Me, the film which kicked off their work together. 'The Body' appears in the collection Different Seasons which also provided the sources for The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil. 'The Body' follows four boys, Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern, on an adventure of their own making as they set out to discover the dead body of a boy recently killed near the rail tracks. They also have to contend with a group of older boys who might be questing for the same goal as well as fighting off expectations and the effects of their respective families.
Subtitled 'Fall from Innocence', the narrative of both occupies the shaky middle ground between binaries - life and death, youth and age, fact and fiction - fitting of its placement as the Fall/Autumn (I will be using the UK version for the rest of the post) story in Different Seasons and the early September setting. There's an unpredictability to the story that keeps that sense of impending change throughout. It's not just a coming of age tale, it's a story that confronts the way in which we perceive reality and how that changes as we grow older; the local myths and legends that once fuelled our nightmares and dreams dissipate for the very real horrors of mortality, trauma and abuse.
The central characters of Gordie Lachance, Chris Chambers, Vern Tessio and Teddy Duchamp occupy that awkward space just prior to adolescence where the prospect of growing up is welcome and terrifying in equal measure. They are absolutely determined that they know who they are and how they're going to turn out, but that certainty is shattered even before the film starts. The boys just haven't realised it yet. Though the film doesn't go into the same level of detail that King is able to in the novella, it is clear that each character is struggling through their own particular trauma; Vern is the butt of everyone's jokes, Teddy is fighting his own mental health battles as a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mentally ill father, Chris feels the weight of Castle Rock's expectations that he will turn out as bad as the rest of his family whilst Gordie mourns the death of his older brother, Denny, and the grief of his parents rendering him all but invisible as the younger son.
Given the nature of the boys' quest and Gordie's recent experiences with Denny's death, it's not surprising that mortality hangs heavy over the proceedings. The discovery of Brower's body becomes their literal confrontation with death, their innocence falling away at the sight of his corpse. It's no longer a distant consequence for them, but something you realise that they have faced at every turn, from the moment they decide to pursue the body, running away from the train or confronting Ace and his switchblade.
In the novella, all three of Gordie's friends die in horrific ways, but this is trimmed back to just Chris for the film, a moment given even greater weight after the tragic circumstances of River Phoenix's death at a young age. The focus on Chris' struggles to escape and the report in the final narration that he does manage to do so, becoming a lawyer, only to be killed whilst trying to break up a fight is the kind of gutpunch that King does so well. Death becomes a consistent reminder of the reality they want to avoid by not growing up. As Teddy points out, they're in the prime of their youth and they only get to be young once.
Here, the ideas of fact versus fiction come into play, another binary in which the boys find themselves caught. Storytelling is a key aspect of both The Body and Stand By Me with Gordie telling the boys stories to distract them from their grim reality. The plot is kicked into action by Vern relating what he heard from his brother who found the body in a boosted car with his friend, whilst the story is framed with the narration of the The Writer. It also operates within the set pieces of both novella and film, especially in the Chopper sequence. In embellishment characteristic of kids' tall tales, Chopper is practically a hell hound, huge terrifying and well trained to 'sic' certain parts of the male anatomy.
However, Chopper is anything but and as the narrator ruefully comments, "Chopper was [his] first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality." Mythologising goes hand in hand with the storytelling elements of the story, but here, it is used as a way of making the boys' world seem bigger and more exciting. This happens with the search for the dead body too. Their first thought is of the potential fame and fortune that could arise and initially, the journey is painted as an adventure. They get to camp out, sing songs and tell stories. However, throughout they are confronted with constant reminders of the actual severity of the situation. Gordie even says to them that it "shouldn't be a party."
It is here that the idea of 'coming of age' comes into play, another binary operating between youth and age. The cracks in the little friendship group are already beginning to show; as Chris and Gordie discuss their future at school, Vern and Teddy are arguing about cartoon characters fighting Superman. Yet the adults of the story don't offer anything good for the boys to move on to, consumed by grief, alcohol or violence until they harm their kids by beating them or simply by ignoring them. There's a horrible sense of inevitability that clouds their interactions and their anger at the adults mistreating them; the fear of growing up is tangible.
The experience becomes especially important for Chris and Gordie, changing their lives by setting them on a certain path that becomes defined by their determination to not be overshadowed by their respective families. It helps that the film treats these characters and their fears with the utmost respect, allowing them to goof off, but also trusting King's characterisation to layer the characters with depth. Reiner coaxes astonishing performances from his cast, particularly from Phoenix and Wheaton, but also Feldman on a smaller extent. He's given two scenes in which to convey the extent of Teddy's trauma but does so with ease.
As we watch these boys caught between their reality and the fiction they've created, the youth they cling on to and the adulthood they resent or even just goofing around by a campfire, it's easy to tap into our own nostalgia. Both the novella and the film thrive on it, but take care to undercut that nostalgic warmth with the cold reality that surrounds it. Though these experiences are located to just a couple of days, there's a universality to them that allows the audience/reader think back to their own childhood; the silly little traditions you had with your friends, the in-jokes, the deep and heartfelt conversations, the desperation to be taken seriously and the resentment that you had to ever grow up. To paraphrase The Writer's last lines of his story, we never have friends like the ones we had when we were young.