Apologies to T. S. Eliot, but anyone who could write, “April is the cruelest month,” had a far better childhood than I did. April is amazing: the days get longer, school winds down, and the prospect of summer looms large and invitingly on the horizon. For a school-aged child, summer provides a magical in-between place, where schedules slip and the artificial boundaries that school sometimes creates between people give way. Summer makes room for a different, a deep and lasting kind of education, one that strengthens friendships apart from the relentless routine of the school year.
At least, it used to be that way. Modern society has crowded summer. School has pinched the season from a grand and glorious three months to just eight weeks or so (if you’re lucky). The pressure to succeed academically, get into a top college, and be a productive member of society means that younger and younger children fill summers with college-resume padding extra activities. Add to that the fact that the suburbs—where a lot of people now live—were built for life in cars, not life on foot or a bicycle. Throw in the fear that now attends parenting—both in terms of physical safety and future security. Serve it all up before an endless parade of variably sized screens, and you end up with the witches’ brew that looks nothing like the summer that was.Stand by Me takes viewers along on a quest that encapsulates coming of age; deep, transforming friendship; and the possibilities of a “summertime kind of life.”
But there was a time. There was a time when summer was truly magical, and doing nothing every day really involved a whole lot of somethings. In such a summer, “the days,” as Bill Watterson’s Calvin tells Hobbes, “are just packed.” In those days, August was the cruelest month, because every day meant school was one day closer.
Apart from Watterson’s legendary comic strip, many books and stories have taken on summer from a kid’s slanted view. It’s hard to ignore the influence of Mark Twain’s pair of boy novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and my favorite remains Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. That preference notwithstanding, sometimes a movie captures perfectly the essence of a story perfectly, all its promise, at the same time creating something vitally new. I’m not sure any better example of this exists than Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986). The film does in images what Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine does, offering the joy and glory of summer “caught and stoppered.” And I argue it goes further, taking viewers along on a quest that encapsulates coming of age; deep, transforming friendship; and the possibilities of a “summertime kind of life.”
The Book and the Film
Stand by Me was Reiner’s first serious film, after the flawless and genre-defining mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap! and the forgettable rom-com The Sure Thing. After replacing Adrian Lyne (who had just finished Flashdance and 9 1/2 Weeks), Reiner shaped Stephen King’s novella into a now-classic movie, attracting the attention of critics as well. The effort put him in the company of the best directors of the year, earning a nomination for Best Director at the Golden Globes, along with Woody Allen, Roland Joffe, James Ivory, and Oliver Stone (the winner, for Platoon).
And while Reiner’s work is exceptional, we cannot talk about the film without mentioning its rich source material. Stephen King was known as a horror writer, but Different Seasons gathered four non-horror novellas around the seasonal theme. Three of the four have been adapted into films, with Stand by Me (from “The Body”) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994, from “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”) being the obvious standouts. As a side note, both movies succeed on the merits of King’s stories with relatively minor alterations, while the third adaptation, Apt Pupil (1998) fails in part because it diverges so significantly from its source. It is memorable mainly for Ian McKellen’s chilling portrayal of the novella’s first antagonist. Still, all four of the novellas demonstrate King’s mastery of the shorter form.
It’s been suggested that there are only two real plots: “man goes on a trip” and “stranger comes to town.” I wonder, though, if the best stories weave those plots together, as “The Body” does. The story follows four boys on a journey to find a stranger, the boy Ray Brower, who has come into their lives.
Summer makes a long journey possible. It’s vacation time, after all, and the length of time off provides the opportunity for a longer trip, one that carries us away from our routine. But in the case of Stand by Me, the opportunity is for something more than a simple trip. The boys are offered a quest.
“You guys want to go see a dead body?” Vern Tessio asks when the four friends first occupy a scene together. The viewer has followed the narrator, Gordie LaChance, into the boys’ tree house, where Chris Chambers and Teddy Duchamp sit, smoking cigarettes and playing Thirty-One. Vern relates the story he overheard from his brother Billy and another hood, where they talk about finding the Brower kid’s body some miles from the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon. (The novella is set in Castle Rock, Maine, in King’s fictional geography.) The boys take up Vern’s invitation almost immediately, concocting a plan to give them almost two days to complete their quest. They carry sleeping bags and canteens, and Chris brings his father’s .45 pistol.
So they begin not just a journey, but a quest. The body of Ray Brower provides an impetus for the story, almost but not quite a MacGuffin, the object of the boys’ journey. But we find their aims to be much larger, something almost noble, grander than their initial desire to be heroes. But that is how they begin, journeying toward death in a desire to win glory and honor. In an important sense, we come to see they are questing knights, though the phrase is never uttered. The boys break into song several times (“Lollipop” by The Chordettes remains one of my favorites), but only the first song they sing is repeated: “The Ballad of Paladin,” the closing theme from the television and radio series Have Gun Will Travel.
Have gun will travel reads the card of the man
A knight without armor in a savage land
His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin.
Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam?
Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home.
Like Paladin, who takes his name from the courtly honor knights of Charlemagne, the boys wander “without armor in a savage land,” a single gun their only protection. They camp together, keep watch, face enemies within and without, before finally reaching their destination and finding their world—and themselves—changed. But unlike those medieval paladins, these knights take their journey without the benefit of either wealth or reputation.
In his Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin uses the term “hedge knight” to refer to a knight who wanders, without wealth or reputation. The Castle Rock boys fall into this category, at least as far as this quest is concerned. All are outsiders, margin-dwellers, scarred by life: an invisible boy, a “feeb,” a “loony,” and a thief.
Gordie, the story’s narrator, sees Castle Rock as his “whole world.” But that world looks pretty bleak, thanks to the premature death of his older brother, Denny, before the story begins. Gordie says he “disappeared” from his parents’ sight after the accident, though we see in flashback that even before, he lived in Denny’s long shadow.
Gordie’s dad calls Vern Tessio a “feeb,” slang for a feeble-minded person, but he plays the natural fool. “Sincerely” is both his refrain and his watchword. At times, he appears to be an extra, a fourth to the more worldly wise trio of Gordie, Chris, and Teddy, but in the context of their friendship, he’s fully vested.
Teddy Duchamp is the trickster, and the only boy visibly disfigured by his journey through the world. His father, a World War II vet suffering from PTSD, held Teddy’s ear against a hot stove, leaving him scarred and partially deaf. His glasses add another dimension of physical weakness. But it is his emotional weakness, a fragility that comes in part from his fierce love and simultaneous dread of his father, remains mostly out of sight while he’s with the boys. He covers all these weaknesses with a veneer of machismo and soldierly language.
Even Chris Chambers—the natural leader and hero of the band, bigger, stronger, cooler than the others—is wounded. Abused by his father and older brother, “Eyeball,” Chris fell into a bad-boy reputation, then earned it by taking the milk money from the school. Like Vern, his older brother is a member of local hood Ace Merrill’s gang.
So the boys come from different walks of life, and each is broken in his own way. But the seeds of their friendship, having weathered the winter and spring of school ties, land in the fertile soil of late summer. By the end of the trip, they’ll all face death—in more ways than one—and further cement an abiding sense of friendship that we know will outlive the actual one.
Fire and Friendship
One scene in particular drives home how a summer “discipline” can deepen friendship: the evening around the fire. It begins with food, but it begins in earnest with an after-dinner cigarette, which prompts laugh lines from both Vern and Teddy, and Chris’s asking Gordie for a story.
From their talk, Gordie’s role as a bard or scop, the Anglo-Saxon “shaper” of stories, seems clear. Vern doesn’t want to hear a horror story, and Teddy wants a story about Sergeant Steel and His Battling Leathernecks. But the story Gordie tells, about a small-town outcast’s revenge on the town, adds further evidence to the boys’ own sense of injustice and outsider status.
But it is after the story, when they talk into the night about things “that seemed important until you discovered girls,” that the value of this unstructured time becomes evident. They answer burning, youthful questions. “If I could only have one food for the rest of my life?” Vern says. “That’s easy. Pez, cherry-flavored Pez. No question about it.” They ruminate on TV shows. Gordie muses, “Wagon Train‘s a really cool show, but did you ever notice that they never seem to get anywhere? They just keep on wagon-training.” But it’s not the content that matters. What matters is the practice, the discipline, of knowing and being known. Conversations like this, only possible without the boundaries of bedtime and alarm clocks, allow them to become familiar with the thousands of intimate and inane details that comprise a human soul.
That familiarity shows up most between Chris and Gordie. Their talk during the night watch takes up an earlier conversation about education providing a way out of Castle Rock. Faced with the prospect of separate middle school classes in the coming year, Gordie suggests he might choose his friends over the college-prep courses. Chris’s anger surprises Gordie, but it shouldn’t. Gordie has a way out of Castle Rock, while Chris cannot see one. He has resigned himself to being a bad egg, the next Eyeball, no matter what he tries. That sense of despair comes out especially as he tells Gordie what really happened after he took the milk money.
Vulnerability, Mortality, and the Boy’s Own Life
Often we move easily through life with friends. Even facing great challenges tends to strengthen rather than weaken a friendship, especially if the challenge is mutual. Vulnerability, on the other hand, as desirable and important as it is to lasting friendship, can just as easily detonate, blasting friends away from us in our greatest need. The boys face this the next day, as they continue their journey toward that significant encounter with death. Moreover, Gordie’s inner life and all their fears continue to be exposed as they have another preliminary encounter with their own vulnerability (following encounters with the junkyard guard dog, Chopper, and an oncoming train).
Wading through a pool to save time, the boys suddenly discover leeches all over their bodies. They scream, strip down, and pull the leeches from their skin. In a final, arresting moment, Gordie draws a leech from the front of his underwear, holds it up in his bloody fingers, and faints.
It’s the second time Gordie has been unconscious onscreen, and both are related to deep fears. During the night, as Gordie whimpers next to the fire, we see inside his nightmare. It’s Denny’s funeral, and as the casket lowers into the grace, Gordie’s father turns to him and says, “It should have been you, Gordie.” Only Chris sees him wake with a start.
Now, though, his vulnerability is out in the open, and the quartet’s questing friendship faces its stiffest test. Gordie sits, catatonic, as his friends debate turning back. In the end, it’s Gordie who insists they continue, and he displaces Chris as leader for the movie’s final act.
They forge on, Gordie in the lead, until they arrive at the old Harlow Road. There, they fan out until they discover Ray Brower. And at that moment, the forces of dark and light converge. Unknown to the boys, Vern’s brother had also told Ace’s hoodlums about Ray Brower’s body. The gang sets out to claim the body, thinking as the younger boys do that they will get the glory for it. Both groups are surprised to see the other, and the older boys begin threaten the younger ones. Ace pulls his switchblade and advances menacingly.
What happens next is Stand by Me‘s most significant departure from the novella, and it’s a bit of a spoiler. While “The Body” has Chris firing his father’s .45, Reiner suggested that Gordie should fire it. It makes perfect sense within the story’s arc, because as viewers have walked with Gordie and his friends, it’s Gordie’s story we’ve been listening to, Gordie’s inner life that has been on display. In the moment of confrontation then, both with death’s work (in Ray Brower) and death’s emissary (Ace Merrill), it must be Gordie who summons the courage to face both and emerge, of all his friends, challenged and changed.
Change Is Gonna Come
Summer finally ends. As the boys walk back into a town shrunken by their experiences, they face the start of school. Routine will crowd the space they’ve enjoyed. In fact, as Gordie’s narration relates, the routine will crowd their friendships. The movie paints a prettier picture than the novella. All three of Gordie’s friends survive into adulthood, going their separate ways as they do after their quest. But the novella sees all of them die young except Gordie. Chris dies as he does in the movie, breaking up a fight, but it happens while he is still in law school. Vern dies in a house fire just seven years after graduation; Teddy, in an automobile accident. But both endings see the friendships—tasty and wonderful as Ray Bradbury’s dandelion wine—fade with that summer journey. The last lines of the movie are typed, not spoken, bringing the book and the film together. “I never had any friends later on, like the ones I had when I was twelve,” Gordie types. “Jesus, does anyone?”
You could almost read that last sentence as a prayer, a lament, a cry of abandonment as poignant as Christ’s from the cross. It’s an important but preliminary question. I end up asking, instead, Is it possible to have such friends? And more than that, is a “summer-life” possible? A life where we enjoy time and space to pursue an absurdly grand purpose with friends, one that tests the friendship’s constancy, exposes our fears and vulnerability, takes us into confrontation with death itself, and leaves us forever changed?
I think of the men who walked with Jesus—a ragtag bunch of outsiders, wandering the countryside, listening to his fireside stories, seeing miracles, facing death and death-dealers in his company, watching him die and conquer death, carrying that story forever after, through the whole world—always moving in and out of the long shadow of Jerusalem and the cross. I think of those friends, and to me at least, the answer is clear.