“Where do you get your ideas?”
Stephen King says this is the question he gets more than any other -- because many people assume that any man who spends his life writing horror novels must be a bit warped in the head. For many years, the author had a simple, stock answer to this question:
Later he wrote a book -- called Danse Macabre -- to seriously answer the question once and for all. Apparently that didn’t stop anyone from asking it, and when the 1986 film STAND BY ME (adapted from King’s novella “The Body”) came out, people asked that question more than ever…. Because the story of “The Body” seemed like something that could have been entirely autobiographical. STAND BY ME beautifully recounts the coming-of-age tale of four boys who go on a pilgrimage to see a dead body. It doesn’t sound like much, but the writing and the acting make every single moment shine.
The characters seem real, King says, because they are based on real events. That’s not to say that any of the four boys are based entirely on one person -- although it’s worth noting that the narrator, Gordie Lachance, grew up to “parlay his childhood fears and night-sweats into about a million dollars.” It’s also worth noting that King’s childhood best friend, like Gordie’s, is named Chris. Still, King maintains that no fiction writer is ever true to life. They take elements of the real world, he says, and embellish the hell out of them. King’s childhood friend Chris Chesley has confirmed this, saying, “None of the characters are based on specific people, yet there are salient characteristics of individuals which are very reminiscent of people that he and I knew in common.”
Another reason that the characters seem real is because of the contributions of screenwriters Bruce A. Evans and Andrew Scheinman, and director Rob Reiner. According to Reiner’s commentary on the special edition DVD of the film, each of them added phrases and details from their own childhoods. Much of the voiceover narration and dialogue is lifted straight out of King’s novella, but there are also new additions -- like “Two for flinching!” and “That's weird... what the hell is Goofy?” The scenes revolving around Ace’s gang are also unique to the film. But the most significant changes are in the way that Reiner fleshed out the character of Gordie.
Reiner says that Gordie’s relationship with his father and his brother are partly based on the director's relationship with his own father and brother. In King’s novella, Gordie says he wasn’t particularly close to his brother. His brother’s death cast a pall over his life for a few years, but it didn’t make him feel that his father hated him, nor did it solidify the bond between Gordie and Chris. The great line that River Phoenix (as Chris) delivers halfway through the film, about how “kids lose everything these days unless there’s someone there to look out for them,” comes from Reiner, not King. In short, Reiner has put a greater emphasis on Gordie’s character arc, even going so far as to give him the gun in the final showdown, as a demonstration of his newfound strength. (In King’s novella, it’s Chris who pulls the gun on Ace.) That all makes for a more cohesive story, amplifying the themes of King’s story.
The third, and perhaps most significant, reason that the events of STAND BY ME seem real is because of what the actors brought to their individual roles. Seriously, this may be the best cast of the 1980s. Wil Wheaton perfectly captures the sensitivity and vulnerability of Gordie. River Phoenix is brilliant as an adult trapped in a kid’s body, and one who senses that he will not fare so well as an adult. (This turned out to be a terrible truth for the young actor.) Corey Feldman projects the reckless anger of Teddy Duchamp. Reiner says Feldman was the only actor he auditioned who had that kind of rage inside him at age 11. And Jerry O’Connell is eminently goofy as the absent-minded Vern. On top of that, we’ve got John Cusack as the ideal older brother and Kiefer Sutherland as a truly dangerous juvenile delinquent. (Back in the 80s, everybody wanted to hang out with John Cusack, and everybody was afraid of Kiefer Sutherland.) From what I can tell, all of these parts were typecast. A filmmaker friend once told me that you can rely on adult actors to adopt personalities that are very different from their own, but you can't often rely on child actors to play someone other than themselves. Reiner obviously knew the characters well enough to spot them in real life. In a way, these characters really did / do exist!
Which leads me back to my original question: How much of STAND BY ME is real? The characters may be real enough, but what about the dead kid? What about the train dodge? What about the leeches? In a 1986 lecture, King insisted that “almost every incident in that book actually happened.” He added, “I have leech scars in several places on my body” to prove it. As for the train dodge and the dead kid, these two events may be drawn from a single-real life event. Here’s what King said in a 1980 interview:
“[My mother] said I was out playing one day with this friend of mine. I was about four. I came home, deadly pale, and I’d peed in my pants. And I didn’t want to talk. She asked me what happened, but I went upstairs and closed the door and stayed in my room all afternoon. She found out that night that this kid I had been playing with had been run over by a train, okay? I can remember her telling me that they picked up the pieces in a basket. A wicker basket. I don’t remember anything about it; the chances are very good that by that time he had wandered off on his own somewhere and that I wasn’t anywhere around. There’s a small chance that maybe I did see it happen, maybe the kid chased his ball onto the tracks or something.
He tells a similar version of the story in Danse Macabre, which was written around the same time. Oddly enough, a few years later, King cited a completely different inspiration:
“I had a roommate in college, George McCloud, to whom this story is dedicated. He grew up in a little, what I’d call upscale, trendy community; a place like Westin, Massachusetts, where all the girls wear A-line skirts and cardigans and that kind of thing. He said he’d never seen a dead animal. Where he lived there was a street-cleaning team, and if there were sparrows or woodchucks or anything that got plastered in the road, they were sort of scraped up before little kids whose minds could be warped were up and outside. One day at their summer camp, or whatever it was, a story circulated that a dog had been hit by a train and the dead body was on the tracks. These guys are saying, ‘And you should see it, man, it’s all swelled up and its guts are falling out and it’s real dead. I mean it’s just as dead as you ever dreamed of anything ever being dead.’ And you could see it yourself just walk down these tracks and take a look at it, which they did. George said, ‘Someday I’d like to write a story about that,’ but he never did. He’s running some restaurant now, a great restaurant. So about five years ago I went to him and said, ‘I took your idea and I wrote a story about these kids who walk down a railroad track to find the body of a boy.’ I didn’t think anybody would be too interested in going to look at the body of a dog.”
In a 1990 interview with Stephen Spignesi, Chris Chesley suggested yet another real-life basis for the story:
One night a friend of mine came by and asked Steve and I if we wanted to go see a dead body. He had heard about somebody who had gone down to the river one summer evening - a guy who had never learned to swim. When we got to the river it was already dark. We sat on some rocks set back from the scene, but close enough to see down to the low place where people usually put their boats in the water. The gathering had chased the whippoorwills away, and the lights placed to advantage were bright. No one was in a hurry. They looked like men searching for some reason to stand around, as if something in the back of their minds slowed them down. The photographer seemed to be taking too many pictures. The men did official things, but beyond that there was an air of lingering in order to find out a secret. They made small, restrained gestures at the shape, moved toward it, moved away. The body was inhuman; its sense of extreme difference and distance was subduing and forbidding. We looked and looked at its sunken mystery, but in some strange way it was in vain. Then they covered up the body and we went home.
So which story is the truth? Personally, I can’t help wondering if King made up the first story, just to appease interviewers who desperately want to believe that his writing is a product of some kind of childhood trauma. It’s a pretty convenient story, isn’t it? And what’s the difference, really, between making up a story for an interviewer and making up a story for a reader? The writer’s obligation, in both cases, is to entertain, and that's what he does. Since “The Body” is actually dedicated to George McCloud, I’m inclined to think that the second story is true… but, of course, it’s much less dramatic. Maybe King fused that narrative with the experience that Chris Chesley remembers to produce “The Body”?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the story came from. It’s a good story, and just as honest as any memory. Our memories, after all, are constantly changing. We like to think that remembered experiences are solid and unchanging, but that’s bullshit. Memories are not digital files and our brains are not computers. Every time we remember something, we are remembering it in a slightly different context. We are telling ourselves a story, based on hard truth but modified for the occasion of our remembering. If we didn't do that, our memories would not be valuable.
The best thing about King’s novella, and the thing that makes it stand apart from Reiner’s excellent film adaptation, is the way the author blurs fact and fiction. Throughout the story, he is continually bringing the reader back to an awareness of a dead kid named Ray Brower. Why? Because, to the characters in the story, Ray Brower is very real. In the film, when the four boys are camping out at night, they joke about the dead kid’s ghost walking in the woods. Each of them express fear in believable ways, but the viewer understands that the ghost exists only in their imaginations… because STAND BY ME is firmly grounded in conventional reality. King’s fiction is not.
King creates his own reality, and it’s a place where there are, so to speak, “more things in heaven and earth” than most of us acknowledge in our everyday lives. King’s talent is his ability to transport himself, and us, into the mind of a young boy who believes in the possibility of ghosts, and whose belief makes those ghosts real -- at least, as real as anything else in life. Because Gordie believes that Ray Brower’s spirit might be stalking them, we believe it too. When we are reading, there is no line of demarcation between fact and fiction. The limit of reality is the limit of our imagination.