Adventure Time: Stand by Me and the Last of the Outsiders
I was born in 1976 — the year of punk rock and origins of the Iron Lady — but it was the 1980s that forged those early memories of film and, more importantly, an inspired sense of adventure. My generation were the last to play outside and, although I was far from rebellious, from an early age there was still a fearlessness to climb the highest tree and walk the furthest distance away from home. Childhood memories are of brooks, rivers and railway bridges as the trains roared overhead. Then there were the train tracks themselves — a red alert in the eyes of a child — their lines beckoning towards a far away place… even a time. One way was the past, while the other was the future.
At the time I never realised, but my Dad wasn’t just showing me the danger but, more importantly, he was also allowing me to experience something colossal and powerful. There was something both terrifying and exciting about seeing a silent beast approaching in the distance — an eerie whistle, followed by the vibrations echoing down the line where we stood — and then the deafening roar punching you in the gut as the train passed by. Kids of the '80s weren’t mollycoddled. Parents allowed their children to experience fear but, for those less fortunate, some had no choice to live with it behind closed doors. Their fear wasn't of oncoming trains but their own abusive parents.
Stephen King's novella, The Body, was originally published in his 1982 collection Different Seasons and adapted into the 1986 film Stand by Me from director Rob Reiner. As with most coming of age stories, it is one that looks back with a sense of nostalgia but is never afraid to tackle the difficulties that children face and what shapes them into the adults they will one day become. There are few films that capture what it is like to be a young boy and even less, films that embrace the longing for adventure and although Stand by Me touches upon some dark, underlining themes it primarily sets a group of boys on a path of discovery of who they are and where they fit into a much larger world beyond Castle Rock. Without their sense of adventure they’re going nowhere.
The closer these stories approached the 21st century, the more insular adolescent experiences became. How much can be told about individuals holed up in their bedrooms or stuck to their devices and the multitude of distractions of the information age? Sure, they exist, but perhaps more suited to other genres such as unfriended horror or kitchen sink drama. During a major pandemic, shutdown and lockdown tales are the most prevalent, uploaded live every second as individuals share their thoughts in an explosion of lockdown creativity.
This isn't so much a discussion about the coming of age genre but more a look at the loss of adventure and how the stories of those teetering on adulthood discover themselves in different ways. There are a multitude of examples out there that deal with growing up but few that lend their central characters the freedom to truly lose themselves in an adventure without descending into more fantastical tropes and conventions.
King’s story is semi-autobiographical and, aside from the body in question, does not rely on what we would expect from the Master of Horror. Of course, you can see the DNA strands from his other work (most notably IT) and is a conscious effort to show off his other avenues of prison redemptions and dark fantasy as he subtly builds his meta-universe. Adapted from the same anthology, Apt Pupil is another adolescent tale from Bryan Singer that delivers a perfect Hitchcockian coming of age thriller. The late Brad Renfo finds more than he bargained for researching his school project discovering Sir Ian McKellen’s old Nazi living next door.
Threat is crucial to these stories. In Stand by Me, Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace Merill defines the archetypal bully that pushes the kids further away from their town. In the superb companion piece, Mean Creek (2004) from director Jacob Aaron Estes, another quiet adolescent, Sam (Rory Culkin), plans to bump off the local bully with his friends on a boating expedition. There are echoes of William Golding in these stories and Mean Creek especially highlights how cruel children can be away from the control of adults and no adventure in sight.
As a 1950s period piece, Stand by Me is set at a time where TV has just begun to invade the homes of America. The small screen fed into the familial dream but with the influx of news reports it very quickly became the nightmare — true horror and violence — as the face of the infamous Ed Gein was presented to households on his arrest in 1957. This perverse and sadistic psychopath’s story would not only influence Robert Bloch’s original Psycho novel but also go onto influence the likes of a young King and the next generation of counterculture filmmakers who came to prominence a decade later. Set in 1959, the kids of Stand by Me won’t have only heard of the bogeyman, Gein, but will have seen him too. They understand that if they discover their own macabre story, it will be their faces on the news or in the papers. A warped sense of adventure if ever there was one.
However, as we learn early on, the horrors are much closer to home as we begin to find out that each of these kids have experienced some form of personal trauma, even before they ‘saw a dead human being’. The shy Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) lives constantly in the shadow of his dead brother, his parents left broken, barely able to acknowledge their surviving son exists. Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) is the most compassionate out of the four, always putting himself before others — his family constantly looked down upon and judged as criminals. Joker, Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), hero-worships his father despite the abuse suffered at the hands of the man, who is clearly suffering from PTSD. Then there’s Butt-monkey, Vern (Jerry O'Connell) who remains somewhat of a light relief both for his friends and the audience.
The body in question is that of a teenage boy, Ray Bowers, who is killed by an oncoming train and becomes the centrepiece of the film. The mystery of death is intrinsically linked to Gordie’s journey in coming to terms with the loss of his brother and becomes a crucial driving force that delivers a number of emotional punches throughout the film. Finding the body gives some purpose to all the boys’ lives as their family and the community they live in see them as losers.
There are some interesting symbols throughout Stand by Me with the spine of the film laid bare on the tracks. From personal experience and many other kids that have walked them, train tracks can be both adventurous and dangerous but full of self-discovery. Obviously, I never yearned to find a dead body when I was a kid, but my friends and I absolutely embraced symbols of adulthood and adventure in similar ways and, aside from the characters themselves, is a major part of the film that makes it so relatable.
Here in the UK, the only guns we would ever see growing up were perhaps the crazy next-door neighbour’s air rifle when he would shoot some unfortunate pigeons for crapping on his immaculate lawn. However, we were (rather shockingly) able to buy Swiss Army knives and Rambo blades with screw top compass handles and survival kits. They weren’t weapons to us — we made those with the knives, carving the perfect samurai swords and sub-machine guns from carefully selected branches. Fortunately the only injuries were rapped knuckles and bruised fingers — my parents would have had a heart attack if they'd known half of what we were doing, dodging combine harvesters and sailing our dinghies down the brook. (I blame Dad for instilling the thrill so early on).
Much like the knives we carried, the gun in Stand by Me is very much a symbol of adulthood. Chris and Teddy in particular show a side to their personalities that may flip at any moment and make the wrong decision. But in the end it is all the more surprising that Geordie uses the gun at a crucial moment during the film’s climax. At that point, all of the boys have grown more along the journey than any point in their lives, defining who they are and what their future holds.
Each young actor delivers a remarkable performance throughout. With Reiner’s fear in younger performances being shaped through herding and editing decisions, he nailed the casting based on their own personalities. They all naturally bonded and were clearly focussed on the delivery without having to learn how to become their characters along the way. Look carefully at the scenes and you will notice how natural they are during prolonged shots — nothing is cut to detract from the story and makes them all the more believable. But it’s River Phoenix’s Chris that sticks with us the most — a career defining moment that is made all the more tragic when we see him literally fade away during the film’s final moments.
As a decade, 1950s America is perhaps the most important to illustrate these stories. It was where the teenager was born — defined by James Dean in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) — so it's no surprise that New Hollywood directors who came of age themselves during this decade would deliver their own love letters. Both George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) are coming of age tales. I would argue that the former is the better film, but what the first Star Wars movie delivers on (aside from spectacle) is a supreme sense of adventure. While the likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1960s set The Outsiders (1983) focussed on the rebels and consequences of violence, Lucas’s rebels lived in a galaxy far, far away building on fantasy tropes and the hero’s journey already mapped out by Joseph Campbell. Pure escapism that allowed children of the time to retreat further and further into their fantasy worlds, wearing their underpants over their trousers or relating to more adolescent, wall-crawling superheroes.
It would seem that films that deal with adventure in coming of age tales are often afraid to lose their characters in the real world, as though there are no such things as more real adventures. Look at two perfect examples — Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — both of which borrow heavily from Lewis Carroll and a child’s understanding of places beyond our own world. Yet, del Toro’s film is never afraid to show the harsh realities of a given time period as his central character, Ofelia, withdraws from the violence of the Spanish Civil War into a dark and magical underworld.
In complete contrast, we have John Hughes who defined the coming of age genre during the '80s. Dressed up as situation comedies — Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), to name a couple — set precedence during this period and have remained high benchmarks in the genre. They are less about adventure and more about scenario and a specific moment in time going onto to inspire the reinvention of Jane Austen in Clueless (1995) and the snarky attitude of Mean Girls (2004). Stereotypes were embraced but at the same time were also poked fun at. With Wes Anderson’s unique, offbeat Rushmore (1999) and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghostworld (2001) smashing genre tropes and conventions to pieces, the coming of age genre was beginning to show more promise as it disappeared into whimsical worlds of idiosyncrasy and comic book curiosity.
As with any good story of this type, Stand by Me delivers some strong subject matter and challenges throughout and has remained hugely influential. Adventure may take a dark detour through the woods — a theme that has been explored effectively in recent films Super Dark Times (2017) from director Kevin Phillips and Summer of '84 (2018) from Turbo Kid (2015) directors Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell. Where Summer explores how kids observe their neighbours as potential serial killers, Super studies the breakdown of friendship surrounding the accidental death of a friend and the birth of a potential serial killer. Both films are an excellent return to Stand by Me territory, but leave the adventure so far behind it’s either left buried and forgotten or run over by a train.
Adventure presents a dangerous path. It teaches us right from wrong — a journey of tests and obstacles — and like a fork in the road may present choices that shapes us into either the hero or the villain. Sometimes we need the harsh realities of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God (2002), the joy of John Carney’s Sing Street (2016) or the inspiration of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society to remind us how we all grow up and adapt to our surroundings. Sometimes it’s fun, other times tragic. But, for all the incarnations of boyhood, ladybirds and eighth graders — all of which paint socially relevant stories for their own times — we are still reminded of our own kidulthood. Maybe we are even reminded of the adventure along the way.