I’ve noted before that I’m a child of the movies, and that it was two movies in particular that drove me to write, even if it was novels, not films, that appealed by way of form. The first film was Jaws, which I saw when I was about 6 or 7. I wrote my very first story the next day. The other film was Stand By Me, which I saw 20 years ago this weekend.
Stand By Me is based on Stephen King’s semi-autobiographical novella The Body, which is about 12-year-old boys growing up in small-town America in the 1950s. The main character is Gordie LaChance (played by Wil Wheaton), a quiet boy whose much-loved older brother has recently died, and who dreams of being a writer. His friends include damaged Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and wannabe rebel Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), but it is the wholly innocent Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) who sets the story in motion. He overhears reports about a missing boy, suspected of being hit by a train somewhere out in the woods. Gordie and his friends set out on a quest to find the body.
Stand By Me is the only adaptation of a Stephen King story that he himself says improved on what he wrote. The changes are very subtle. Indeed, the dialogue is lifted almost entirely from the novella, and even most of Richard Dreyfus’s narration comes from the prose. But the screenwriters changed the focus of a key scene near the end, giving Gordie the gun instead of Chris. It shifts the story emphatically into being Gordie’s rite of passage, accepting his brother’s death and coming out from his brother’s shadow. Gordie’s brother may have become the famous football player everyone expected him to become, but now Gordie’s going to become the famous writer.
I decided I would become one too (and shortly thereafter permanently set aside my other goal of inventing time travel). I was already writing by then, of course, and had already sent one silly seven-and-a-half-page novel to a publisher, but it was seeing Stand By Me that made me realise there was a subtle difference between writing and being a writer.
The same day I watched the film, I started keeping a diary which I have kept to this day. From the very first entry I made it clear to posterity this was going to be the log of adventures I would seek, with the attention of one day mining them for wonderful novels. I had somewhat missed the point of the film, of course. It’s not really about finding a dead kid’s body. It’s not even really about looking for it. It’s about the things Gordie and Chris say to each other on the way, things that can’t be unsaid, and how those things change everything, and forever. Looking back at them now, that’s what the diaries would ultimately become too.
It’s impossible for me to watch the film objectively these days. Every time I see it I still think it’s perfect. It may just have been the case that I was the perfect age for it when I first saw it – the same age as the characters. It didn’t matter that it was set half a century before. Twelve-year-old boys hadn’t changed, and I doubt they have in the last couple of decades either.