By 1986, film adaptations of the works of Stephen King had become common practice, with some of the most notable of these films being Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and John Carpenter’s Christine. For the most part, these adaptations were of the horror stories that King was most known for. That all changed when Rob Reiner directed an adaptation of King’s 1982 novella “The Body,” under the new name of Stand By Me, after the 1960 song of the same name by Ben E. King. Unlike other films based on Stephen King’s stories, Stand By Me was a period drama, focusing on four childhood friends in late-1950s Oregon.
In many ways, Stand By Me is a film about looking back on a childhood that you might have taken for granted at the time. Indeed, the film starts off with the adult version of the film’s protagonist Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) reading a newspaper article about the murder of his childhood friend Chris Chambers (River Phoenix). This results in Lachance deciding to write the story about the time he (played as a kid by Wil Wheaton), Chris, and their friends Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) set about on a journey to locate the body of missing boy Ray Brower, the location of which was discovered by Vern’s older brother. Also in search of the body is an older gang headed by local hoodlum “Ace” Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland).
At the core of Stand By Me is the friendship between Gordie and Chris. Gordie is haunted by the recent death of his older brother Denny (John Cusack), who was not only apparently more loved by Gordie’s parents, but was also one of the only people who supported Gordie’s ambitions to become a writer. Another one supportive of Gordie’s ambitions is Chris, who sees Gordie as having a much brighter future than any of the four friends, including Chris himself, who is a boy “from the wrong side of the tracks,” who seems destined to follow in his family’s criminal reputation.
Stand By Me is very much a male bonding coming-of-age story. In fact, with the exception of a few adult characters, there are practically no females to be seen. These boys are at an age that girls are not yet a primary focus for them. Instead, they talk throughout the night on random subjects, such as whether or not Disney’s Goofy is a dog. In some ways these boys have to mature beyond their years, as they cope with their own personal issues on their way to find this dead body. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that Gordie was more concerned with getting over his brother’s death and the apparent blame placed on the death by Gordie’s parents.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Stand By Me and a natural question to ask is what has become of these four child actors? Probably the most tragic answer to this question is River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose in 1993, which somewhat eerily mirrors the future fate of his Stand by Me character Chris Chambers. Phoenix was probably one of the most up and coming of the four kids, with him going on to appear in films such as The Mosquito Coast, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and My Own Private Idaho. It will forever be unknown what would have become of River Phoenix’s career if he lived. As for Phoenix’s co-lead Wil Wheaton, a year after Stand By Me, Wheaton would get the role that would define his career, that being Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. While Wheaton still acts, his role of Wesley Crusher and recurring guest appearances as himself on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory has resulted in Wheaton being more known as a cult geek celebrity these days.
At the time Stand By Me was made, Corey Feldman was probably the most established of the four child actors, having already been known for his roles in Gremlins, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and The Goonies. Feldman would continue to be quite popular throughout the rest of the 1980s, appearing in films such as The Lost Boys, with Stand By Me co-star Kiefer Sutherland, and The Burbs. Corey Feldman continues to act today, even though it’s mostly in B-movies and voice work.
Following his role as the geeky Vern in Stand By Me, Jerry O’Connell would probably become most familiar to Canadian audiences for his starring role in the 1988–1991 sci-fi/comedy TV series My Secret Identity. Later in the 1990s, O’Connell would become known for the sci-fi series Sliders and films such as Scream 2, Mission to Mars, and Tomcats. While he still pops up in the occasional film, such as Piranha 3D, Jerry O’Connell does mostly TV and voice work these days.
In addition to the four central child actors, Stand By Me was also one of the earliest roles for then 20-year-old Kiefer Sutherland. It would be a year later when Sutherland received his breakout role as the leader of a gang of vampires in Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys. Keifer Sutherland spent most of the 1990s in relative obscurity, though he had some notable roles in films such as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Three Musketeers, and A Time to Kill. However, it was his lead role as Jack Bauer in the 2001 television series 24 that fully revitalized Keifer Sutherland’s career and he is arguably the only lead from Stand By Me to still have mainstream popularity.
Even though it’s now a 30 year old film, Stand By Me is a timeless story. While part of this can be attributed to the film’s 1959 setting, the overall theme of nostalgically looking back at one’s childhood is something that anyone of any time can greatly relate with.