Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Castle Rock Companion - The Body/Stand by Me

The nice thing about Hollywood choosing to change the title when they make an adaptation means it makes it really easy for me to specify which I'm talking about when I do the review.  In this case, The Body is the novella written by Stephen King, and Stand By Me is the film adaptation directed by Rob Reiner.  The name change was made because they thought the title was misleading, and I can agree.  It sounds like it would be erotica or horror.  The film is highly regarded and I know I used to like both it and the story.  I liked them so much that a few years back when I caught Stand By Me on television, I was excited to sit down and watch it again.  So imagine my surprise when I ended up really bored and ended up turning it off.

Remembering that, I tried to go into this reading and viewing as fresh as possible, but I still had a hard time getting into reading The Body.  However, watching Stand By Me was a completely different experience, and I was able to enjoy it again.  I'm not entirely sure why there was such a difference there.

Part of the problem I have with the story is the concept.  While the body isn’t much more than a macguffin, the idea of kids gleefully setting off in order to view a dead body is just plain strange.  I suppose it's meant to highlight just how na├»ve these boys are, that they think it's going to be something cool, or that they'll somehow be heroes for recovering the whereabouts of this lost child. But had you offered the same thing to me at this age I don't think I would have gone along.  And I loved catching lizards and playing with doodlebugs as a kid, so don't think it's just because I'm a girl that I wouldn't be interested.

I also didn't care for the stories within the story.  The first does a decent job of highlighting how a writer's personal trauma can affect the stories they write about, but it's also just too sophomoric. It's about a young man and his experiences with "breaking in" his girlfriend while also being reminded of how his evil stepmother seduced his brother.  Even beyond the fact that it doesn't fit easily into the narrative, it makes perfect sense why they left it out of the movie.  The second story is included, that of Lard Ass Hogan, but I wish they hadn't.  Incredibly fake effects or not, I didn't need to see all that vomiting in living color.

But let's focus on the positive for a while.  The film has a lot more charm than the story for two main reasons: the music and the actors chosen to portray the characters.  Wil Wheaton has said that he thinks the movie works so well because Rob Reiner chose four boys who essentially were their characters, and that certainly seems to have a lot of truth to it.  River Phoenix in particular is fantastic in his role as Chris.  He brings a level of maturity to the film that was desperately needed to make this work.  I also think Corey Feldman strikes the perfect balance of sympathetic and outright nuts that is required for a traumatic character like Teddy.  While I think it's pretty clear that both King and Reiner want us to feel the worst for Chris and the hand he's been dealt, Teddy with his abusive father that he loves so dearly has always struck a deeper chord with me personally. 

Jerry O'Connell and Wil Wheaton are more what I would call average.  There's nothing about their performances that really strikes me, but they're good enough that I don't want to smack them like I did most of the kids in the original Children of the Corn.  The actors playing the teens are also great, Keifer Sutherland and Bradley Gregg in particular.  We see a lot more of Ace and his gang here than we do in the story, and it's largely because of Sutherland's performance that I'm all for it.  John Cusack's role as Gordy's dead brother is minimal, but also extremely important and he plays it very well.

This movie really is some of the best young actors of the 80s shoved into one film, and I think that's part of the reason that it lives on and is loved by so many.  The soundtrack is all 50s music, as is perfect with the setting, but that too screams 80s to me.  This movie was released three years after The Big Chill, a movie I've never seen but I remember my parents bought the cassette soundtrack and it got a lot of play at our house.  Obviously, three years later, that 50s appeal was still going strong and it just makes this movie a pleasure to listen to.

The changes from the story are pretty minimal.  Castle Rock is moved from Maine to Oregon, which seems to have pretty much happened because the movie was filmed in Oregon.  Beyond the extra moments with the teens, we also get to see each of the main four standing guard overnight.  It makes sense that we don't hear about it in The Body because that's written from Gordie's perspective.  Of course now that I think about it, with Stand By Me being narrated by Gordie, he shouldn't know what happened when Teddy or Vern stood guard to tell us about it either.  But you know what?  They're great character moments, so screw it.

The ending is the main dramatic difference.  The Body ends on such a downer, with no real resolution to speak of.  They all get the crap beaten out of them by the older gang, and then we're told how all the other guys slowly but surely died in shitty ways.  It also makes Gordie look like an ass, because he's essentially talking about how his life is so great now but his friends didn't amount to shit because they weren't smart enough.  That may be a harsh interpretation, but my point is it makes for a lousy ending.  I realize that as a down to earth story everything isn't meant to be wrapped up into a nice neat package, but I think it would have been better for him to highlight how they grew after going through the experience rather than just showing us how they crumbled to pieces.  That's probably strange words coming from someone who usually loves Stephen King's bad endings, but I think there's a pretty clear difference here.

In the movie meanwhile things are resolved a bit more peacefully.  Teddy and Vern get to live, and Chris actually gets to finish law school before he is killed.  They also conveniently switch it so that it's our heroes who make the anonymous phone call to the police and not Ace.  It doesn't really matter either way, because the point is that their confrontation ended in a stalemate.  You can also easily say that this version of Gordie is neglecting to mention those times later when they got the shit kicked out of them.

So overall I'd say it's a good adaptation, taking the important parts of the story and maybe in the end even improving on it a little.  It's definitely worth a watch if you've never seen it before.  As far as the story, well, I'd recommend picking up Different Seasons, but more so for a couple of the other novellas included with it than The Body itself. 

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