The four young leads of the movie standing on train tracks, looking toward nature and text: "Now and then: Stand by Me Revisited"

Now and Then: ‘Stand by Me’ Revisited

By Mahnaz Dar

I enjoy endlessly rewatching my favorite movies. There’s something reassuring in the knowledge that some things will never change. But we viewers inevitably change, bringing new experiences and fresh perspectives to the works we adore. Teenage me loved Kiefer Sutherland as a seductive vampire in The Lost Boys; adult me is more impressed by the performances of the adult actors like Edward Herrmann and Dianne Wiest. And as a kid, I thought there was nothing cooler than being Home Alone, but as a grown-up, I can’t help but notice the stark gender inequities in those movies. The movie that hits most differently for me, however, is the 1986 film Stand by Me.

Based on Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” the movie follows four 12-year-old boys during Labor Day weekend of 1959 as they trek through the woods searching for the corpse of Ray Brower, a boy their age who was hit by a train. Rewatching it transports me back to the ‘80s. It stars a pre–Star Trek Wil Wheaton as protagonist Gordie LaChance; the late River Phoenix in a masterly performance as Chris Chambers; Corey Feldman (my favorite of the two Coreys) as Teddy DuChamp, and Jerry O’Connell, who brings a gentle vulnerability to the role of Vern Tessio. 

But the nostalgia works on another level; for viewers who were in their 40s when the movie came out, Stand by Me brought them back to their own childhoods. When King first saw the film, he was so moved, he left the screening room; later, he confided to director Rob Reiner: “You’ve really captured my story. It is autobiographical.”

King called it his favorite adaptations of one of his works, and I agree—now. As an adolescent, I wasn’t wowed by it—an admission that’s usually received with shock. The film felt as though it was aimed more at adults who grew up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Narrated by a middle-aged Gordie (played by Richard Dreyfuss), looking back on his childhood, the story is filtered through his perspective, with many long, contemplative silences. Watching the movie, I felt like I was being lectured: These are the kinds of experiences you should be having! I needed to be out in the woods toughening up, fleeing as a locomotive bore down on me or wading in leech-infested waters, with a tight-knit ride-or-die group of friends. 

As a sheltered loner who preferred reading about adventures to going on them, I found Stand by Me an unwelcome reminder that I was falling short, part of the soft, “performance trophy” generation.

And while many fans adore the film’s final lines—“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anybody?”—they elicited resentment in adolescent me. I hadn’t had a Gordie or a Chris in my corner at age 12, literally standing by me while I held a gun on a bully like Ace Merrill. Was it all over for me?

But when I rewatched the film last year, I fell in love. I reread the novella, I listened to the soundtrack, and I found myself going down Wiki rabbit holes researching TV shows like Wagon Train or Have Gun, Will Travel that were referenced in the film. And this time, the final lines moved me…but there was a different quote that stayed with me. 

After the boys return to Castle Rock, an adult Gordie muses on how he saw Teddy and Vern less and less as time went by: “That happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of your life like busboys in a restaurant.”

These startlingly haunting lines are a reminder that this moment in young Gordie’s life is just that—a moment. Now that I’m closer in age to the adult Gordie, I see more reminders that the people and things that seem like constants can disappear from our lives abruptly. My maternal grandmother, my last surviving grandparent, died two years ago, and the apartment she and my grandfather had rented since the ’70s reverted back to the building. The same apartment where I spent the first few weeks of my life after coming home from the hospital, where family members gathered for countless celebrations, and where I lived for several months after graduating from college. 

Walking by it now, I feel like I’m being trailed by ghosts of the past.

What makes Stand by Me so moving is Gordie’s knowledge of how fleeting this time in his life was. That’s something that only clicked for me recently, and, perhaps, for many people my age as we see our parents age and have children of our own—both reminders of our own mortality. In another Stephen King novel, Christine, Arnie Cunningham tells his friend Dennis, “As soon as you have a kid, you know for sure that you’re going to die. When you have a kid, you see your own gravestone.” Like many of King’s works, “The Body” and Stand by Me are steeped in death, from the specter of Gordie’s recently deceased older brother to the discovery of Ray Brower, which awakens Gordie and his friends to the realization that they, too, will die.

As morbid as all that might sound, however, it doesn’t leave me feeling bleak. Stand by Me awakens feelings of tenderness in me; like Gordie, I want to treasure my memories, keep them close. Rewatching it, I find myself thinking—maybe we can go home again.