Sunday, 9 January 2011

Rite of Passage

The other week M and I had a bit of a film day after we had been talking about The Green Mile, which is one of her favourites that I had not seen, and boy did that film turn out to be not at all what I expected. Anyway we noticed that it was based on a story by Stephen King and so, since we like having themes to our watching, we decided to watch Stand By Me. I have seen this film so many times it is like an old friend. Every time I watch it I enjoy again the gentle unfolding of the story and the relationships within it. It contains all those romantic notions about childhood that adults hold so dear, but that are not so far from the truth, except you only appreciate them with hindsight, never while they are happening. I hold an ongoing fondness for Wil Wheaton whatever he appears in because of this film.

Ever since the last time we watched it I have been thinking about reading the Stephen King story 'The Body' on which it is based, so I ordered the book 'Different Seasons' from the library which contains four novellas, including this story, and the story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based. I am not sure quite what I expected but it was really excellent and I have had to rethink everything I ever thought about writers like Stephen King (not that I am tempted to rush out and read 'Carrie' or anything, ghost stories is one thing, horror quite another). The story is exactly like the film, in that you have a narrator's voice talking as the film does, so you are very conscious of the fact that someone is looking back and telling the story of the past; he keeps making little asides about his current life to remind you this is also his adult's perspective on the events in question. I found myself anticipating scenes from the film and noticing little details where they had used the exact words that are in the story. I liked it partly because it did not spoil my appreciation for the film because it is so faithful to the story.

So, in a nutshell, four boys set out on an 'adventure' to find the body of a young boy who has gone missing and who they learn has been killed by a train. They walk, they talk, they run away from a dog, nearly get hit by a train, sleep in the woods, get sucked by leeches and generally face their fears and learn all you need to get by in life. You like them all for their honesty and their loyalty to each other. The main character is Chris Chambers (played in the film by River Phoenix) and his story of one of struggle and endurance, against a world that has already branded him a failure, a no-hoper, but he has this spark in him, fighting against a family, a school system and a society that wants to keep him in his place. Gordie (the narrator) comes from a nice middle class family, but is ignored and neglected in favour of an older brother, unfortunately recently deceased, so he can do no wrong. The relationship between the two of them is respectful and mutually supportive, Chris encouraging Gordie to pursue his story writing in spite of parental disinterest, Gordie determined not to let Chris be dragged down by everyone. I liked the fact that where the film leaves off the story gives some of the future to their relationship, so you see the bond between them as ongoing, important in shaping both their lives.

The line that ends the film, about the friends you have when you are twelve, is in there, but not at the end, and it is scattered through with the most colourful of insults and abusive language. All the atmosphere is there, from the jokey banter of pre-pubescent boys to the beautiful descriptions of the environment they pass though, and the adults voiceover reflecting on the meaning of it all. It is a story about a rite of passage, about childhood and growing up. The scene where they find the body is graphic, not because of the description of decay but because of the description of Gordie's loss of innocence, his realisation of what death really means (the middle of this quote went on for another half page about all the things he would never do):

"He had been knocked spang out of his Keds. The train had knocked him out of his Keds just as it had knocked the life out of his body.
That finally rammed it all the way home for me. The kid was dead. The kids wasn't sick, the kid wasn't sleeping. The kid wasn't going to get up in the morning anymore or get the runs from eating too many apples or catch poison ivy or wear out the eraser on the end of his Ticonderoga No 2 during a hard maths test .... The kids was dead, mister, ma'am, young sir, little miss. I could go on all day and never get it right about the distance between his bare feet on the ground and his dirty Keds hanging in the bushes. It was thirty-plus inches, it was a googol of light-years. The kid was disconnected from his Keds beyond all hope of reconciliation." (p.543-4)

Then there is this lovely scene in the film where Gordie wakes early and sitting on the train rails alone has an encounter with a deer. It typifies why the film is so good... because the story is so good:

"I don't know how long I sat there on that rail, watching the purple steal out of the sky as noiselessly as it had stolen in the evening before. Long enough for my butt to start complaining, anyway. I was about to get up when I looked to my right and saw a deer standing in the railroad bed not ten yards from me.
My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it. My stomach and genitals filled with hot, dry excitement. I didn't move. I couldn't have moved if I wanted to. Her eyes weren't brown by a dark, dusty black - the kind of velvet you see backgrounding jewellery displays. Her small ears were scuffed suede. She looked serenely at me, head slightly lowered in what I took for curiosity, seeing a kid with his hair in a sleep-scarecrow of whirls and many-tined cowlicks, wearing jeans with cuffs and a brown khaki shirt with the elbows mended and the collar turned up in the hoody tradition of the day. What I was seeing was some sort of a gift, something given with a carelessness that was appalling." (p521-2)

I think this book has been an object lesson in overcoming your prejudices. I will read the other stories too now and let you know.


  1. that is such a wonderful film Martine, one of our favourites too. And Shawshank is so good as well, thanks for reminding me! Now I feel like seeking out the stories of the films as well...

  2. I do think that Stephen King gets a bad rap. He writes A LOT but not all of his stuff is horror or bad. He has an excellent book called "On Writing" that I think is wonderful. I'm glad that you gave him a chance! It is good reminder that sometimes writers can surprise us.

  3. On Writing is a pageturner. It includes an account of King's being hit by a van - and his long, difficult recovery.

  4. I have long been a fan of Stephen King - even with my B.A. in English and having read what are considered the "classics" of literature. Stephen King was an English teacher, too, and it shows in his writing, his thoughtful prose, his allusion to classical works, and his brilliant use of the English language, both colloquial and standard.

    One of my favorite of his stories is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and if you like The Body, you might also like that one. It's one of those "coming of age in extraordinary circumstances" stories that he's so good at.

    Stand By Me is one of my all-time favorite movies, too, and for all of the things you mention, and now that I live in Maine, all of the stories mean even more to me ;).


Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.


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