Remediating Stephen King: The “Train-sition” from The Body to Stand by Me

Averi Markus

So, you went to the movie theatre with your friends (remember when we could do that?) to check out a new movie: it was an adaptation of a book you like. Was the movie accurate?  Maybe that one character was supposed to have a different hair colour or that one fight scene did not play out as you imagined it. Or maybe there was just a lack of context altogether. I watched the movie Stand by Me for the first time in my Grade 11 English class because we had just read Stephen King’s The Body. I loved the movie and novella and still do; I think they are both great. But like most book-to-film adaptations, the movie lacks a certain amount of depth, and it comes down to the sensory experience and character development.

Stephen King is very detailed in his writing, which explains why his horror novels are so popular.  Books cannot use fake blood or jump scares to frighten people, but instead have to rely on details and diction to allow you to imagine what is happening. Though The Body is not particularly scary (depending on how you feel about leeches), there is still an incredible amount of detail throughout the novella, specifically in the sensory experience.

Consider the train scene in the novella, for example. Yes, that one; the anxiety-inducing, heart-pounding, suspense-filled part of the story where the boys are crossing the train trestle and have to run from the oncoming train (pp. 412-13). The reason why this scene is so nerve-wracking? King (as Gordie) describes exactly what Gordie was seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching in that moment by using familiar descriptors associated with each of those senses/sensations. When Gordie was explaining how the rail vibrated when he was holding onto it, he compares it to the feeling of your hand or foot falling asleep and then waking up (p. 412).  Everyone has felt this before, and by reading his description you can understand exactly what Gordie was experiencing in that moment. From there, you are able to imagine that scene in conjunction with that strange sensation.

The only sensory experience that films can really provide are visual and audio-related, but that is it.  Sure, the story ‘comes to life’, but the absence of an all-knowing perspective when watching a movie inevitably robs you of fully understanding how the events in the movie play out.

River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton, and Jerry O’Connell in Stand by Me (1986), Columbia Pictures

Now consider how the train scene is depicted in Stand by Me.  The three seconds where Wil Wheaton (“Gordie”) screams “TRAIN!!” (00:39:46-49) are quite possibly the most iconic three seconds of the whole movie. The fear in his eyes, the panic in his voice — you can tell that he is frightened. But those are the only ways you can tell. There are a couple brief moments where he bends down to hold the rail, but all you get from that is “oh, he bent down to hold the rail”; you can see that happening. Does the viewer know how hard the rail is vibrating? Or how the vibration feels like pins and needles in their hand? Only if they have read the book and have that information in the back of their mind. Otherwise, the viewer is just watching a kid hold a rail for a few seconds, look behind them, and scream in realization that he and his friends need to run like the wind across the trestle.

Books are not limited by a certain time frame; they can have as many pages as the author wants (Klems). The author then can devote as many pages as they want to character development. The Body is not very long; it is only 168 pages. However, King still manages to develop his characters to the extent where you can understand why they act the way they do and what their motivations are. In fact, it was the extensive characterization that ultimately carry the story.

Remember the kid who tries to dodge a train at one point, Teddy Duchamp? Corey Feldman plays him in the movie, but consider Teddy in the novella. Gordie explains how Teddy has chaotic energy, but also reveals how Teddy’s father burned Teddy’s ears on the stovetop, how he developed PTSD from storming the beach in Normandy, and the aftermath of the stove incident (pp. 338-39). This little snippet of backstory gives a reason for Teddy’s behaviour and a reason for why he defends his father regardless of the stove incident. You are able to read the rest of the novella knowing that Teddy’s childhood trauma causes him to behave erratically later on.

Film adaptations often are missing a lot of details from their corresponding books, and it seems that the main focus is moving the plot forward. Though you may know what a character is doing, you do not always learn why they are doing it.

While Corey Feldman does an awesome job portraying Teddy (in addition, he pretty much looks exactly as I imagined Teddy while reading), most of his backstory is missing. The movie mentions that “his dad was given to fits of rage” (Stand by Me 00:03:00-02) and “My father stormed the beach at Normandy” (00:28:34-36), but that is it. The only other evidence of his childhood trauma is his ear; there is a close-up shot in the first scene where you can see that it is damaged.

Corey Feldman in Stand by Me (1986), Columbia Pictures

If someone were to watch the movie without reading the novella first, they would not know about Teddy’s childhood trauma to that full extent.  They would probably assume that Teddy is just one of those conventional ‘crazy’ characters who are only there to add chaotic energy to the plot.

I do not explicitly prefer the novella over the movie for this specific remediation. Both The Body and Stand by Me are awesome. Sure, you get more of a vicarious experience out of the novella; however, River Phoenix played Chris Chambers in the movie. His performance was perfect. 

Works Cited

King, Stephen. “The Body.” Different Seasons, 1982. Scribner, 2016, pp. 335-503.

Klems, Brian A. “What a Novel Can Do That Film and TV Can’t (Plus, Win a Free Copy of Office Girl!).” Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, 3 July 2012, www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/what-a-novel-can-do-that-film-and-tv-cant-plus-win-a-free-copy-of-office-girl.

Stand by Me. Directed by Rob Reiner, performances by Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland, Act III Productions, 1986.

Still of Corey Feldman in Stand by Me. 1986. IMDb.com. Columbia Pictures. Web. 2021 February 24.

Still of River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton, and Jerry O’Connell in Stand by Me. 1986. IMDb.com. Columbia Pictures. Web. 2021 February 24.

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