This week 34 years ago, Stand by Me hit theaters in its limited U.S. release. Directed by Rob Reiner, it was a hit, making more than $52 million on a budget of just $8 million; since then, it’s become a genuine classic. Part of its success could be attributed to the young cast made of rising young stars of the ’80s: Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell and, of course, the late River Phoenix, who died just seven years later at the age of 23.
Even more than that, arguably, it was the bittersweet nostalgia of the story that got people. The joy and exuberance of youth at that age right on the edge of discovery, when friendships were fiercest, colored with the new awareness of mortality and the passage of time was something that spoke to everyone. It might have surprised ’80s audiences to learn who wrote the novella the movie was based on: Stephen King.
Remember, in 1986, when the movie came out, Stephen King was just starting to step into the fullness of his popularity. It, his famous novel based on a group of plucky kids, wouldn’t even be published until a month later. The 11 movie adaptations based on King’s work up to that point had all been firmly horror, or, in the case of The Dead Zone, a sci-fi thriller – and one directed by David Cronenberg, at that. A coming-of-age movie directed by the guy who had done the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap just didn’t seem to fit with the vision most people had of Stephen King and his work.
Yet King is one of our most prolific writers for a reason. Good writers write good stories that fit into their groove. Great writers write the stories that grab them, no matter the genre. And King has been great for a very long time. Some of his best-loved books haven’t been pure horror, but something else entirely. The first was Stand by Me, based on his novella, “The Body” in the collection Different Seasons. Here are two more movies that you might not have known were based on Stephen King books.
The Green Mile
The Green Mile, directed by longtime King director Frank Darabont, was released in 1999. It starred Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecombe, the the block supervisor of the Cold Mountain Penitentiary death row who recounts the story, and Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey, a sweet-natured, mentally disabled inmate who is accused of raping and murdering two little girls. As the date of Coffey’s execution nears, Edgecombe begins to suspect that Coffey, a gentle giant who is still scared of the dark, was wrongly convicted. Coffey starts to exhibit signs of extreme empathy and the ability to heal others, and Edgecombe realizes this is what Coffey was trying to do when he came across the two little girls. Arguably one of the more heartbreaking stories King has ever written, The Green Mile explores racism and corruption in the prison system, as well as being one of King’s finer studies of human nature. The movie adaptation was nominated for four Oscars, including one for Best Picture and one for Best Supporting Actor for the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption, based on King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” from the same collection as “The Body,” is the second of King’s famous prison stories. Here’s a fun anecdote Stephen King likes to tell: He was once in a supermarket doing his shopping, when a little old lady came up to him, having recognized him. “You’re that horror writer. I don’t read anything you do,” she said, before explaining that she liked things that were more genuine, “like that Shawshank Redemption.”
“I wrote that,” King protested.
“No, you didn’t,” she retorted, and walked away.
But, indeed, he did. It’s the story of banker Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, sentenced to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover, which he denied. He befriends fellow inmate Ellis “Red” Redding, played by Morgan Freeman, and, over the years, becomes part of a money-laundering operation out of the prison. But through it all, Andy never loses hope, insisting he’ll escape one day, his deep bond of friendship with Red carrying both men through the rough times. The shot of Andy, having escaped, standing shirtless in the rain with his arms outstretched, is an iconic one in cinema. Though the movie was a box office failure, The Shawshank Redemption went on to be nominated for seven Oscars in 1995, the most ever for a Stephen King movie: Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Score. Both Robbins and Freeman were nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role by their fellow actors in the inaugural SAG Awards.
King might be the king of horror, but to me, he’s always at his best when he’s centering his work not on the scares, but on the poignant and often bitter truths of human nature. It’s a thread Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile all have in common and exactly why they are some of his most enduring and still-relevant works today.