The projector nestled somewhere in your head flickers to life, throwing the memories of your childhood, and the friends you had back then, onto a screen. A complete and total recall in scratchy technicolor. This is how we often believe we remember the past, as if we were watching a movie in our mind. But memories are shaped by assumptions, desires, and, above all, the people we associate with them. Memories don’t get printed impassively onto a film strip; instead, they are colored by the feelings of the people who inhabit those memories. We don’t necessarily remember our past the way it happened. The malleable nature of memory proves pivotal to the common story running through It and Stand By Me, two films adapted from works of Stephen King. In both, a childhood journey of loss, discovery, and friendship leads to an adult reunion that shows the enduring power of nostalgia—one through fantasy, the other through stark realism.
Four young friends set off on a journey to find a dead body. Seven friends gather to battle an unspeakable evil in their hometown as children, then reunite decades later as adults to face it again. These are different plots that tell the same story. These are the adventures at the heart of Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me, adapted from the short story “The Body” by Stephen King, and the 1990 Tommy Lee Wallace-directed mini-series It, based on King’s novel of the same name. Both It and Stand By Me are built around memory, friendship, and early confrontations with death. In It, young Bill Denbrough, who will one day grow up to be a writer, is traumatized when his little brother Georgie is brutally murdered—murdered by a monster who has been preying on Bill’s hometown for centuries. In Stand By Me, Gordie Lachance, who will one day grow up to be a writer, is traumatized by the death of his older brother Denny. Both Bill and Gordie find their once-happy parents have been reduced to hollow, emotionless shells of their former selves: cold, quiet, distant, oblivious. The two boys drift aimlessly through the summers of their respective films until a mission presents itself. For Bill, that mission is to rally his friends and mount an attack on the damned monster who killed his brother and so many others. For Gordie, it’s a quest with his three friends to find the body of young Ray Brower, struck and killed by a train.
It’s easy to look at the similarities in these films—dead brothers, social misfits banding together, late 1950s setting, adults remembering their childhood friends—and wonder if Stephen King was self-cannibalizing when he came up with the source material. Or perhaps this was a story he felt compelled to revisit. But the films are not mere repetitions; they function as two different approaches to exploring the themes of memory and friendship. It is the fantasy; awash in nightmarish horror but also softened by the hopeful scenario of childhood friends finding each other again. Stand By Me is the reality, with no supernatural force at work and no wonderful reunion when the kids become adults. The underlying message of friendship as support structure comes through in both methods, but one ends up feeling more honest than the other.
In It, seven adults who have managed to completely block out their pasts are suddenly jolted into total recall—the evil that they once defeated thirty years ago has returned, and they too must return. They travel back to Derry, their cursed hometown, and find each other again: A group of strangers suddenly remembering they were, in childhood, the very best of friends, a tight-knit group of outcasts and weirdos who once called themselves the Losers Club. They were broken, tormented children dealing with loss, racial intolerance, and physical abuse. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they were also dealing with a malevolent force in the shape of a clown, a monster that kills and eats children. Yet in the face of these overwhelmingly oppressive odds, they prevailed, because they had each other. In Stand By Me, Gordie, now an adult and a writer, learns of the death of his childhood best friend Chris. The death casts him back to his youth when he, Chris, and their two other friends set out on a journey that would lead them to a dead body. Death is inevitable in both these films—but both seem to say that you can stave it off for a while, or even redeem it, if you know someone has your back. And, in this common story, death isn’t just the reason they started their childhood journeys; it’s also what brings them together again in adulthood and reminds them of their common bond.
In remembering our childhoods and our childhood friends, it’s tempting to recall things through a haze of nostalgia. When the doldrums, stresses, and responsibilities of adulthood weigh us down, our youth calls out to us, suggesting that if we could only find our way back there—to some other place, some other time—things would be better again. Simpler. For the seven main characters in It, their journey and reunion serve as a time machine. These fictional characters remember their past with the type of clarity we mere mortals never possibly could. This is the beautiful, unrealistic fiction that King has constructed with his tale—the mythical idea that we can always find our way back home, and that once we get there we will be welcomed warmly.
The childhood of the Losers Club at the center of It was by no means ideal: They were contending both with the “It” of the title as well as a group of teenage bullies, led by a knife-wielding psycho who was every bit as murderous as the malevolent Pennywise the Clown. The 1990 miniseries adaptation breaks King’s massive tome up into two distinct parts. In the first half of the miniseries, these seven kids realize that together they (and only they) can stop the evil shape-shifting monster that’s been eating children for centuries. There’s a power in their friendship, and if they’re broken apart they stand less of a chance. They travel down into the sewers beneath the city, and when things are at their worst, Bill is prone to yell “Dummy up, everybody!”—a signal for the group to get close together and stay that way. They are indeed triumphant, but Bill has them make a promise: If Pennywise is still alive, and comes back some day, they’ll come back as well.
Promises children make at such a young age are rarely ironclad, but when Pennywise rears his greasepainted head again 30 years later, the Losers keep their promise, which gives way to the second half of the miniseries. Older and slower than they were as kids, the Losers still find the power within that they need to defeat that ancient evil once and for all. “You were the best friends I ever had,” Bev admits before they head off into the sewers once again. In this moment, they feel just as close as when they were children, and that bond makes them triumphant in their mission. Yet after evil has been vanquished, they part ways—and begin to forget each other all over again. The magic is gone; the spell is broken. There’s a cruelty to this kind of fantasy. King is giving his characters an unlikely happiness: long-lost childhood friends, easily reconnecting to fight supernatural forces. But he callously concludes with a coda that robs them of their memories, and their recently rediscovered friendships in the process. There’s no longer anything for them to hold onto.
This is in sharp contrast to the grounded reality offered at the end of Stand By Me. In Reiner’s 1986 film adaptation of King’s short story “The Body,” there’s no chance of an emotional reunion of childhood friends. In this more realistic tale, the four boys who were once so close have grown up and gone their separate ways. When the adult Gordie learns of his best friend Chris’s death, he thinks back to the tail end of the summer of 1959, when he, Chris, and their two friends Vern and Teddy found the body of Ray Brower. Like It, Stand By Me kids are outcasts. These four would likely find themselves utterly alone had they not found each other. After hearing rumors about the location of the dead body of a missing boy from town, they set off on their journey, hoping to locate the body and become local heroes in the process, before a group of knife wielding teen bullies—just like the ones in It—beats them to it.
The kids’ journey in Stand By Me starts off as a lark; something to do before the summer winds down for good. But along the way things change; the friends grow closer, particularly Chris and Gordie. In one wrenching scene, Gordie tearfully confesses that he wishes he had died instead of his older brother Denny. “I’m no good,” he sobs. “My dad said it…he hates me.” “No,” Chris shoots back. “He just doesn’t know you.” It’s a remarkable moment of clarity and understanding, hinting at what makes the friendships in these two films so strong. The outside world—parents, fellow schoolmates, adults in general—just doesn’t know these people. But they know each other.
Gordie and his friends find the body of young Ray Brower—discolored, eyes wide open—by some train tracks. “The train had knocked Ray Brower out of his Keds the same way it had knocked the life out of his body,” Gordie later narrates as an adult. It marked a turning point for their youth, and for these friendships. After reporting the body to the authorities, the friends go back home. Junior high looms at summer’s end, and they begin to drift apart in the weeks that follow. They get older. Eventually, they become adults. And then Chris is killed—stabbed in the neck while trying to break up a bar fight. Unlike It, with its wish-fulfillment and magic, Stand By Me acknowledges the harshness of reality. There may not be supernatural monsters ready to strike, but time itself is as destructive as any shambling eldritch horror. Yet there’s a kindness to Stand By Me that It lacks. While there will be no joyous adult reunion, there’s no hint that those still living will suddenly undergo a case of amnesia and forget each other either. The fantasy-free Stand By Me offers a type of honesty to its adult characters that It’s dreaminess doesn’t fully allow for. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve,” Gordie reminisces, recognizing what they had but never pretending it still exists. “Jesus, does anyone?”
These adaptations of King’s stories remind us that memory is faulty: In remembering our past we are incidentally altering it. We’re conjuring up that flickering, grainy movie on the screen in our minds, hoping to make sense and give ourselves a singular, comforting version of what really happened, though our memories often stem from a far messier reality. This tendency allows us to gaze back through time and remember friendships as more powerful than they might actually have been—more graceful, more emotional, more giving. The memories of our childhood friendships often lay the bedrock for coping with adulthood, while providing a security to our identities. “Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends,” King writes in It. “Maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be… people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.” In examining the enduring power of childhood friendships, and questioning the usefulness and accuracy of our adult memories of them, both It and Stand By Me force us to reconcile the hopefulness and potential of childhood with the often stark reality of grown-up life. Loss continues to plague us and change us, but the memory of working through it together as kids can perhaps calm and empower us later on. What actually happened matters far less than the idea that those who were there with us in our past continue to link arms with us through the power of memory, bolstering us in our present. Even if we lose touch with them, they still come flickering back to us in the movie palaces tucked away somewhere in our thoughts, inaccurate or not. Maybe accuracy doesn’t really matter, and it’s the memories themselves that matter most. Flawed or not, sometimes they’re all we have.