How does Stand By Me follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages in simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the classic Stand By Me.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
The Ordinary World
Stand By Me is a unique Hero’s Journey because it can be argued that there are four protagonists — Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern — each with their own emotional journeys and character arcs.
However, since the film — based off of the Stephen King novella The Body — is narrated by a grown-up Gordie, his character is at the center of this physical and emotional journey. So we shift much — but not all — of the focus to Gordie as the hero of this story.
Gordie’s Ordinary World is two-fold.
The story opens with a grown-up Gordie sitting in his car that is pulled over on a country road. He’s reading a newspaper heading about a local attorney, Christopher Chambers, that was stabbed to death while trying to break up a confrontation between two others. It’s clear that Gordie is sad as he reflects on his youth in the opening narration.
And that narration takes us back to 1959 where a twelve year-old Gordie is living his simple life in Castle Rock, Oregon. He reads pulp magazines and hangs out with his friends in their tree fort, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and giving each other crap. We later learn that he and his family are still mourning the loss of Gordie’s beloved big brother that died in a car accident.
Call to Adventure
Their friend Vern appears and tells them the story about how he heard his big brother Billy and his friend Charlie — two hoodlums — talking about finding the dead body of a local missing teen, Ray Brower, while they were on a back road drinking beers after stealing a car. They can’t report it to the authorities, because they know the police will wonder how they got that far out of town without a car of their own.
Chris has the idea to find the dead body so they can get their pictures in the paper and be heroes, Gordie and Teddy quickly accent the call to adventure.
Refusal of the Call
The initial Refusal of the Call shifts to Vern. He’s hesitant because he knows that Billy and Charlie will know how the boys found the dead body. Chris, Gordie, and Teddy egg him on until he agrees to go on the adventure with them.
Gordie does have a slight refusal of the call after they Cross the Threshold (see below). While the initial attitude of the boys is excitement, Gordie is the one that says the adventure shouldn’t be all fun and games — they’re going to find the dead body of a boy close to their age.
Meeting the Mentor
Chris Chambers, the leader of their gang and Gordie’s best friend, is the definite mentor figure to Gordie and the rest of the boys. He’s tough as nails, and Gordie is anything but.
He is the one that helps Gordie get through the main of losing his brother and dealing with his parents, who are ignoring him because of that death as they mourn in their own way.
Gordie also has a mentor in his big brother as the story flashes back to their big brother/little brother interactions.
Crossing the Threshold
The boys hike to the train tracks that they will follow to the back road near Harlow where Vern’s brother and his friend saw the body. The trek will take them twenty to thirty miles.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
We meet the allies and enemies of this journey early on.
The four boys are each other’s allies throughout the story. They depend on each other. They clash now and then, but that’s what good friends do.
We meet Vern’s brother Billy and his friend Charlie early on as well during the flashback to the moment when Vern overheard them talking about the body.
The two other major antagonists of the story are Ace and Eyeball. Gordie and Chris have a run-in with them before they meet up with Vern and Teddy on the tracks. Ace is the hoodlum leader of an older gang of young men. Eyeball is Chris’s brother. Ace stole Gordie’s hat, which his brother gave to him before his death. Chris stands up to Ace until Ace pounces on him and holds a burning cigarette to his face until he takes back what he said.
While on the tracks, the boys quickly realize that nobody has brought any food for their journey. They gather their money together and plan on spending it at a store near the junkyard they plan on pumping water from.
When a train approaches, Teddy decides to dodge it. Chris pulls him off the tracks, not wanting to see his friend get killed. Teddy and Chris push, shove and throw insults at each other as the rest of the boys hold Vern back. This is the group’s first confrontation — the first real test of their relationship.
Additional interactions happen on the way to the junkyard that tests their friendship. Chris and Gordie have a heated discussion about Gordie’s writing.
Chris wants him to pursue the writing and points out that he should be proud to be in the higher education courses that he’s sure to be in compared to himself, Vern, and Teddy. Gordie rejects that notion, wanting to be with his friends.
Gordie says that it’s stupid and a waste of time, but Chris confronts him saying that that is his father talking, not him. Their friendship is tested, but, once again, it remains strong despite the heated verbal sparring.
Another test occurs when the boys trespass on the junkyard as they take a much-needed water break. They flip coins to see who is going to go to the store to get food. Gordie loses.
He’s tested emotionally when he gets to the store. The store owner recognizes him as his big brother’s little sibling. The store owner rants and raves about Gordie’s deceased brother and makes Gordie feel insignificant compared to him.
When Gordie returns to the junkyard, the other boys are gone. The junkyard owner sees Gordie and sicks his dog at him. Gordie sprints to the fence, where his friends cheer him on, and he manages to jump onto and get over the fence just in time.
The junkyard owner yells and them. The boys are tested when he recognizes who they all are. He singles out Teddy, calling him the son of a loony (referring to Teddy’s father that has mental problems after the war). Teddy loses it, and the friends band together as they drag him away and attempt to make him feel better.
This is when Gordie’s realizes that maybe this journey shouldn’t be such a good time. They’re going to see the dead body of a local boy around their age.
The boys approach a long train bridge that towers a hundred feet over the waters below. They have to cross it. As they do, Gordie and Vern are nearly run over by a train until Gordie saves both of their lives by throwing himself and Vern off the bridge just in time.
The boys later camp out in the middle of the night and ponder eternal questions of what the hell Goofy is and why, in the hit show Wagon Train, the characters never get anywhere.
Gordie shares a story that he’s been working on as well. He tells the story of David “Lard-Ass” Hogan, an obese boy who is constantly teased by the whole community. Seeking revenge, Lard-Ass enters a pie-eating contest and deliberately vomits, inducing mass vomiting Barf-O-Rama among the contestants and audience.
In the middle of the night, the boys are awakened to the harrowing cry of coyotes — although the boys think it sounds like a ghost screaming. As they take shifts keeping watch with Chris’s father pistol, Chris opens up to Gordie about his hate for being associated with his family’s hoodlum reputation.
Chris admits to Gordie that he stole milk money at school, confirming Gordie’s father’s suspicions. However, he tells Gordie that he later confessed and returned the money to a teacher. Despite this, Chris was suspended. The teacher spent the money on herself instead of turning it into her superiors. Devastated by the teacher’s betrayal, Chris breaks down and cries.
Early the next morning, Gordie is on the tracks as the others sleep. He looks up to see a deer staring at him peacefully.
As the boys trek on, we learn that Billy and Charlie couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They individually go to Ace and Eyeball, informing them that they saw the body of the missing dead boy. Ace and his gang decide to drive to Harlow to claim the body themselves, not knowing that Gordie, Chris, Vern, and Teddy are already nearing Harlow themselves.
As the boys trek on, they come to a point where the tracks veer off in the wrong direction. They must cross a field to get to the back road where Ray Brower’s body lays in waiting.
Unfortunately, a swamp is in between them and their destination. The boys decide to cross it but suddenly fall into a deep part of the water. The other boys begin to make the best of it, playing in the water, as Gordie walks away. They tackle him in the water. Gordie turns to see that Vern has a leach on him.
It turns out that they all do. They rush out of the water, screaming, and strip to their underwear while pulling the leeches off of each other.
Gordie feels something within his underwear as the other boys look on. He reaches down into his underwear and pulls out a bloody leech that had been attached to his testicles. He passes out.
When he awakens, the others are fighting about whether or not they should continue on.
Gordie listens to them with a focused look on his face. He screams at them to stop and states that they’re not quitting.
Gordie has received the reserve that he needs to finish their journey. He’s grown up a little bit. And this is a reward that will help him through the final climax of the film. From this point on, Gordie has taken on a leadership role within the group. He now has some newly found courage as well.
The Road Back
The boys walk down the tracks, searching for the back road near Harlow where Billy and Charlie found the dead body.
Vern finds the body. They walk solemnly towards the body and push aside some branches covering its face.
The sight of the dead body reminds Gordie of his dead brother. Chris helps him through the emotion until Ace and Eyeball show up.
Gordie, Chris, Vern, and Teddy stand up to Chris and Eyeball, who plan on taking the body with them. But then Billy, Charlie, and three other hoodlums from Ace’s gang show up.
Vern runs away at the sight of his brother. Chris and Teddy stand their ground until Ace pulls out a switchblade. Teddy runs, but Chris insists that they’re not taking the body.
Just as Ace is about to cut Chris, Gordie fires the pistol into the air and points it at Ace. Ace hesitates at first but believes that Gordie doesn’t have what it takes to shoot them. He’s stopped in his tracks after Gordie tells him that he doesn’t plan on shooting anyone else but him.
Ace backs off. He and his gang retreat as Vern and Teddy return.
As the boys prepare to gather the body, Gordie stops them, telling them that the right thing to do is to make an anonymous call.
They later arrive back at Castle Rock and go their separate ways.
The older Gordie narrates the fate of his friends. Vern and Teddy go on to live average lives. Chris escaped the reputation of his family. He got into the college courses with Gordie and later became an attorney. He was killed instantly after being stabbed while trying to break up a fight between two men.
We go back to present time, and it is revealed that the whole film has been a story that older Gordie is writing. He’s an author with a son of his own.
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