The Green Mile - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
In an interview with Creative Writing in 1997 Frank Darabont spoke about his relationship with Stephen King as a filmmaker by saying, "We have a joke now - because the first two films I directed were period prison movies - that my directing career will stall unless he writes another period prison story." King's work helped launch Darabont's career as a director with modern classic, 'The Shawshank Redemption' and before following it up with the 1999 hit, 'The Green Mile'. Whilst the two films bear a lot of similarities in terms of setting the key difference is thematic. 'The Shawshank Redemption' is a story of hope whilst 'The Green Mile' is a story of sorrow.
Director: Frank Darabont
Starring: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Bonnie Hunt, James Cromwell,
Written by: Frank Darbont
Produced by: Frank Darabont, Frank Valdes
Cinematography by: David Tattersall
Original Score by: Thomas Newman
A tale set on death row in a Southern jail, where gentle giant John possesses the mysterious power to heal people's ailments. When the lead guard, Paul, recognizes John's gift, he tries to help stave off the condemned man's execution.
In the 1990's Stephen King's foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza had an unusual proposition for King. Off the back of a meeting with British editor Malcolm Edwards he proposed that King produce and release a novel in instalments in the vein of Charles Dickens believing that King was the only novelist who could pull off such a feat. King embraced the idea as it presented to him the opportunity to write a story he had been working on that was set on death row. At the time it was called, 'What Tricks Your Eye'. It centred on the story of a large black man on death row who makes himself disappear just before he is executed. Over this time the lead character developed from being a magician to a healer and so too did other aspects of the story to form the basis for the finalised version of 'The Green Mile.'
Whilst King initially relished the prospect of releasing the story in six instalments he found it to be as stressful as it was exciting with the first instalment (The Two Dead Girls) being released before the final instalment (Coffey on the Mile) was written. He said in the introduction of the first instalment, "This is part of the excitement of the whole thing though - at this point I'm driving through thick fog with the pedal all the way to the metal". The gamble on the release model paid off as it set a world record for having the most books on the New York Times bestseller list when all six instalments featured on it simultaneously in September 1996.
Whilst reading the second instalment of 'The Green Mile' (titled, The Mouse on the Mile) Frank Darabont knew it was going to be his next film as the story had a similar hold on him as his previous film, 'The Shawshank Redemption'. He was so determined to make the film that he travelled to the Colorado set of Mick Garris' mini series adaptation of 'The Shining' where King was shooting a cameo. Whilst dressed as a band conductor, Darabont grabbed King by his lapel and said, "I've come for the Green Mile". Almost instantly King agreed that Darabont was the man to bring the story to the big screen and even managed to rope him into shooting his own cameo as one of the ghosts of the Overlook hotel that day. Darabont's passion for the project was so great that he immediately began work on a script and completed it within eight weeks.
The film opens with an elderly Paul Edgecomb (played by Dabbs Greer) recanting a series of extraordinary events during his time as a prison officer on death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. It is here where the majority of the film is set along the infamous Green Mile (named after the lime green flooring). From the get go Darabont realises the sense of memory from Paul's story as there are the faintest of glows from the faintest sources of light shining in the prison, be it from the single row of light bulbs along the mile or the sun piercing through the small prison windows. Usually this kind of lighting signifies a warm and happy memory but in the film it serves to mark as a contrast to the sorrowful nature of the film. The look of the mile itself is fantastic too as the rustic aesthetic adds just a slight gothic flavour but maintains a sense of realism to ground the film before the fantastical elements come into play. There is even a tactility to the film as the oppressive Louisiana heat can be felt throughout the film. You can almost smell the sweat from the brows of the characters on the mile all adding to a sense of claustrophobia and being trapped.
This attention to detail is one of the many reasons why Darabont has produced the greatest adaptations of King's work as he has an ability to hone in on certain words or phrases from the source text and translate them seamlessly onto the screen. The way events play out in the film are almost identical to what you would picture in your head as you read the book. He also realises the limitations of the book in that he knows what can be cut out or added as and when they are needed. For example he cuts out the majority of Paul Edgecomb's life in the nursing home and weaves some of these elements into the main story. He also adds the element of the effect the film 'Top Hat' has on John Coffey which instilled a sense of hope amidst the brooding despair which makes the film more appealing to general audiences.
One thing that that is clear from the novel is that there is an unrelenting sense of sorrow. Filmmaker Mike Flanagan talked about it on the Kingcast podcast and perfectly summed up the nature of the book by saying, "the story in general just seems to be this despairing kind of cry of why?" If the film strictly followed the tone of the novel it would be a three hour slog that would be punishing on audiences. The reason the novel (like so much of King's work) doesn't feel that way is in the psychological elements of the story. He gets into his character's heads and explores their thoughts and feelings which is next to impossible to express on film. Darabont completely understands this and injects moments of levity that acts like an emotional release valve for the viewer. Darabont is a self confessed fan of the works of Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg and he carries their kind of sensibilities into 'The Green Mile' through his understanding of how to please an audience while at the same time remaining true to the source material by making an emotionally powerful and impactful piece of work.
Another aspect to the film that Darabont gets spot on is the casting. Whilst Dabbs Greer is wonderful in his short role as the elderly version of Paul Edgecomb, Tom Hanks is perfect as the younger version of the character. It was rumoured that Hanks was in line to play Andy Dufresne in 'The Shawshank Redemption' but had to pull out due to his commitments on 'Forrest Gump'. Despite not being able to play the role, Hanks promised to work with Darabont in the future, making good on his promise by signing up to play the lead in the film. This was to the delight of King who actually pictured Hanks as Paul Edgecomb when he was writing the book.
In the book 'Stephen King At the Movies' Tom Hanks is described as being "a model of decency and determination" in 'The Green Mile'. Very few actors possess this kind of quality and can exhibit it perfectly on the big screen but Hanks almost makes it feel effortless. Although this shines through during the entire film it is particularly prevalent whenever he sits with prisoners in their final moments before they meet "Old Sparky". He passes no judgments on their crimes, he merely bears the burden of their final words before guiding them to their execution with as much dignity as possible. It is here where Hanks' natural sense of compassion shines through. He is the everyday man we can all relate to. Even though he has and still conducts multiple executions we can still relate to the humanity he shows through his choice of expressions and natural charisma.
The catalyst to the story is the character of John Coffey. A tall uneducated black man who is sent to spend his remaining days on the Green Mile for the supposed rape and murder of two little girls. This proved to be a difficult role to cast with the likes of NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal being offered the role. But a call from Bruce Willis to Darabont after reading the story found Willis recommending his 'Armageddon' co-star Michael Clarke Duncan for the part. His rigorous preparation for the role resulted in a performance that is magnetic and deserving of the Oscar nomination he received. Despite being a towering giant with a deep bellowing voice Duncan moves with a gentle childlike innocence that evokes so much sympathy towards the character even before we know he is innocent of his crimes.
When it comes to the character of John Coffey there is some blatantly obvious religious symbology tied to him. From his initials to how he willingly goes to his death there is no subtlety in the links of his character to Jesus Christ. Even the light from the projector as Coffey watches 'Top Hat' forms a halo around his head. This symbology and the general magical realism tied around Coffey as a black man has led to a number of criticisms about the character with many including the great Spike Lee believing the film was employing the tired trope of the 'Magical Negro'. King addressed the criticism by talking about how a black man in that era found with two dead girls in his arms would be found guilty without question. Whilst this doesn't address the crux of Lee's issues with the film it is clear that there is nothing malicious behind the approach and use of the character of Coffey in the film. At the worst it is perhaps misguided depending on your perspective.
One of the enduring aspects of the film are the memorable characters, which is no surprise given how King's character work is one of his great strengths as a writer. They allow the film's lengthy runtime to fly by as you are immersed in their world and you feel like you've known them all of your life from the first time you are introduced to them. In terms of the guards watching over the convicts on the mile two characters stand out amongst Dean Stanton (played by Barry Pepper) and Harry Terwillinger (played by Jeffrey DeMunn). The first being Brutus "Brutal" Howell (played by David Morse) who exudes charm through a tough demeanour acting as someone Edgecomb can rely on for honesty and trust. He also struggles to restrain himself working alongside fellow guard Percy Wetmore (played by Doug Hutchison) who carries a detestable aura tinged with cowardice that makes him the most dislikeable character on the mile.
Darabont also does a masterful job at drawing out the humanity of the majority of the inmates on the mile. He doesn't dwell (or in Delacroix's case mention) their crimes. He paints a mournful picture of a group of men approaching the end of a helpless situation. Arlen Bitterbuck (played by Graham Greene) has a short but solemn presence in the film as he reflects on the good times in his life. There is also a tragic aspect to Eduard Delacroix's (played by Michael Jeter) time on the mile. Bullied by Percy Wetmore he finds solace in his companion Mr. Jingles whose tricks comfort him in his final days. Through his broken English Jeter is terrific at conveying the meek and remorseful aspects of the character. This is in contrast to "Wild Bill" Wharton (played by Sam Rockwell) who is intent on raising hell during his final days on the mile. A despicable character in nature, Rockwell manages to evoke humour from his antisocial behaviour on the mile.
Outside of these characters the film is laced with memorable and scene stealing performances from Harry Dean Stanton's eccentric Toot Toot to James Cromwell as the firm but worn out Warden Hal Moores. The film arguably has the best ensemble cast of any of his adaptations to date. Even Gary Sinise has a scene stealing cameo as lawyer Burt Hammersmith, who packs a punch in making the film a vivid experience enhancing the emotional heft on display.
Stemming from these memorable characters are so many memorable moments that have made the film's legacy endure. The episodic structure of the film also serves to make them stand out. One such scene is the execution of Eduard Delacroix. Percy in one final act of cruelty doesn't wet the sponge used to shorten the ordeal of being executed by electric chair, limiting pain as much as possible. It results in one of the most horrific scenes in any King adaptation as Delacroix literally burns to death with smoke billowing out of him before parts of him bursts into flames. The outline through his face through the hood placed over his head as he screams in agony is as horrific as any supernatural scare from any of King's more fantastical works
Whilst these scenes exhibit Darabont's skill at delivering memorable set pieces for me the stand out scene is when Paul pours his soul out to John, fearing damnation for what he has to do in executing him. John offers an emotionally wrought response that is absolutely heart wrenching as he tells Paul of how tired he is of the world and the loneliness he faces in it. From Duncan's delivery of the monologue to Hanks' reaction it leaves you floored. Some might think of it as being over sentimental but it carries such a large amount of existential weight looking at inhumanity through an unprejudiced pair of eyes it never leaves your mind.
There are a multitude of reasons why 'The Green Mile' has endured as a modern great. From the acting, to the story, to the direction it is a clear case of taking some strong material and translating it to the big screen accentuating it's strengths. It carries universal themes that allow audiences from all backgrounds to identify with it and place themselves in the shoes of the different characters at different times. To me the main attraction to the film is summed up perfectly by lan Nathan in his book 'Stephen King At the Movies' when he says, "At the heart of King's fiction is a fascination with the endurance of the human spirit under great strain". In inviting us to bear witness to this strain Darabont offers moments of inflection that leads to an emotional outpour of grief from the audience over the death of a miracle that embeds itself into your mind and soul long after the credits roll.
- Joseph McElroy