The Green Mile (1999)
“Walk a mile you’ll never forget.”
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse
Synopsis: The lives of guards on Death Row are affected by one of their charges: a black man accused of child murder and rape, yet who has a mysterious gift.
There was once a popular crime fiction writer working in America called John D. McDonald. He was a prolific novelist, churning out two or three books a year during his heyday, but he stood out from the competition because of the realism of his characters. The people he created were like the people who lived next door, or who sat at the desk beside yours, or who drank at the same watering hole, only some of them performed some very dark deeds indeed. I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet that Stephen King read a lot of McDonald’s material, because he has the same way of creating realistic characters, of getting under their skin and finding out what made them tick. I think that’s why film adaptations of their work are so often failures — the screenwriters find it impossible to capture the essence of the characters in the way that both McDonald and King do. The only adaptation of McDonald’s work worth noting is Cape Fear (1962, 1990), while only a handful of adaptations of King’s work can be considered successful.
One of those successes is Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile, his first film since The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The story in The Green Mile shares much with Shawshank Redemption — they’re both set in a prison and both focus on the relationship between a black man and a white man — only in Shawshank, the men were equals, while here they’re prison guard and prisoner. The themes also differ, with The Green Mile placed squarely in the supernatural arena with which we normally associate King — although, unusually for him, in a positive form.
Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgcomb, the aforementioned prison guard in charge of the eponymous Green Mile, the prison wing set aside for those awaiting execution for their crimes. He’s a decent man — but then, when does Tom Hanks play anything else? Like Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks is his generation’s everyman. He makes us feel good about ourselves — and his character in The Green Mile tries to instil into the small team of guards that works for him a duty of care to their wards, treating them fairly and with dignity regardless of their crimes. Of course, there’s always a rotten apple, and in this case it’s the appropriately named Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), an arrogant and sadistic weasel whose aunt is married to the Governor.
Into Edgcomb’s domain comes John Coffey (Michael Duncan Clarke, whose breakthrough role this was), a giant of a man who has been condemned to death for the murder of two young girls. Considering he was found cradling both girls’ bodies, his guilt looks fairly obvious, but his timid, gentle nature is at odds with the vile crime he is supposed to have committed. Nevertheless, Edgcomb treats Coffey with typical respect and a tentative bond is formed. This bond is strengthened when Coffey cures Edgcomb’s painful bladder infection simply be laying his hands on him. The essence of Edgcomb’s infection is then breathed out in the form of fuzzy CGI flies that slowly dispel in the air.
Edgcomb begins to suspect that, in Coffey, not only does he have something more than an ordinary prisoner on his hands, but that the prisoner might be some kind of conduit for God’s work. It’s certainly no coincidence that the big man’s initials are JC, and the fact that he’s an innocent man (we’re only briefly provided with the possibility that Coffey killed the two girls, despite being found with their bodies) about to be executed for crimes he didn’t commit also reinforces the parallels with the fate of Jesus. It’s also perhaps significant that, despite the story taking place in the deep South, Coffey is the only black prisoner – or character, for that matter – that we see in the entire movie – which is something else that sets him apart from everyone else. Coffey is also a figure of immense power which he uses only for good, and he and Edgcomb represent the good in man, as opposed to the bad – the ‘mean, careless and stupid’ – which is seen in the form of Wetmore and ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a depraved killer occupying the cell across from Coffey.
The Green Mile is around three hours long, but it never feels as though you’re sitting through a movie that long. Its lengthy running time allows Darabont to give a measure of depth to even the minor characters, and helps to create a well-rounded story that remains credible even when the supernatural elements kick in. Perhaps it’s this focus on characterisation that the movie shares with King’s novels which contributes most to its success. The characters are real, believable, even though their primary purpose is often simply to act as a symbol, and they respond to each plot development in realistic ways.
Another thing from which the movie draws strength is the performances of its actors. Clarke is a massive, looming presence, his height emphasised by low camera angles, but he is never perceived as threatening, despite his immense size and strength. He brings a childlike innocence to the character without turning him into a child. Hanks is as good as you’d expect him to be in a role which could almost have been written for him, and he’s ably supported by David Morse as Brutus ‘Brutal’ Howell, his right-hand man in the prison ward. James Cromwell brings an emotional frailty to an otherwise strong character as the prison’s sympathetic warden whose wife is dying of a brain tumour, and Michael Jeter also impresses as another resident of Death Row, a Cajun who befriends an unusually talented and precocious mouse called Mr. Jingles (shamefully absent from the movie’s credits).
Although not a typical King story, The Green Mile should please both fans of his fiction and those unfamiliar with his work. King has the happy knack of combining sometimes complex themes with deceptively simple storylines which makes his work accessible to an unusually broad range of readers, and Darabont clearly possesses the ability to translate that work to the screen. Whichever level you choose to enjoy the movie on, there’s little doubt that enjoy it you will. But I can’t help wondering whether poor old Percy, touched like Edcomb and Mr. Jingles by the power of Coffey, is still standing at that window…
(Reviewed 19th February 2013)