The Green Mile, 1999. Directed by Frank Darabont. Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, James Cromwell, Bonnie Hunt, Patricia Clarkson.

Shortly after Frank Darabont got the job of translating Stephen King's The Green Mile into film, I saw an interview with  Darabont in which he noted that he had carved out the most specialized niche in movie history. "I'm the Stephen King Prison Movie Guy," he said. I doubt that he minds it much. After all,  Darabont's last Stephen King adaptation, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, turned itself into a classic somewhere along the line. The Green Mile is a pretty good movie, but it isn't in The Shawshank Redemption's league.

"The Green Mile" is death row in a southern prison, so named because of the green tile on its floor. The guard in charge of things here is Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks), a decent man who believes in providing his charges with a modicum of dignity before they die. The movie is told as an extended flashback by a very old Edgecomb, now living out his days in a rest home. He relates the tale of a summer in the 1930s, in which one John Coffey is brought to The Green Mile for murdering two little girls. Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is a mammoth black man who seems to have a child's mind. Edgecomb begins to doubt Coffey's guilt, but he has other problems that take precedence. He has a bad urinary infection and he has a new guard, Percy Wetmore, who is the kind of sadist Edgecomb wants to keep away from the men in his charge. After an extended exposition, we learn that John Coffey can work miracles. He heals Edgecomb's infection, then later heals the warden's cancer stricken wife. But Coffey is a marked man, and no one in the movie has the power to stay Coffey's execution.

The Green Mile has an excellent cast who are given good characters to work with. Lots of them. This is populated in depth with interesting people (my favorite is the trusty, played Harry Dean Stanton, who rehearses the executions). The story weaves itself around these characters deftly, forming an engrossing tapestry that isn't disrupted much by the introduction of the supernatural element. King is primarily known as a horror writer, but anyone with a more than passing knowledge of his output knows that he is capable of just about anything. This would appear to be one of those instances where the story in question is atypical of King--it's not, but the popular audience will probably think so. It is VERY typical of King and it IS a horror story. This is one of the very few film versions of King's work that translates his feel for characters to the screen. It is a horror story in a low key that isn't really scary on the surface, but the fate in store for Paul Edgecomb is dire. He is condemned to live a very long life as a penalty for allowing the execution of John Coffey. The movie ends with a marvelous transposition of life on The Green Mile--a warehouse for men waiting to die--with life in a rest home. There is a dark chill waiting at the end of the movie that is so subtle that it will certainly be mistaken as something else by a large portion of the audience.

The most amazing thing about The Green Mile is that it refutes the notion that King is unfilmable and that a filmmaker must change the books that King writes to make them filmable. In much the same manner as he adapted Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Darabont leaves practically the entire book in his movie, verbatim. Nor does he crowd it all to fit. This results in a VERY long running time. The film takes its sweet time getting where it is going and in so doing, hooks the audience by the gills by the end of the first hour. This is pretty much the way King's best novels work. The Green Mile is a pleasure to sit through. But, as I said, it isn't in The Shawshank Redemption's league, mainly because the source material isn't as good. The Green Mile was a pleasure to read as it came out in installments (King transformed a stunt into a valid artistic statement), but it is chock full of obvious symbolism and, like many of King's later work, has supernatural content that rings false. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption was written when King was at the peak of his form, has no clumsy symbols (well, not many of them, anyway), and has a more interesting and believable central relationship. Since both films translate all of the virtues of their source to the screen, it is probably inevitable that they would translate all of the flaws, too....


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