Stephen King adaptations have become a mainstay in Hollywood since Carrie was released in 1976. Known for his contributions to horror fiction, in books, television and film, his dramatic short stories have actually provided the basis of some of the best film adaptations, notably Frank Darabont’s masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption and its sister film The Green Mile. Based on a collection of short stories and set in 1932, The Green Mile follows the people that work and are imprisoned in the Cold Mountain Penitentiary. It was a commercial and critical success making $286m at the box office and resulting in four Oscar nominations at the 72nd Academy Awards, including one for Michael Clarke Duncan for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1999 a retired corrections officer, Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) begins to recount his time at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary as the officer in charge of death row, entitled The Green Mile because the corridor that leads to the electric chair has a strip of faded green linoleum. One day in 1932 a gentle giant by the name of John Coffey (Duncan) is transferred to the prison for the rape and murder of two young girls. After showing no signs of a violent personality, Coffey demonstrates a rare gift that allows him to heal people just by laying his hands on them. Over the course of the next decade, Edgecomb and Coffey become friends and experience a series of moving a heart-breaking moments that neither will forget.
Darabont obtained a reputation during the filming of The Green Mile as one of the most precise directors working today. He insisted on reshooting scene after scene until he was absolutely happy that each moment built to an overall epic tale of good and evil. In The Shawshank Redemption, which The Green Mile closely resembles more than any other film, he had the substance and the narrative to prolong certain scenes of action, because everything was building to a crescendo of style and substance. The Green Mile, while having the epic grandeur nailed, feels more episodic, perhaps because it’s based on a series of 6 short stories, each with its own cliffhanger. So where its predecessor swooped, ducked and soared and felt like an experience in perfection, The Green Mile is more plodding and struggles to maintain the pacing. It’s definitely a marathon viewing experience.
This is not to say it’s not excellent and Darabont gets the absolute best out of the interesting script, while managing to find a cast that each excel. Tom Hanks‘ journeyman character, similar in approach as his Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan grounds the magical realism that sits at he heart of this psuedo-religious film. Opposite him is Michael Clarke Duncan, playing the slow-witted, all heart incarnation of goodness. At no point does The Green Mile lead you to think that he is guilty of his crimes unless through a Lenny-esque accidental attack. While criticism was aimed at the character by Spike Lee for being a “magic negro” (harmless and whose sole work is to better the lives of white people), there can be no denying that Duncan himself is a revelation in this pivotal role, imbuing the huge, potentially intimidating man with real sympathy and a heart-breaking lack of understanding. The supporting cast including the likes of William Sadler, Patricia Clarkson, James Cromwell, Gary Sinise and Sam Rockwell are all immaculately cast and help support the central relationship between Edgecomb and Coffey.
So with an interesting premise, superb cast and a keen eye for detail in direction, The Green Mile is a fantastic companion piece to The Shawshank Redemption. It can’t quite reach the same level of quality, mainly due to the flawed episodic nature of the source material, but The Green Mile is further proof that Darabont is one of the most interesting and talented directors in Hollywood.