Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Green Mile

Christ figures are incredibly common in literature, and have been found by scholars even in places where they may not have been originally intended.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen as accurate a portrayal as John Coffey in any other work of fiction.  King himself would botch another attempt years later in a Kingdom Hospital episode, but Coffey’s sacrifice and execution are very well done and heartbreaking in this work.

Beyond that parable, both versions of the story stand strongly against the use of the electric chair, but also don’t preach to you about the issue.  I think King manages to skirt the line well, particularly in the case of Delacroix, acknowledging his horrible crime while also making him a pitiable creature at times.  The movie on the other hand, isn’t quite so effective at this, as we never hear at all about just what it is Delacroix did.  You can safely assume murder was involved for him to end up on death row, but I think removing the details that Delacroix committed rape and murder of a teenage girl and then burned down an apartment building that had children inside to try to cover it up makes the situation more complex and thought provoking.  But considering that this movie is three hours long and still doesn’t have enough time to cover everything in the story, it is understandable that they left out these details.

The Green Mile is a unique volume by today’s standards, originally published in six mini-volumes released in serial format.  While this was probably very exciting for people at the time it was released, these days, it can be a little tedious.  You can buy the story in one single volume now, but it is literally just the six books bound together in one.  So at the beginning of each new volume, there is a recap of everything that happened before.  This is a pretty common occurrence whenever you’re reading a series of books – Rowling’s recap of all that Harry had dealt with before in each new Harry Potter novel comes to mind.  But I find that tedious as well, and especially in the later books I had much longer stories to read in between the recaps.  Here, it comes more quickly, and I found myself skimming over those passages to just hurry up and get back to the story.

This is generally regarded as one of King’s non-horror stories, and the film is certainly not in the horror section, but the description of Del’s execution is most definitely pure horror, and the element of the supernatural in the story makes it a bit different than The Body and Shawshank Redemption.  It makes sense that Darabont would use this to bridge the gap before adapting an actual horror story.  His version of the botched execution is still horrifying, and I think it’s actually improved with the removal of the popping eyeballs and other gory details King describes in the book.

The changes between the two are pretty minor.  Some details get left out, and the timeline is shifted slightly – Bitterbuck was executed before John ever showed up on the mile, but for the most part these changes make sense.  Often times, they properly condense the story.  In the book there is a bully of an orderly making Paul’s life miserable at the old folks home, and he reminds him very much of Percy.  While it’s a nice parallel, it’s also not necessary, and it makes sense that they dropped it.  It was also a movie with a character much like William Wharton that upset Paul in the novel, whereas here we add in the detail that John Coffey wanted to see a film before he died.  I think this was probably added to try to add one nice moment for John, who spends so much time in misery.

Another change that really makes sense is having John touch Paul and revealing the truth to him about Wharton killing the little girls.  It saves us all the time it requires Paul to research the issue, a scene that is pretty redundant in tone to when he visits Hammersmith and asks him if he thinks Coffey is guilty.  It also makes the moment where John touches Paul a second time make more sense.  In the novel it comes out of nowhere, just John wanting to give Paul a glimpse of what it’s like to be him all the time.  Here the touch has a purpose.

The only moment in the film I felt didn’t entirely work was when they included the grandfather clock breaking and the house shaking as Coffey heals Melinda.  In the book it makes sense, as it’s a very tense moment and all the men can see is this towering giant on top of the woman, but here the swelling, touching music and overall tone of the way it is shot create a different kind of mood, and the cracking of the clock and the quick shudder of the house clash with that mood for me.

Another small complaint I have, and one I realize some people may not agree with, but I’ve never cared for Tom Hanks as a dramatic actor.  He has a stiffness to him that often makes it hard for me to sympathize with him.  It’s strange for a man who was always so expressive with his comedy to come off wooden in dramatic performances, but more often than not that’s how I see him.

In strong contrast to that is Michael Clark Duncan, who plays John Coffey perfectly.  In the book it’s said that Coffey seems almost empty inside when he’s not performing his miracles, and that he has trouble remembering things.  That kind of switch between dullness and clarity is not an easy thing to pull off, but he does it, and makes Coffey the sympathetic character he needs to be.  His physical stature is also perfect of course, as he does tower over all the other performers.

Once again I can’t help but question whether the movie really needed to be three hours long, but I have to admit that there is nothing I would trim here.  Losing some of the little details already changes things a little, like the way all the guys seem to go along with the plan to release Coffey just because Paul says so.  But the film never drags and the performances are strong enough that I wasn’t ever looking at my watch wishing it was over yet.

The fact that Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both set at prisons in the past can be a bit confusing – enough that I expected to see Bob Gunton playing the warden in this film.  There are a lot of crossover actors here in the background, particularly William Sadler.  We’ll see him again in Darabont’s next King adaptation, The Mist.

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