Once upon a time, movies from Stephen King novels were cheesy little horror items tricked up with special effects and the occasional spurt of arterial blood to keep them lively. "Carrie" was probably the best; "Firestarter," with George C. Scott as an insane Native American CIA operative, was the nuttiest. Occasionally good, usually bad, never indifferent and always ugly, the movies all had pulpy energy and a total disregard for the possible. (I discount "The Shining," which I hated, as more of a Kubrick than a King movie.)
Now King has become a revered artist whose novels are reviewed respectfully in the New York Times, and the movies based on them display the solemnity, length and high moral purpose appropriate to great literature. Frank Darabont seems to think he's directing a version of "Absalom, Absalom!" or "The Charterhouse of Parma" instead of King's potboiling page-turner "The Green Mile." The movie lasts 3 hours 7 minutes, which is probably more time than King actually invested in writing it!
Hardly a second of it is convincing. It seems to be a movie about a black man in a Southern prison in the '30s made by men who've never thought about prison, have never been in the South, know nothing about black people, not even that they're human, and believe what was so different about 1935 was the clothes. It lacks any conviction at all, from the noble, docile suffering giant at its center to the compassionate executioners on the edges who call their victims by their first names and shake their hands before frying them. It's a combination of bunkum, hokum and upchuckum all mixed together and set to chords of phony Hollywood religiosity like the most shameless of Cecil B. De Mille.
And it's a shattering disappointment from both Tom Hanks, whose career has been just about one triumph after another, and Darabont, whose last film, "The Shawshank Redemption," was a superior adaptation of a King novel.
Hanks plays a prison guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in 1935 Louisiana (a state notably lacking either cold or mountains). And what kind of prison guard? Why, the educated, compassionate, nonracist, liberal kind. They didn't even have prison guards like that in Louisiana in 1995; in the Jim Crow South of the '30s--Faulkner's South, after all, Penn Warren's South, Welty's South--the reality had to be cruel and unusual.
"The green mile," as a phrase, is a variation of "the last mile," prison slang for death row; this particular mile is green because that's the color of the floor, though the cinematography, for reasons unknown to the cosmos, has been calibrated not to emphasize it. Hanks's Paul Edgecomb is the supervisor of this facility--he's really an executioner, though again the film chooses not to make this point explicitly. His staff consists of men like him, sober, decent, well-spoken, couth fellows whose major worry is the health and well-being of their wards. They worry a lot about stress. Is this a Southern death row in the '30s or some New Age human potential seminar in Orlando? In any event, the one exception to this rule is a runt named Percy (Doug Hutchison), despised because he's got connections to the governor and because he secretly wants to see people die.
What throws this ordered little world into a tizzy is the arrival of the gigantic John Coffey--"just like the drink, only spelled different"--who is your archetypal gentle giant though he has been convicted of the murder of two 9-year-olds. One look at his beatific face, and you know he couldn't be guilty by the rules of every movie ever made.
In fact, he's at the heart of the movie's horror. This is an infantile white fantasy: John, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is docile, subservient, gigantic and of course touched by God. He's the magic black man, sent to serve, then die, for the moral uplift his sacrifice provides white mankind, without reference to his own inner life. He doesn't have one. While it's true that the African Americans of 1935 were publicly more docile than modern African Americans, to so trivialize this man is to trivialize his race; he has no inner life, no soul, no conflicts, no rage. He's a giant panda bear of beatitude and piety and extremely boring, especially calling every white person "Boss" and blubbering at all signs of conflict! People of all races have a right to be offended at the caricature.
There's little enough story--certainly nothing as well wrought as the exquisitely moderated skein of events in "Shawshank Redemption." That was at least a well-constructed piece of storytelling; this is just a piffle on an A-budget, stretched out and made sanctimonious beyond endurance. Mostly it's a trivial workplace drama in which the good guards--Hanks, David Morse, Barry Pepper from "Saving Private Ryan"--try to put the bad guard, Percy, in his place, or at least punish him for his transgressions. John, having "the gift" (defined as an all-purpose ability to cure disease, see the future, project the past and control behavior, but unable to affect his own destiny except to make his own execution easy on his imprisoners), is the mechanism for this drama, which invests most of its energy in providing justice to Percy. Let's see, was that before or after Mr. Jingles, the performing mouse, appeared? I think it was after. It then morphs into a mild magic-cure movie--"Touched by a 350-Pound, 7-Foot Angel"--in which the giant saves Paul from a bad bladder infection (if you've ever wanted to watch a Big Star urinate, here's your chance), then the warden's wife from cancer. And finally, it's a lame vengeance movie, which features the execution-style killing of the actual killer of the two children who, helpfully, is sequestered across the corridor. You can tell he's a bad guy: He has bad teeth.
The movie might best be described as routinely competent but completely untransfigured by distinction. On and on it goes, inflating its tiny tale with cosmic significance and annoyingly fantastic special effects. John Coffey sucks the disease out of his patients, then expels it in the form of a cloud of insects, while the choir bangs away and sparks blast out of the light fixtures.
At the end of a long, long night at the movies, he is crucified by men whose lives he's saved or made better and who do nothing to save him. We're supposed to feel good about that? In the end, it's all about them. They count. His death is just a steppingstone on their path to self-knowledge. You know: the same old story.
The Green Mile (187 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes of dead children and prison violence.
CAPTION: Tom Hanks as the gentle guard and Michael Clarke Duncan as the even gentler prisoner in a disappointing adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
CAPTION: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan and David Morse in "The Green Mile."