Stalwart fans of Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) will be eager to see this screen adaptation of the same author's bestselling 1996 serialized novel. Writer Frank Darabont is again at the helm as director trying to mine all the transcendent meanings in the over three-hour drama. There's plenty of time here to develop characters and to ponder the mysterious powers of a prisoner whose initials are J.C.
Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) lives in a nursing home and is troubled by his memories. As he shares his story and a precious secret with one of the other residents, the film flashes back to Cold Mountain Penitentiary in Louisiana in 1935. The middle-aged Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) is in charge of E Block, or death row, where those who are about to be executed walk to the electric chair on a path of green tile. His staff includes Brutus Howell (David Morse), Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper), Harry Terwilleger (Jeffrey DeMunn), and Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison). The latter is an outsider who got the job because he is related to the governor.
In this dark house of death, the staff goes through a black comic rehearsal of an execution during which a stand-in for the condemned man (Harry Dean Stanton) shouts out the different steps in the procedure and jokes about what he'd like to say if he were riding "Old Sparky." Part of Paul's job is keeping the prisoners calm, and he tries to be professional and alert to their fears. He listens to a repentant Native American (Graham Greene) who wonders about heaven. Next in line is Creole Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) who has adopted Mr. Jingles, a pet mouse. The sadistic Percy bears a grudge against this prisoner that is played out in gruesome detail.
The mood and routine of death row is altered when John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) arrives. This towering giant of an African American has been convicted of the rape and murder of two little girls. Edgecomb is the first to learn of Coffey's amazing telepathic abilities and his power to heal. Another newcomer, "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), is a pathological killer who relishes his own crazy energy. He is the first to learn of Coffey's fierce hatred of evil.
Those who enjoy looking for Jesus figures in contemporary movies can explore the connections in The Green Mile. Coffey is a sensitive soul who can feel the suffering of others in his own flesh. He "infects" Edgecomb "with life" in a way that is inexplicable. Coffey tells the prison guards that he's tired of all the pain in the world and the suffering caused by those who are ugly to each other. Although he's afraid to sleep in the dark, this Man of Sorrows is not frightened of death. His heart dances on wings of love and hope. It's no wonder that Paul recognizes him as "one of God's miracles."
What better place to witness healing and an image of wholeness than in a death chamber where the malevolent eye-for-an-eye philosophy of justice holds sway. Although far too long, this screen translation of Stephen's King's novel has thematic undercurrents worth exploring.