We Had Once Again Succeeded In Destroying What We Could Not Create

(The Green Mile)

In my Kindle version of The Green Mile, before the actual novel starts, there is both an introduction from one of King’s literary agents and a foreword from King himself, both of which concern themselves with how this book was originally conceived and published. That’s because it was pretty different from the usual way you get a novel. In case you missed it, rather than publishing one normal-sized novel, this was released in six installments — little thin paperbacks called chapbooks. The idea was for each of these books to both function as a standalone story and also make up one-sixth of a larger overarching story. Later on, it was re-released as one whole book.

If you missed it, don’t feel bad — I did too. I sort of remember these being released and I’m pretty sure that I even saw the small books in a bookstore at the time. However, as a rule, I wouldn’t buy a series like that until it was completed — I didn’t like pulling out my hair waiting for the next installment — and I also wouldn’t buy those tiny paperbacks. Because I would finish them too quickly, and then I wouldn’t have anything new to read. I was only 16 the year they released this, and I didn’t have unlimited funds for buying new books whenever I wanted. But I do remember when it happened, and I remember connecting it with whatever we learned in English class about Dickens releasing stories in installments. King is careful to point out in his foreword that he does not compare himself to Dickens, by the way — I personally think the two writers have some not-insubstantial commonalities, but I can understand why King would be careful not to say it himself. In any event, one of the notable things about The Green Mile is that it showed that stories released in installments could still work, which was a big deal for the publishers, at least.

Another notable thing about The Green Mile is that it’s a really good story! Prior to the release of 11/22/63 — which is the one that I most often see pointed out as his best, at least on this side of his career — I think The Green Mile was the one that people pointed to when they wanted to recommend a great King read or point out that he was still capable of turning out a good book.

The voice that The Green Mile uses sounds a lot like the voice that Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption used. Which makes sense, since they’re both prison stories, but I think it’s a little more than that. They could almost be the same narrator — I feel like if you pulled a chunk of context-free Paul Edgecombe thought or dialog from The Green Mile and a chunk of context-free Red thought or dialog from Shawshank, even rabid fans might have trouble telling which came from where.

It’s a tad too religious for my taste, but that’s not really a flaw, just a preference of mine. It’s extremely sad, but that’s not a flaw either — it just is. And despite being extremely sad, what with the terrible crime that kicks off the events of the series, the terribly sad life and death of John Coffey, and the terrible people, from Percy Wetmore and the nursing home aide Brad to Wild Bill Wharton himself, it manages to still be uplifting and optimistic, which is… quite a feat, honestly.

I mean, it’s also terrible. Mr. Jingles lived longer than any mouse should, which is bad enough, since he still got old and frail and probably spent most of that time alone, which feels like a rough fate for a mouse, let alone a human. Paul Edgecombe is doing the same — staying alive longer than he should, doing so mostly alone, and getting old and frail and vulnerable into the bargain. It’s made clear that this is not immortality, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be fun or glamorous. But maybe that’s OK. Maybe Paul deserves that, even — if you believe the death penalty is morally wrong, no matter how carefully and gently you try to dispense it, then maybe he’s earned his terrible long life by way of punishment. I think the book can be interpreted as making that case. But it won’t last forever, after all.

Now, it’s uncertain what the afterlife, if there is one, will look like for Paul or anyone. Nothing of it could be seen in the final seconds of Coffey’s life and death, which is what we’re primarily concerned with, and that’s not a good sign. Also, it has nothing to do with this book, but there is some fairly bleak stuff in the King canon about the afterlife. I don’t know what the author believes, but the best his characters can hope for is to maybe wake up in Roland Deschain’s moved-on world. And the worst… well, it’s up ahead a ways. But it’s pretty bad.

But at the same time, the very existence of John Coffey, and of some of the others here who did try to do their best, after all, does give you hope. Maybe the end just sucks for everyone regardless? But maybe the parts before the end can be better if people are inclined to try to make them better. I don’t know, but I feel hope and optimism in this story, despite the evidence that despair might be all that comes in the end. It’s just that the hope and optimism lie in life, not life after death. Death might be awful. No matter what. Even for an innocent man who tried to help with his unusual gift — and if it can be awful for him, you can assume it will be awful for everyone. Life can be awful too, but I feel like the suggestion here is that it doesn’t actually have to be — we may make it that way ourselves, for the most part, but we can choose otherwise. We may not be able to do anything about the afterlife (or lack thereof) but we can do something about life. That’s my interpretation anyway. I’m an atheist, though — I don’t believe in an afterlife, bleak or otherwise, and I think the only thing that matters is what we do with our lives. So take into account that my interpretation definitely lines up with my worldview.

I will say that it is jarring to read some of the racist thoughts and language in this book. It’s fair enough, I suppose, given where in time the book is set. And true to form, King puts this language in the mouths of the characters we’re not supposed to like, whereas the protagonist clearly states not only that he thinks this is wrong, but that he thinks that the only reason the man who the story is about ended up arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death without much question was because he was a black man. (Which, you know, he’s probably right. Because that kind of thing is still happening.) So it’s not like the author was trying to be terrible here, but it’s still jarring to read. Or it was for me, at least.

And speaking of racism, John Coffey is still a Magical Negro. A Magical Disabled Person, as well. I will grant that he’s better drawn than some of King’s other Magical trope characters, and in general, I think these characters are usually liked and treated well by this author. But they’re still a trope that people try to avoid for a reason. I don’t think too many people are actually offended by John Coffey — he’s also the book’s Jesus character, after all — but it is what it is.

They adapted The Green Mile into a movie, and this one I have seen. Again like Shawshank Redemption, this is one of the good ones — one of the best ones, really. I remember it as being very faithful to the book, which helps. It also starred the always excellent Tom Hanks as Paul, and a delightful Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey. I looked at the Wikipedia page for the movie and realized that both the movie and the star — Duncan in particular — were nominated for or won a decent-sized collection of awards for that one. Probably they should have won more of the ones they were only nominated for — it was a really good movie, and the actors were really good in it. I totally recommend seeing it if you haven’t. (Pair it with Shawshank for a mini-marathon of prison movies.)

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