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A ''Green Mile'' to go

A progress report on the Stephen King-Tom Hanks thriller

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It’s safe to say this magazine article doesn’t know where it’s ultimately headed. It’s just the first of six about the forthcoming Tom Hanks movie The Green Mile — an adaptation of Stephen King’s blockbuster 1996 six-part serial set in a 1930s Louisiana penitentiary. As of now, no one’s certain just how the movie — scheduled for release from Castle Rock in December — will turn out either. The film’s beginning and ending still need to be shot, special effects are still being created, and the music has yet to be scored.

All of which seems fitting, since The Green Mile is, after all, based on a book that began without an ending.

When Stephen King sat down to write The Two Dead Girls, the first ”to be continued” installment of the Green Mile series, he claims to have had no idea where his story would wind up, even as the books began climbing the charts. ”When I started, I knew only basic elements of the story,” says King. ”I was definitely a writer without a net.” Those elements — a compassionate guard working on death row, a condemned seven-foot-tall inmate with healing powers — are now part of publishing history. Millions of readers awaited each novella’s publication wondering what would happen next between the guard, Paul Edgecombe (played by Hanks), and that mysterious gentle giant, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a black man accused of killing two white girls. In all, more than 20 million copies were sold; at one point, all six Green Mile books sat together atop the New York Times paperback best-seller list.

The question now is, will the movie version live up to the book and to the Oscar expectations that seem to accompany every new Tom Hanks film, or will The Green Mile go the way of other adaptations of King’s work, like, say, Children of the Corn, parts I through V? The latter isn’t likely, given The Green Mile‘s impressive cinematic pedigree. The script was written and directed by Frank Darabont, the respected 40-year-old writer-director of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), an intelligent prison drama starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman that earned seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, as well as nominations from the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild. Darabont, who hasn’t made a movie since then, hasn’t exactly been loafing. Among other uncredited endeavors, he rewrote the famous Omaha Beach scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. As a director, though, Darabont says that he’s ”developed a very small niche. I’m now the guy who does the old-fashioned prison movies based on Stephen King books.”

King has always had a soft spot for young filmmakers, and that’s how the relationship with Darabont began. He sold Darabont the rights to his 1978 short story ”The Woman in the Room” when Darabont was still a Hollywood unknown. Darabont’s 30-minute short eventually aired on PBS and was released to video. Not bad, considering King had given up the rights for a dollar, a practice he maintained with student filmmakers for many years. King later allowed Darabont to option another short story, ”Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for ”a couple thousand bucks or something like that,” recalls the author, ”and I never cashed the check. I’ve got the check framed up on my wall.” Darabont wrote the script, shortened the title to The Shawshank Redemption, and turned down a considerable offer for the rights from Castle Rock just so he could have the chance to direct it himself.