So much has happened since entertainment weekly began its long jaunt down The Green Mile so many months ago. In the four pieces we’ve run so far (this cover story and Stephen King’s article are the last of our six-part series), we’ve diligently covered the film’s arduous journey. There was, for example, all that hand-wringing early on about the movie’s 3-hour-plus running time. There was even more hand-wringing when one of the more than 30 trained mice who play Mr. Jingles (the movie’s mysteriously empathetic rodent) pulled a diva and did its business in Tom Hanks’ palm. And last June, with more Green Mile scenes still to be shot, Stephen King—who wrote the six-part 1996 series on which the movie is based—was nearly sent to kingdom come by a van driver who struck and seriously injured the author as he walked along a road near his Maine summer home. (King, who suffered multiple leg fractures, a collapsed lung, cracked ribs, and a fractured hip, is still recuperating.)
Add to the agita the daunting challenge of bringing a sprawling six-part novel to the screen. Frank Darabont, writer-director of the 1994 King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption (another thoughtful prison drama, which was nominated for seven Oscars), certainly seemed up to the task, but it wasn’t clear what effect his five-year directing hiatus was going to have on his working style. And he was in no mood to race down the Mile; production dragged days, then weeks, behind schedule.
Yet on the eve of the film’s Dec. 10 opening, the Green Milers are full of optimism about the movie’s box office and Oscar potential. Early reviews have been nice enough, the film is edging to the front of this year’s Oscar front-runners, and its promising crop of young actors (notably Doug Hutchison as the wicked prison guard Percy Wetmore) is expected to produce at least one Best Supporting Actor contender. In the end, The Green Mile, about a series of miracles that happen on death row, is something of a miracle itself—even if it does leave behind a certain rodent actor who’ll probably never work in this town again.
Coming at the end of a year of maverick moviemaking—from The Matrix to Magnolia—The Green Mile almost seems quaint by comparison, particularly for an R-rated movie. It’s a straightforward, unflashy story told without rapid-editing techniques or kids who see dead people. The ”Green Mile” is the hallway with a floor ”the color of faded limes” that leads to ”Old Sparky” (the electric chair), and E Block is the home to a motley crew of death-row inmates: the cagey Creole Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), the sullen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene), and the psychopathic ”Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell). At the center of it all is 7-foot-tall convicted child rapist-murderer John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, who slowly emerges as E Block’s most transcendent inmate, with his unearthly ability to heal with his giant hands. Nevertheless, he too is headed toward an electric ending.