The Green Mile at 20: A Timeless Parable

The Green Mile is a twenty-year-old film, and one well worth recognising amidst the barrage of 1999 classics. Part of its fame, of course, comes from it being a spiritual successor to The Shawshank Redemption, a film massively acclaimed and often regarded by audiences as one of the best of all time: their similarities are superficially numerous in being both based on Stephen King stories, adapted by Frank Darabont, and set in prison. The Green Mile is very much its own work, though, having a narrower scope but a more ambitious philosophical position. Its moral centre is so ambitious as to not simply supersede its predecessor but to make it something that is perhaps even increasingly relevant. What is, then, the connective tissue of the film that makes it not just deeply entertaining but deeply important?

It has a simple story and a simple approach to its telling. It focuses on a death row known by guards and residents as ‘The Green Mile’, and it’s a place driven by routine until the arrival of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his apparent unearthly abilities. There’s some aesthetic similarity between Shawshank and The Green Mile in how this is presented, with calm, beautiful shots, obvious sentiment and an easy to follow structure. The scope of the respective stories is the major difference, however. The former seems to encompass an entire prison and the meaning of freedom, the latter looks at a smaller group but perhaps a more intimate and, therefore, more profound subject in human dignity. The misleading straightforwardness of The Green Mile leaves room for its themes to be foregrounded — and to hit hard.

Quiet conversations bring the moral core of the film emotively to life. One of the most touching scenes revolves around a white lie told to a Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), due to be executed, that his pet mouse known as Mr Jingles would live on as a performing rat in “Mouseville”. It’s a heartwarming moment of genuine human connection, with the man not absolved of his crimes but his humanity, his qualities that exist beyond them recognised. Much of the impact of the moment comes from performances by great actors, this scene marked by genuine warmth shown in actor David Morse’s eyes and a hardly fathomably acted fullness of the joy in Delacroix’s sense of purpose. The authenticity of these performances allows you to see with clarity the almost transcendental impact of respect and tenderness, much more than you see through the drama of the supernatural elements.

You are given, through such moments, a clear presentation of moral good, and the biblical binary of good and evil crucial to the work’s success. Evil is embodied by Percy Wetmore (David Hutchison), a guard who has no empathy and simply possesses a sadism that perceives criminals as monsters. Good is embodied in those that treat people as they are in the moment and avoid prejudice. This microcosm of a small corner of prison shows the importance of extending kindness in your own he small world; to those in this stretch of prison these gestures of humanity are the main things that anyone can give and receive. Despite, however, the seemingly biblical morality, the hand of God is only perceived through John Coffey’s gifts — suggesting that transcendence, beauty, good, evil, the whole mixture of human experience, are purely within us. Stephen King believes in the presence of those two central forces, and the starkness of their presentation here, makes it a brilliantly loyal adaptation and a compelling parable.

A typically sweet moment between Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) and his mouse, Mr Jingles 

Contemporary storytelling was largely taking a different, cynical tack, making this seem an outlier. Anxieties about the state of Western civilisation were being explored in controversial, bleak and critical works throughout the decade, its tail end seeing Fight Club‘s exploration of nihilism, Seven‘s portrayal of pervasive evil and American Beauty’s confused ripping apart of suburbia. American Beauty‘s winning of Best Picture at the Oscars highlights the appetite then for work that tore at the fabric of society, yet that film in particular seems aged and ill-focused. The Green Mile looks at the timeless inner battle of good and evil and, being set historically, strips it of the confused, subjective hand-wringing of the era in which it was made. It might have seemed comparatively twee then but, seeing it from afar, seems bold in its bare, un-self-conscious display of heart.

The heart of the film comes from the passion behind the project, evident not just in the result but on the set. Tom Hanks described himself after filming as having experienced the best atmosphere of any set he’d worked on, and behind the scenes material shows the cast tearing into the read through as if in the midst of filming. It’s an enthusiasm matched by the level of care that could be seen in the crew’s work, too: a particularly memorable aspect is how a whole second unit, meaning a group with its own director, was dedicated purely to filming the mouse Mr Jingles. Meticulous work on every level has resulted in something not simply good but something that is cohesive and alive, that makes you believe in the vision of its creators.

Within this work is the perfect merging of Stephen King and cinema, his strong, humanistic value system and a tear jerking and morally valuable honesty that’s amplified on the screen. It’s a rare sort of film and feels even rarer now in times where there seems to be little room for open hearted cinema, the result of a world where the right wing has a political stranglehold, social divisions are more prominent than in decades and there is no obvious route forward for society without turmoil and hatred. This is a film so driven, in every respect, by emotion, by belief in the overwhelming nature of good, that it would surely seem rare in almost any time. A secular parable driven by such passion that it deserves, even needs, to be appreciated for decades and decades to come.