King takes the throne, flanked by Darabont and Hanks

The 189-minute mile

Being adapted from six Stephen King novels meant the film could never really be made for under three hours. Still, it took little persuading for director Frank Darabont to take on another Stephen King prison movie – even though it had been five years since the last film, The Shawshank Redemption. And it took no time for Tom Hanks to get on board the movie. Here they reveal how it all came together.

TEXT IAN SPELLING From Film Review April 2000

How could a six-part series of novels be transformed into something appropriately cinematic? Frank Darabont, the writer and director of the multi-Oscar-nominated film version of Stephen King’s best-selling serialized The Green Mile, smiles a cat-that-got-the-cream smile.

“We’ve got dancing mice, mice that do tricks,” begins the film-maker, who earned his reputation with his landmark production of The Shawshank Redemption, which was also based on a King story. “We’ve got electric chairs. We’ve got people’s heads blowing up. We’ve got Tom Hanks trying to pee. What’s not to like? What’s not to be cinematic?”

In a way, it’s difficult to see Darabont taking the subject of death row seriously. “Ultimately, what I find most thrilling about movies is when I get to watch two actors on screen delivering really chewy dialogue.” You have to assume this is a good thing. “There’s nothing you can blow up enough, no giant lizard awesome enough to out-do two superb actors acting and talking. I love good dialogue in a movie. So that, to me, is the most cinematic thing.”

Darabont worked on The Green Mile script and condensed the serial novel into a viable screenplay in just eight weeks – more of less the same length of time it took him to write his adaptation The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont worked with the image of Hanks as the film’s main character, Paul Edgecomb, running through his brain. Edgecomb is the head death row guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, home to a group of destined-to-die inmates and their guards, whose lives are forever changed by the arrival of two men, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a hulking black man convicted of the brutal murders of two young girls, and William Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a twisted man whose presence unnerves even the most hardened men in the cell block.

“The character [of Edgecomb] demanded a sense of integrity and decency that Tom, beyond being a great actor, oozes through his pores,” notes Darabont. “I try not to picture casting while I’m writing, but it happened with Tom and a good half-dozen members of this cast. I sent Tom the script once it was done and he committed within 48 hours, which was like hitting the ball over the fence for me. The fact that I got the rest of this cast was like winning the lottery...”

Hanks himself had not read the King books. He corroborates Darabont’s story about his quick commitment to the project. “It came to me white-hot, off the presses, the way things do sometimes in show business,” notes Hanks, the Oscar-winning star of Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, Philadelphia and many others that make him the biggest character actor in Hollywood.

“It’s undeniably an incredibly unique thing and I couldn’t believe they were going to make it. The story, on paper, was just fabulous. If part of your job is to try to go off and do things that are unique, then this was it. I was afraid to read the original novels, thinking that Frank would have cut corners and made changes just to make it fit into the confines of a movie. But I found that to be the opposite case. Frank distilled it down perfectly.

“With Stephen King, you think you’re going to get this very particular brand of horror story, and this is really not that,” Hanks adds. “This is more like a mystery than anything else, not unlike the better aspect of The Shawshank Redemption. I’m usually a great stickler for turning things down because I don’t understand why the [characters] are doing what they’re doing. With Paul Edgecomb, the logic is perfect.”

Image copyright: UIP
Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2000. Not for reproduction.

King of the Prison World

Author Stephen King on his latest movie adaptation

When the final chapter of The Green Mile series hit US stores on September 9, 1997 (subtitled Coffey on the Mile), Stephen King did something most authors can dream of: all six books were in the Publisher’s Weekly national best-seller list.

The original story involved a black inmate named Luke Coffey, a magician whose secret powers could possibly be used to make himself a disappear before walking the Mile. King soon changed his conception of the character and his “idea for a story became The Green Mile. I just hope I wouldn’t run out of inspiration before it was done. In a lot of ways, dealing with John Coffey was a difficult thing to do. Here is a man on Death Row who may be innocent, who is able to help some of his fellow captives. That was the basic idea of the story.

“When The Green Mile was published, nobody had attempted a serial novel in the US since the Twenties. When the first episode, The Two Dead Girls was going on sale, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.’ Nobody had any idea that it would succeed to the level it did, least of all me.

“In a story which is published in instalments, you cannot flip ahead and see how matters turn out. That is an appeal that I suspect only the writer of suspense tales and spooky stories can fully appreciate.”

Get the whole feature and Film of the Month coverage of The Green Mile
in the April 2000 issue of Film Review

The Green Mile • Film of the Month Review here

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