Thursday, July 7, 2016

Theory Thursday: "The Green Mile" is the Best Stephen King Adaptation

Scene from The Green Mile
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Cell is released June 10.
Theory: The Green Mile is the best Stephen King adaptation.

Tom Hanks
In the pantheon of writers, there are few that are still living that have had their work adapted to film with as much frequency as Stephen King. He's often considered the master of horror thanks to his increasingly vast bibliography that has made for some iconic tales on the page and on screen. While his involvement in the films is often nothing more than source material, there's a certain magic that comes with directors getting his work right. One can look at Carrie, Misery, or Stand By Me and see what I mean. There's a fluidity to the work that goes beyond the basic scares. It works as cinema and sometimes elevates the material to something greater. Of course, he's not shy of being associated with a fair share of duds. Depending on who you ask, majority of King adaptations are garbage. Just take a look at his IMDb page and try to recognize over half of the listed credits. You'll find it nigh impossible unless you are a go getter who is likely to seek it out. In fact, you're probably not even aware that there is a new adaptation out this week called Cell. Depending on how closely you follow King, you probably didn't even hear about "Cell" the first time around (or his new book released last month).

With all of this in mind, I'll have to admit that I generally am curious about the good side of King adaptations. There is something transcendent about it that makes for great cinema. I admit that I haven't seen them all, and there's a few that don't entirely connect with me that I appreciate, like Pet Sematary. Even the recent minseries 11/22/63 is a whole lot of fun. But here comes the hard question: which is the best adaptation? For most, the answer is an immediate hand raise with the words "The Shawshank Redemption." In fact, there is a whole lore around how the films should've beat Forrest Gump at The Oscars that year for Best Picture. Fine. However, I have to admit something: I personally find the film overrated. It's good, but its status as a life-changing movie that features top notch Morgan Freeman voice-over isn't enough for me. It's a good film, and one that definitely warrants some acclaim. However, its status as the highest rated film on IMDb alone makes me feel like going to bat for the other side. It isn't that good.

So, what is that good? In all honesty, there could be titles that I just haven't seen yet that could fit this bill. I could also be accused of choosing a side of King that doesn't have the traditional scare factor. For most, Carrie or The Shining are more plausible answers than what I am about to say. That's fine if you go to King solely for horror. However, I find it impossible to ignore the other Frank Darabont directed adaptation that got a Best Picture nod: The Green Mile. While a tad lengthier and far more bleak, it does reflect a certain ingenuity as a writer that I don't feel like King gets enough credit for. He has been able to add sentimentality to his work, but it has rarely been as conflicting yet wonderful as The Green Mile, which somehow manages to turn death row inmates into allegories for Christ and the Devil while also turning a story that could've easily been about the death penalty into something richer. The theme of the story isn't that torture is cruel so much as it's about the inevitability of death.

Tom Hanks leads the cast as Paul Edgecomb, who works on death row with a variety of police officers. One day an inmate comes in named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) who is slow, large, and accused of killing little girls. Over the course of the film, the story goes on to explore Shaman techniques, a barely plagiarize-avoiding version of "Of Mice and Men," the power of religion, and a murder mystery that only makes the closing act more horrific. Yes, it is a three hour movie, and one that occasionally takes its time getting places. There's a lot going on that is best experienced for the viewer. However, Paul and John's relationship at its core is what drives the film and slowly unveils the value of human life. With John being black in American history, it's impossible to see him getting off Scott free. Yet there's hope that one can escape the inevitable death that lies at the end of the road.

What gives the film an edge over the other adaptations is that it gives justice to the source material while also playing to the story's better strengths. Duncan's performance is so powerful and sympathetic that it becomes hard to see him suffer. The antagonists that surround the story become easier to root against. Most of all, it takes themes that in other stories would be foul (urinary infection, animal murder, elaborate death scenes) and makes them into equally horrifying plot devices as well as profound subtext for the drives of the characters. King has been accused of being too silly and lazy at times, but there's a certain build that is slight enough to sneak up on the viewer as the answers become clearer. John Coffey may be accused of being a simpleton in ways that are cliche, but there's more heart underneath the bad grammar and naivety that makes him feel important. This is key to when the traumatic moments do happen, as we need it in order to believe that Paul's transition into the old man that bookends the film is warranted. It does in so many ways.

One may ask why this holds my interest better than The Shawshank Redemption. It likely comes down to preference, as I feel like the 1994 film has far too simple an approach to the story. There's not really any gut punching moments or any profound sense of complexity. I admit that The Green Mile is far less accessible in that the subject matter is darker and often harder to stomach. However, it paints a far richer picture of what humanity can be in the face of impending death. It's about the people we meet who may never make it to that beach in Mexico. It's about how they make our lives better and defy our expectations simply by giving them a chance to speak. The Green Mile is amazing because of Hanks and Duncan's chemistry and their ability to play more saccharine moments with a sense of earnestness. It makes the ending far more powerful, and the only plus is that the film didn't use the book's exactly ending - which would've been even more of a downer. Most of all, and this is probably the most subjective, the cast is just stronger in The Green Mile.

I don't know how controversial this opinion is necessarily. After all, the film does have plenty of acclaim to its credit. However, I still feel like it gets overlooked in some circles of reflecting the ability for King to be dark and twisted while also extremely complex and humane. I know that it may not reflect his work generally as a writer, but it definitely reflects that he's more than a genre writer. He's able to find humanity within his text that may at times be obvious, but is often presented in ways that are far richer than we give him credit for. Thankfully, Darabont knew how to mine that material for the sentimental moments with some top notch direction and great performances. By the end, it's a film that may not be familiarly assuring, but is one that makes you speculate on the value of life and what it means to be cruel and judgmental. Yes, it may at times be an on-the-nose Jesus Christ metaphor, but you're likely never going to see one as genuinely compelling as John Coffey. There's so much to love about this film that I doubt one week's Theory Thursday will do it justice. Still, I doubt any adaptation of his work will be as emotional, disgusting, violent, and heartfelt as this. Good luck finding it.

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