Stephen King/The Green Mile

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The Green Mile (1996)

More or less as a challenge, Stephen King published this story as a serial in six parts. Just as in Charles Dickens's time, the story has been crafted while the book is already in production (and in some places is shows). In keeping with the serial concept, the first edition consists of six thin cheap paperbacks that were sold in stores, gas stations and lots of places to reach the largest possible audience, including people that normally don't read books.

The basic plot concerns some people in a prison ward. "The green mile" is the stretch from the cells where the prisoners live to the execution room a bit off. The main characters are three people on death row and their warders. The book has a clear narrative voice belonging to Paul Edgecombe, one of the warders. The story takes place in the 1930s, but there is also a framing plot where Paul is an old man in a nursing home, trying to exorcise the ghosts of his past by writing.

The three prisoners all come to the prison at about the same time. The one that the store centers aroung is John Coffey, a gigantic negro who is convicted of raping and killing two small girls. He is noticed, partly because of his size, but also for his strange behaviour. He seems barely intelligent enough to be able to eat by himself, but in spite of that he's supposed to have lured the girls away from their home while eluding the watchdog. He's also one of the calmest and mildest prisoners the warders have ever seen. The other two prisoners are more like one expects them to be. One is small and cowardly, the other tough and boasting, claiming to be a modern Billy the kid.

Over time, the warders realize that there is something special with John Coffey. In spite of his lack of intelligence he has some special power.

Overall this is a well-written story. What creates problems is the format. Sometimes it is obvious that the physical format imposed on the story with 90 pages per part (a little more in the last part) has forced King to pad the story a bit here and there to get enough pages in each part and still get a cliffhanger at the end of each part. It sure is exciting at times, but the blurb's claim "Stephen King's boldest exercise in terror" is a great exaggeration. It's never a question of unbearable excitment. Of course one wants to know how it'll end, but there's no hurry. The developments at the end are not a great surprise, and it feels a bit as if the air is let out of the book at the end. A real conclusion is missing. As it is the book just ends. The writing is good, though.

After its first publication, The Green Mile has been published in one volume. Since the first edition contains a bit where the narrator speaks directly to the reader, I guess that the story might have been slightly rewritten for later editions.

Adapted into a feature film in 1999 by Frank Darabont (who also directed), starring Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecombe and Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey.