Meet John Coffey. His size alone could scare you right out of your shoes, even if you didn’t know the reason he was on death row. But stick around. John Coffey has a special gift.
This book series, however, is about Paul Edgecomb, an ordinary man with an extraordinary story.
Only author Stephen King, known for his fantastically ghoulish main characters, could write a tale that first introduces you to a convicted child rapist and murderer, and later reveals someone else to be the monster.
The movie The Green Mile has long been one of my favorites, and I often wondered how more strange it would be–the discovery of Coffey’s unique ability–experiencing it first through the book. I finally read it (the whole series in one paperback) early last year, and had my answer.
That particular moment is indeed more strange. Inexplicable, really, how cell block chief Paul would even allow himself to be put in the situation he found himself in. Reckless and unprofessional, no matter how big a heart he had. The movie made what happened out to be fairly benign, but the book made it appear a quite perverted encounter. At first. I could see people putting the book down at that point, never to be picked up again, while those still reading see the story continue for a bit like the incident never even happened. When it is finished, though, Paul is fine. Better, in fact, than he was previously, noticeably missing one nasty urinary infection.
Then, you meet the mouse. The critter is quite the supporting actor on the big screen, but in the series has a whole book named for him. I found myself wondering why it gave so much more attention to the little guy, and frankly, I grew tired of reading about it. But I soon realized: The mouse and John Coffey are the same, figuratively speaking. A circus act, and to most observers, nothing more. To the heartless, merely a nuisance. Not even a life. Something to be squashed.
Slowly, you get to know the other convicts on the Mile, and read the first of them receiving his ride on the white lightning, “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. You are taken through the steps of a humane execution–that is to say, the way it is supposed to be done. Even if you are no fan of the death penalty, the first execution leaves you with no particular sense of loss or regret. The next three men in line, however, shake you to your core, and leave you questioning everything you understand about justice.
Eduard Delacroix is a man in pain. He has lost his way, and found himself on death row for a vengeful act that went way too far and exceeded even his own intentions. Yet somehow he appears to be a gentle man, and befriends the famous mouse, affectionately naming him Mr. Jingles.
Del’s opposite in every way, William Wharton is a sociopath, taking advantage everywhere and every way that he can. It doesn’t even matter why he is on death row–this one, at least, belongs there.
You meet the other guards who work with Paul, including the inscrutable Percy Whetmore, who bullies his colleagues and prisoners, but meets his match in Billy Wharton. Percy is working the Mile because he wants to see firsthand just one execution, and he has connections. Strings would be pulled to make him the lead on Delacroix’s.
But not before he executes Del’s heart: Mr. Jingles would be crushed.
Enter John Coffey.
I couldn’t help it, boss. I tried to take it back, but it was too late.
That was taken as Coffey’s confession to his crime before he came to the Mile, but he had already “taken something back” from Paul, and he takes it back from the mouse, as well. Ultimately, only Percy’s pride and comprehension were crushed, as Mr. Jingles joyously runs back into Del’s loving hands.
Del, however, soon sees his sentence fulfilled. With Percy in charge, he in fact “sees” far too much of it. While Del’s crime was unspeakable, his own final moments were a thousand times worse.
After Paul witnesses Coffey’s gift, he begins to wonder how such a blessed man could commit such a horrible crime. He reads about it, investigates it, and is left with serious doubts. But Coffey is no less a convict, and a dead man walking. No matter what he begins to think, Paul Edgecomb can’t change that. He does, however, change what he can, with Coffey’s help. His friend and boss, prison warden Hal Moore, is losing his wife to cancer, and Paul tries to see, one more time, what he has seen twice before: If John Coffey can take it back. This time, though, it means sneaking John off the Mile, and out of the prison, temporarily. Which also means briefly incapacitating the crazy man Wharton and the ever-present, self-important Percy.
William Wharton’s antics help him escape the chair, but not his execution. His death is much more appropriate in the movie than in the book. Click here if you want to know the difference. The password is: TELLME
Percy receives his own punishment for being a ruthless advantage-taker himself. The Mile is finally free of him, and has just one last prisoner awaiting his fate. Despite the miracles he has performed, including the latest with the warden’s wife, John Coffey is executed. But his execution is one that brings tears to the eyes of his new friends. It will likely bring them to yours, too.
While long for a movie, the film must necessarily cut significant portions of the books from which it was born. What is lost in The Green Mile film is the elaborate end of the final book, which explains the eventual deaths of all of the other main characters, including some by illness, some by accident, and one by murder. Paul’s wife meets a horrific end on the road after passing through Birmingham. These explanations allow you to feel less sorry for John Coffey and the taking of his life, because he was content near the end: He knew exactly when he was going to die, how he was going to die, where he would be, who would be with him when it happened, and had time to make peace with it. He was ready. How many of us will be as fortunate?
The series’ final book returns to Paul as an old man, telling his story to a friend in a nursing home in which they both reside. To allay her disbelief, he takes her to meet a miraculous mouse.
There, inside a tool shack up a hill nearby, they are discovered by Brad Dolan, a worker at the home who finds a sick pleasure in tormenting Paul, and probably others. When Brad comes upon him and his friends, Paul fears Mr. Jingles will suffer the same cruel fate he had years ago with Percy.
Dolan considers the elderly, and Paul in particular, a nuisance. Not even a life. Something to be squashed. Which makes Paul and the mouse the same. Which makes Paul and John Coffey the same. Except Paul doesn’t possess John’s magic:
And this time there was no John Coffey to bring him back from the edge of death. Any more than there had been a John Coffey when I needed him on that rainy day in Alabama.
That is ultimately Paul’s punishment–and the punishment for the rest of the world–for killing a blessing from God. People continue to die, and we are left wondering just how many John Coffey could have saved. He could have taken it back, but now it’s too late. He can’t help it.
The Green Mile presents two trios of characters: The villains Wharton, Percy, and Brad Dolan, who reflect each other’s disgusting treatment of others, and heroes Paul, John, and the mouse, who can do incredible things but are powerless, ultimately, against death. But because the mouse lives an unfathomably long life, Paul can only wonder how long he will have to witness death until his own day finally comes. How many more will he see buried before him?