Frank Darabont's The Green Mile is flawless. In a recent interview, one of its stars, Barry Pepper (soon to be famous, just short of being handsome, pinched and clever, like a sort of James Dean after a forceps delivery via his nose) spoke of Darabont's directorial precision, his vigilant calculations, his conscientious lens.
Darabont's film is balanced and well-acted. There is nothing obviously wrong with it, or nothing a studio executive could get nervous about, anyway - it touches every note and straddles any number of demographics. And yet, The Green Mile is a perfect dud. It takes its shape like a brilliantly told and super-elaborate lie. And, although it's a Stephen King adaptation, it is not frightening; it's frightened.
The story goes like this. Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) is a head guard on Death Row at a penitentiary in America's South during the Depression. The "Green Mile" itself is the stretch of cells that house condemned killers. They are never full - the inmates are quickly electrocuted by what is surely the nicest bunch of prison guards in the world. Edgecomb is reasonable and thoughtful, as are his three assistants, and his boss is a peach (this role is played by James Cromwell, who rattled audiences by following his famous turn as the soft-hearted Farmer Hoggitt in Babe with a string of films in which he corrupted entire police forces, and didn't cry when his daughter was murdered). There is one nasty guard, but he's greasy and nervous and small and we all know he's going straight to hell when he dies, so we're never properly bothered by him, however much Darabont hopes we might be.
One day, an enormous black prisoner (Michael Clarke Duncan, Oscar nominated for his performance) joins the Mile. He is a convicted rapist and murderer, but seems awfully nice. And magic, but I won't tell you how, because if you will insist on seeing this film, these moments are the only ones that thrill.
I'm less interested in Darabont (who also made The Shawshank Redemption, a film that people speak about as they might a friend who moved to Bangkok three years ago - lovingly, although they can't quite remember why) than I am in Stephen King. He is a cultural figure larger than a mere director or producer. He is the most popular writer in the world. Can you say that of any practitioner of any other art? Any actor, any singer, any film-maker? Spielberg, perhaps. People at this level of appeal - Dickens, Disney, Chaplin - are practitioners of myth. King's myth is America.
Do you remember the sheriff and his wife in Rob Reiner's vulnerable and comic adaptation of Misery? Just little cameos, but done with such love. That wasn't Reiner, that was King - making the ordinary feel admirable. You'd have to go back to Frank Capra to find the same unpatronising sureness of touch. Praising the ordinary is the ultimate affirmation of the whole culture.
King likes to tell stories about the year the family holidayed down by the lake and found something buried by someone on the run from the town elders, circa 1700. …