STEPHEN KING has made a career of creating genre fiction, mostly horror. He is amazingly prolific and wildly popular, and while I wouldn't say any one of his books is a masterpiece, I do believe he is a great writer. Even when his stories are stupid and predictable, the writing elevates it into something more, something readable and surprising and fun. This is why so many of his books turn into crappy movies: The process of adapting his books for the screen condenses them into pure story, and takes the best part -- his writing -- out of the picture. The ones that work best (The Shining, Carrie) work because there is a director with his own visual style and cinematic language. The ones that don't work at all fail because of inexperienced directors, or from being too prosaically faithful to the source material.

Frank Darabont's The Green Mile fails partly because it is too faithful to Stephen King's story, but mostly because Darabont is a bland director without style. Set in a present day nursing home, Paul Edgecomb (Dabbs Greer) recalls the pivotal moment in his life, which happened during the Depression, when he looked like Tom Hanks and was in charge of a prison's death row.

The bulk of this three-hour movie is his flashback, which is the movie's first and biggest missed opportunity. Darabont, who adapted the story for the screen, never questions Edgecomb's memory, never acknowledges that the bulk of the film is a story within a story. A director with vision would have found ways to stylize the period, to give subtle clues that we are watching reconstructed events, not the events as they "really" happened. But Darabont has no such vision. Instead of raising questions about the veracity of the story or leaving ambiguity in the characters, Darabont ploddingly and methodically tells the story, leaving no room for surprise. Admittedly, that is a flaw in the book as well, but the book has King's magical writing ability for support. The movie has only the story, which takes big subjects like capital punishment, violence, and racism, and simplifies them to the point where you don't even have to think about 'em. What's the fun in that?

The characters in the film are equally simplistic: Everybody is either a good guy or a bad guy. Most of the guards are good guys, respectable men of their word. Most of the prisoners are good guys, too -- mainly because they act responsibly, and we never find out what crimes they committed. Into each group bad seeds are thrown. The guards have to deal with Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), a mean-spirited little man who likes to torture prisoners for no reason and gets away with it because he has connections in high places. The gentlemanly prisoners have to deal with William "Wild Bill" Wharton (Sam Rockwell), an unruly killer who spits and pisses and doesn't respect the civilized rules of death-row prison life. Into all of their lives comes John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) -- a very large black man convicted of killing two little white girls -- who is actually a gentle giant, able to lay hands on people and heal them.

The best -- and only good part -- of the movie comes courtesy of Gary Sinese, who plays the public defender assigned to defend Coffey. When asked if he thinks Coffey committed the murders, he tells the story of a favorite dog of his, a gentle dog, who attacked his son for no reason, blinding him in one eye and nearly killing him. The point of the story is, no matter how gentle a dog -- or a Negro -- may seem, there is always the potential of violence for absolutely no reason. In a movie that strives to be so politically correct, it was surprising to see the casual racism of the period, the unapologetic dehumanization of the black man. In fact, it was the only surprise in this dull, boring, and predictable film that will most likely win a ton of Oscars.

(For the record, to amuse myself during this terribly long movie, I imagined every character was played by a 13-year-old, à la Bugsy Malone. It worked much better.)

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