King's Highway pt. 21: King Goes to Prison

(Updated 9/4/2012: RIP, Michael Clarke Duncan. Here are a couple of fine tributes.)

I've talked to a lot of King fans since starting this project. If there is a consensus among them as to "favorite King work," it is most likely The Stand. If you're talking to non-King fans, however, or those who know his work mainly through the many adaptations for the screen, Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is the favorite by a wide margin.

Many don't even realize it's based on a work of King's:

The movie omits the "Rita Hayworth" part of the title, but yep, it sure is.
Shawshank even pops up on Top Ten Best American Films lists, sometimes snagging the number-one spot away from The Godfather or Casablanca. Does it belong there? Who can say? (Well, if you're asking me, no, it's not the best American film ever made, but who can say with any of those lists...) Arguably, though, sure - it's a powerful story with some terrific performances and an epic perspective. (And Morgan Freeman narrates it, even.)

That it's more or less the same exact story on the page as it is on the screen says a lot for King's uncanny instinct for what the masses want to see/ hear/ read.
(Another list where it would sit comfortably is Top Ten Best Break-Up Films For Guys. I don't mean something like Swingers or any film that comments explicitly on "the break-up from the guy's point of view." It has been my experience these films (usually) do little for the emotional reality of a guy going through a break-up. But something like this - or Stalag 17, Sorcerer, The Great Escape, Master and Commander, or, my personal favorite go-to-for-such-an-occasion...

I have a film to go with most "life events."
... - which features a mostly male cast in a tight, restricted space, having to surmount or withstand some difficulty that fits easily as a metaphor for trauma or past-adversity, and whammo, emotional catharsis, guy-style. (A few others? Die Hard 2 - though the husband/wife reunion at the end is no good, for these purposes - or The Edge.) Everyone's got their own. I don't mean to make too much of this, just saying; it fits the profile.)

This film is on cable every other weekend. I'd gotten used to seeing the sanitized-for-TV version, so when I re-read the novella, I thought there was a lot more prison-rape than I recalled and figured 'Oh, they just took that out for the movie.'

But nope it's all in there. Thankfully, not graphically, a la Oz or American History X - two very different "prison genre" examinations - but dealt with squarely.
The film and its plot have been recounted a hundred times and by far better critics than myself. (Here's a good review, and, actually, here's a better or at least more-focused / less McMeander-y side-by-side examination of Shawshank and The Green Mile, though the pic-captions kind of annoy me in that latter one.) I guess Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins were both legitimate movie stars by this point, but this film certainly helped cement their positions in Hollywood.

Of the two, I'd say Morgan Freeman has capitalized on its success a bit better.
"Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side."
Both actors have given so many iconic performances over the years that it's difficult to pinpoint their respective best. But if someone said it was Shawshank, I wouldn't argue. Incidentally, this:

is the only film where this shot is acceptable. Are you listening, world? The "arms outstretched, face up to rain, overhead shot" thing, I mean. Anything before 1994, okay, well, you're off the hook; anything after 1994 and you are in grievous violation. Let's adopt this as an across-the-board rule. Hire Lucasfilm editors to digitally alter every post-Shawshank movie that violates this moratorium.

"That's where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory." (Re: Mexico, in the novel/movie. Tho' as a father-to-be, this is how I picture my little 9-weeks-on baby at the moment. Not in a prison-yard. In a warm place with no memory. i.e. Wombsville. Enjoy it while it lasts, Spacebaby!)
The passage that chokes most people up when they watch this movie (myself included) is spoken by Red (Morgan Freeman) towards the end:

"Sometimes it makes me sad, though... Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend..."

I always find it interesting to compare how dialogue is changed from page to screen, particularly when the change is slight. Here's the corresponding passage from the novella:

"We’re glad he’s gone, but a little sad, too. Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure."

Both the film and the novella do a good job of showing the passage of time without drawing too much attention to it, mainly via the progression of pin-up posters: Rita Hayworth (40s) to Marilyn Monroe (50s) to Raquel Welch (60s). I guess "Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch and the Shawshank Redemption" is too unwieldy of a title, though it should be noted both Ms. Monroe and Ms. Welch perform the same service for the plot.

One last bit of dialogue, as I think it gets to the heart of what the story is trying to tell us, in some ways: "There’s a crying shortage of pretty things in the slam, and the real pity of it is that a lot of men don’t even seem to miss them." It's interesting to compare this to John Coffey (from The Green Mile)'s rationale for wanting to leave this earth:
It's about more than just that, of course, just as The Green Mile is about more than the crippling weight of ignored cruelty and violence in the world, but I wanted to set the two quotes beside one another.

Morgan Freeman is not in The Green Mile, but he is profiled in the August 2012 issue of Esquire, (where, incidentally, pt. 2 of SK's collaboration with his son, Joe Hill, can be found; a good review of it here) and the beginning of that profile is worth bringing up here:

They call Morgan Freeman The Magical Negro, which is one hateful trope. The Magical Negro is a white man’s narrative chestnut, a stereotype, in which a black character – often socially powerless, physically infirm or disabled, overly humble – provides comfort to a white protagonist by helping him discover who he truly is. Obama gets The Magical Negro tag from time to time. Freeman more so.”

First off, wow, Obama? Obama is totally not a candidate for TMN. If someone is silly enough to "tag" Obama as a savior, an anti-Christ, or a Magical Negro, that's not my business, but it's certainly Chris-Matthews-class-embarrassing. So, putting Our Fearless Leader aside to one side, is this a fair definition of the "hateful trope?" Sure, I think it's a fair enough description. Something to be aware of, the same way an awareness of anything discussed over at tvtropes can enliven one's media literacy. 

Don't trope me, boy...
But is it hateful? It is dehumanizing, sure. (Even that seems extreme, to me.) But hateful? As in "done in the service of hate?" I'm of the opinion we have devalued actual racism and hate by decrying things as such when they might not actually be that way. I am reminded of a Hebrew phrase - Mitoch Shelo Lishma Ba Lishma - which translates loosely (loose I'll-take-your-word-for-it translations are all a Non-Hebrew-speaker like myself has to work with) as do something good for the wrong reason and eventually you'll do it for the right reason. (i.e. "Better to do the right thing, for the right reasons, but meh, if you want to treat all black people as magical angels from whom the white man can only learn how to be a better person, then at least that's better than (fill in the blank).")

Ironic, tho, that the author of this Esquire piece, Tom Chiarella, (a white guy, for the record) who just described TMN-syndrome as "a hateful trope," keeps the trope alive-and-well-fed in this next passage:

"And in some ways, you can see why. Freeman taught half a generation of white kids on The Electric Company in the seventies. He drove Miss Daisy, saved – and was later saved by – the pasty Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, played a friendly God for Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell and spirit guide to Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List, and won an Academy Award as a battered corner-man for Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby. This summer he returns as the soft-spoken, benighted corporate front-man for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in the third Batman installment. In some ways, then, the Magical Negro lives."

Okay, here's where he loses me completely, and where so much of -ism thinking loses me completely.  These roles he lists are only TMN roles when seen from a certain point of view; in fact, you have to reduce all black people to a set of circumstances that is wholly determined by white people to even apply this definition to any of the aforementioned roles. Never mind that this is done (allegedly) in order to defy said discrimination; it achieves the same result as discriminating in the first place. I doubt very much Tim Robbins or Tom Hanks would have his filmography viewed through that lens, and it makes about as much sense to do so for Freeman's, here. So, rather than one of America's most respected actors embodying all the varied and story-specific roles mentioned above, Mr. Chiarella sees only one thing.

Ergo, Note to All Black Actors: All you can be is The Magical Negro, even when you're cast as GOD. 

Or, in Michael Clarke Duncan's case here in The Green Mile, when you're cast as "Jesus" aka John Coffey.
I get that Morgan Freeman, as an African-American in a country with a complicated history and legacy of racial tension and discrimination, is subject to different forces / lead-ins for a profile; I suggest that by doing it the way it is done here that it still imposes a "white-determined" identity. * Many -isms do. You are attached to what you attack. I'm reminded of what Jeff Winger said in an episode of Community: "I think not-being-racist is the new racist."

* For what it's worth, here's Morgan Freeman's interview with Mike Wallace re: "How do we move past racism?" His answer: "Stop talking about it." i.e. maybe stop imposing it as a default position.

(Also, "taught half a generation of white kids on The Electric Company?" Really? That is at the very least an overstatement of both Freeman's time on Electric Company and his character's impact on "half a generation of white kids." Not that he wasn't fun on there.)

I go on at length like this for two reasons: 1) My objection to this type of approach, what I call the -ism approach, is that it is backwards. I don't object to the politics of it; I object to its inefficiency as a means of artistic / social criticism. It privileges a "correct conclusion" over actual analysis/ what the story actually offers. It's like diving into a pool with something in your hand, staying underwater for a few, then breaking the surface and waving your hand about excitedly. Look what I found at the bottom of the pool! Well, holy duh, you only found what you brought in with you. 2) The Green Mile can be seen almost as a deconstruction of TMN-syndrome, on so many levels, so this seemed appropriate. But also, I mean, what do you do when the story is about a magical black man? The approach described seems to suggest skin color and the sensitivity of its audience should determine to whom the writer assigns what part, etc. (A position I do not agree with)

So what do we have here? A religious parable? Partly. An ironic-deconstruction of TMN-syndrome? Perhaps. Condemnation of racism and/or capital punishment? Sure. A compelling jailhouse drama? Certainly. An overview of the full scope of a person's existence, with all the poison, all the pudding, all the triumph/tragedy? Yes, all of these things and more. The most succinct-yet-comprehensive review of this story I've seen is here: "A wealth of plot, a mix between the real and the mystical, excellent characters." Amen! One hundred percent. And accessible to all. (In case you were wondering.)

The book is even sadder than the film, primarily because the language is so absorbing. So many lines hit me, I wouldn't know where to start. GoodReads collects most of them.

Paul: On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and he asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?
Often overlooked when thinking about the life of JC is how much pain was involved with seeing the full breadth of human betrayal and cruelty, not being able to filter it out the way we mere-mortals can. (We have to by necessity, I suppose; only madmen and saints see us for what we truly are, or are capable of being, at any time.)

The dilemma faced by the guards - put rather well in the book as "I've done plenty of things in my life that were bad, but this is the first thing I ever did where I'm worried about going to Hell" - is examined very well. And even though you accept that putting JC out of his misery is both inevitable and also a kind of kindness, given his world-weariness and anguish, it still stings. As does the last line: "We each owe a death — there are no exceptions. But, oh God, sometimes the Green Mile seems so long."

It's not a perfect story, but it's perfect enough. I can easily see it being the King book future generations read in school. (If they read any - the classroom presence of popular novelists is never assured.)

A couple words on casting. This marks the third King project for both Bill Sadler

who's been in Star Trek, Bill and Ted, Disturbing Behavior, Die Hard, you name it.
and David Morse

and the fourth for actor Jeff DeMunn:

I had a slight problem with Sam Rockwell's being cast as Wild Bill, if only because Sam Rockwell brings a certain likeability to any role he plays. And given what we discover about Wild Bill, I didn't want to like anything about him. He does his usual excellent-job, of course, I'm just saying.

I was working at Waldenbooks the year these came out, and I set up many a display of these... King has always had some fun with publishing in different formats, and this was published in 5 slim paperbacks, serial-style, before being collected in one volume.
Mr. Jingles.
Thanks for reading.


  1. Also: we here at Dog Star Omnibus, Inc. would like to wish a full and speedy recovery to Michael Clarke Duncan, who had a heart attack on Friday and whose life was saved thanks to the quick administration of CPR by girlfriend Omarosa Stallworth.

    1. Alas, wasn't in the cards, as updated above. Godspeed, MCD.

  2. You echo my thoughts on the subject of The Magical Negro. I have, at various time in my life, been a casual Spike Lee fan, but he got close to losing me completely when he railed against John Coffey in "The Green Mile" on the grounds that the character was a racist depiction.

    Now, bear in mind, I say that as a thoroughly white person. I have no idea what it's like to be a black person. I suspect that it is quite similar to being a white person -- or a Latino, or a Cherokee, or what have you -- in most regards, but I'm sure there are some considerable experiential differences. I'd imagine they are better in some ways, and worse in some ways. My point is to say that I don't know what's it's like to be Spike Lee growing up. I suspect that in a lot of ways, he probably had it worse than I did. He probably heard a lot of ignorant things, said by a lot of ignorant people, and maybe it made him a little touchy.

    If so, well, I can't say I blame him.

    But there IS such a thing as overreaction, and I think it's an overreaction to disparage "The Green Mile" on the grounds that it features a racist depiction in the form of John Coffey. I'd imagine that even a lot of genuine racists have shed secret tears when that big old loveable simpleton meets his fate.

    I'm not sure that equates to being a bad thing in any way.

    (Semi-amusing side note: I work in a movie theatre, and once had a very testy interaction with a grumpy old fart who complained about "The Green Mile" on the grounds that it was an anti-death-penalty movie. THAT was a fun night at work...)

  3. haha - I can imagine re: that cinema patron.

    I like some of Spike Lee's stuff, but he's just made such an ass of himself, particularly on these topics, so often that it's tough to keep giving him the benefit of the doubt. (Also, he's too hit-or-miss with his movies, for my taste. I enjoyed Clockers a lot - I think that was the last one, though, for me personally.) Like you say, hey, I'm sure he's had some experiences that shape his rather-segregationist, when you get down to it, philosophies, but there's such a thing, too, of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I appreciate your commenting on that. Always a sensitive topic, but I feel strongly that that sort of 'ism thinking obscures understanding. Some people can only see Magical Negroes or White Privilege or what not, regardless of the topic (or author's intent/ cultural context) and it drives me insane. And that Esquire article was so ass-headed I had to comment on it at length. (Perhaps too lengthy, I dunno) But Whew.

    The Green Mile is such a touching story; it's a shame some people can't see the forest for the trees, on that one.

    1. Yeah, I found that Esquire piece on Freeman to be just generally horrible. It makes Freeman sound like a complete prick. Which, to be fair, he may actually be; but I don't want to be thinking that during "The Dark Knight Rises"!