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Try walking a mile in his shoes
The Green Mile - Stephen King
Member Name: SWSt
The Green Mile - Stephen King
Advantages: Superbly written, addictive structure to story, emotional reading
Disadvantages: "Narration" slightly too polished, overly simplistic view of life
The Green Mile was one of Stephen King's "experiments", written and published in serial form, like one of the old Charles Dickens novels. It also represents one of his best books - certainly of his more recent output.
For those of you who have seen neither the film nor the book, here's the plot: a strange, giant of a black man is convicted of raping and murdering two children in 1930s America. Whilst awaiting his fate on Death Row, the guards on his prison block begin to realise that there is something very special about their latest prisoner.
The Green Mile is a superbly structured and well paced book. It is full of surprises and plot developments come thick and fast. The idea of publishing the novel in serial form really pays off and is not just a gimmick. It forces King to keep the pace up throughout the novel, building in regular cliff-hangers and tense and dramatic situations to keep you hooked. King really uses the format to maximum effect, building characters and plotlines to a crescendo before dropping a stunning revelation... and ending the part. It makes for very compulsive reading.
I only ever read the story in the collected edition, but I can well imagine the anxious wait for the next part to find out how the cliff-hanger is resolved. Surprisingly, the book works equally well as a complete novel or as a serial. The reader has the choice: either read it all in a chunk (which you'll almost certainly be tempted to do, given the dramatic nature of the book), or you can read it as it was originally intended and ration yourself to a new part every so often.
But it's not just about the dramatic tension. For all its subject matter, this is probably King's most human and emotional book to date. There are parts of it which are genuinely moving; parts which will make you think and parts of it will make you laugh out loud. It is, in fact, a microcosm of life. As you read the book, you will find all sorts of emotions racing through your mind: anger, sorrow, joy and misery. When you finally reach the end, you may find yourself emotionally drained - not something you would normally expect from a King book.
Much of the story is told in flashbacks and these are particularly well integrated. Too often flashbacks are introduced in a clumsy, stupid way - something along the lines of "he sat back and his thoughts drifted to those events 30 years ago". Here, King carefully integrates them into the whole narrative of the novel, making them an essential and natural part of the whole story. It's a surprisingly simple devise, but one which works incredibly well in the context of the book.
In terms of writing, King surpasses himself. He's always been strong when it comes to conveying horror, death and suffering, so it's no surprise when his imagination runs riot in this regard. What is more surprising is that he imbues the text with such colour and emotion. One or two more gruesome elements aside, this is probably King's most accessible book for non-horror fans, yet will still satisfy his army of long-standing readers. His style and language perfectly match the pacing of the plot and add to the compulsion to read on.
This, however, is one area where the first criticism of the book creeps in. The elderly narrator Paul Edgcombe, by his own admission, is no writer - just someone who is writing his memoirs before it is too late. Sometimes, King's prose is actually a little too polished, a little too perfect to capture this idea. Sentences are too well constructed and too ideas too well-formed to capture the idea of an "amateur" writing. It's perhaps ironic that an author who has been dogged throughout his career by accusations of "poor writing" from certain quarters is now being criticised for being a little too good!
The Green Mile is populated by interesting, human characters. For the most part, they are likeable and sympathetic. This makes it easy to understand their actions and motives and to identify with their hopes and fears, no matter how "unbelievable" the plot gets. In particular, the two main characters - prison officer (and narrator) Paul Edgcombe and convicted murderer John Coffey are both very well developed during the course of the book. Edgcombe especially becomes very familiar to us, as we hear his inner thoughts throughout his narration.
This is where the second and perhaps more severe criticism of the book comes: the characters are very black and white and rather stereotypical. There are only really two nasty people, everyone else is "nice"; even most of the convicted murderers. The Green Mile has no room for shades of grey and tired old clichés abound, giving a rather simplistic view of life and human nature in particular.
Some readers may find the overall tone of the book a little depressing and miserable. Yet, whilst there are plenty of instances of genuine sadness and grief, there are also some genuinely amusing or uplifting episodes to counter-balance this. This mix of emotions is what makes the book work so well and make it such a riveting read. At the end of the day, happy or sad, it's a damn good read.
If you've only seen the film it's definitely worth reading the book, which offers a much richer experience. Whilst the film is a very faithful adaptation, the book has more time to explore the central themes in more depth. The characters are better developed and more time can be devoted to some of the sub-plots. In particular, the book's ending is far more satisfying (at least to my mind) than the one in the film, adding an even greater emotional punch to an already strong story. It's a far greater reflection of real life and better suits the slightly sombre, wistful tone of the rest of the tale.
Surprisingly deep and moving, accessible to new and established readers alike, The Green Mile is one of King's best creations. Don't be put off by its considerable length, get out there and read it today!
The Green Mile
Gollancz, 2008 (most recent edition)
Various editions available from Amazon from used from 1p to new for about £8.
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Summary: One of King's best and a good starting point for new readers