EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Law & Crit, Take 2: "The Green Mile" & The Death Penalty

I can vividly remember the announcement of Stephen King trying his hand at the serialized novel with "The Green Mile" back in 1996. Two things especially excited me about the announcement. Back in grade school, I had done a report about the invention of the cliffhanger. In those pre-internet days, I remember the joy I experienced upon uncovering the needle in the Dewey Decimal system when I learned that the original cliffhanger was an actual cliffhanger: Thomas Hardy published "A Pair of Blue Eyes" in serialized fashion in Tinsley's Magazine from 1872-1873, and, at the end of one serial, Hardy chose to leave one of the main protagonists, Henry Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite. I wanted to see the master of horror tackle the format.

Second, my favorite Stephen King book was "Different Seasons." "Different Seasons" was actually a collection of four Stephen King novellas, and part of the reason that I think I liked it the most was that it was the most cinematic of King's works. Indeed, three of the novellas were eventually turned into pretty good movies: "The Body" became the Rob Reiner classic, "Stand by Me," "Apt Pupil" became Bryan Singer's creepy movie of the same name, and "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" became Frank Dararabont's Oscar-nominated and slightly less awkwardly-titled "The Shawshank Redemption." The last of these was my favorites, and "The Green Mile" promised to return me to King doing a period prison drama, which whetted my appetite. Every month from March to August in 1996, I would go to the local Waldenbooks and pick up the latest entry in the series, hanging on each new cliff that King threw at me.

That said, when it was later announced that Dararabont would be adapting "The Green Mile" as a feature length film, I was perplexed. Not because I disliked "The Shawshank Redemption." I loved it and like many others caught it several times during its constant loop on TNT. But I was confused because more than any other King work (except maybe "The Dark Tower"), it seemed to scream out for the miniseries treatment a la "It" or "The Stand" given its serialized nature. In the end, though, I don't know if it was the format that dulled the movie version of "The Green Mile" for me as much as the fact that it was too on the nose. "The Shawshank Redemption" was a bit on the nose as well, but that doesn't matter when you have Morgan Freeman giving the best voiceover narration in the history of cinema.

Dararabont later turned his adaptation of King's "The Mist" into a post-9/11 allegory (much like Ronald D. Moore's "Battlestar Galactica"), which elevated my appreciation of the movie (and freaked me out). But his adaptation of the "The Green Mile" didn't really dig beneath the surface of King's book. It's a movie about the death penalty, but it's not much more than a story about the execution of a wrongfully convicted man with magical powers. Like Dararabont's "The Walking Dead," it's a fun enough ride but lacking in (figurative) bite.

Today, in the second of her posts in "The Pop Culture and Death Penalty Project," Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the movie version of "The Green Mile," and, as in her first post (which I discussed here) I  think that she raises some good points. Specifically, she argues that the movie is

not particularly useful as a basis for a real-world conversation about the death penalty. People who perform executions may have the experience of helping to kill innocent people — we know some of them certainly have. But they’re deeply unlikely to execute people who are not only innocent but honest-to-god saintly miracle workers who absolve them on the way to the electric chair, telling them, as John tells Paul, "You tell God the father it was a kindness you done."

Rosenberg does point out, though, that "the movie is an intermittently powerful allegory about responsibility, and the way we distance ourselves from culpability and full understanding of what we're doing." I think that this is a fair point, with the key word being "intermittently." But what the movie is clearly not is a meditation on the death penalty. Indeed, some have claimed that "The Green Mile," is politically conservative because it does "not challenge 'the basic categories through which we judge murderers and assess penalties.'" Paul Schiff Berman, When the State Kills:  Capital Punishment and the American Condition. By Austin Sarat. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. PP. 324., 102 Colum. L. Rev. 1129, 1166 (2002).

I'm not sure that I would paint "The Green Mile" with such a broad brush, but I see the point. When you have a death penalty movie which asks us to question the death penalty as applied to an innocent (and magical) man, the underlying assumption is that the death penalty is defensible as applied to the guilty. In her post, Rosenberg explains her position

that it makes more sense to set the standard for conversation about the death penalty that it should be abolished in all circumstances, even in the astonishingly unlikely chance that we achieve a perfectly just criminal justice system that has no clear disparate impact on people of any rage, gender, class, or creed.

"The Green Mile," as a movie about the wrongfully convicted, doesn't deal in this reality. Indeed, as a movie about the indisputably wrongfully convicted, it doesn't trade in anything close to reality. According to Gregg Mayer in The Poet and Death: Literary Reflections on Capital Punishment Through the Sonnets of William Wordsworth, 21 St. John's J. Legal Comment. 727 (2007),

As discussed by Professor David Dow:

God will want to know how (Edgecomb) could have killed one of His miracles, and what will (Edgecomb) say? That he was just doing his job? And yet, though he must be prodded by his assistant to give the order to carry out the execution, in the end (Edgecomb) does so. He shuffles over to Coffey and clandestinely shakes his hand. Then he gives the order, and Coffey is electrocuted. 

Mayer then concludes that "Edgecomb chooses societal order over justice, and risks his own spiritual self for the sake of the state." But this is not the Solomonic choice that most involved in the criminal justice system must make. Prosecutors often prosecute death penalty cases when they know that defendants might be innocent. If they know that the defendant is not guilty, they won't (or at least shouldn't) prosecute the defendant. Jurors often sentence defendants to die even in cases based solely on circumstantial evidence. But they don't convict or sentence defendants they know to be innocent. If the Supreme Court thinks that a defendant might be innocent, it might still refuse to give him relief, as with the recent case of Troy Davis that led to Rosenberg's project. But if the Supreme Court knows that a defendant is innocent, it will grant him relief, as in Chambers v. Mississippi.   

A meditation on the death penalty would deal with doubt. Doubt about whether the death penalty can ever be justified. Doubt about whether the defendant was really guilty. I want to see these movies. I want to see a juror, a judge, a prosecutor, an executioner questioning whether he did the right thing, like Meryl Streep in "Doubt." "The Green Mile" is not that movie. 



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