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"This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there too, of course."—Paul Edgecombe
The year was 1932 (1935 in the movie). John Coffey, a Gentle Giant black man, has been condemned to die by the electric chair for the raping and killing of two young girls. What follows is a supernatural journey that not only reveals Coffey's wondrous powers and proves he didn't do the crime: but still does the time, but changes the lead guard's life forever.
The book provides examples of:
- Anachronism Stew: Neither Allen's Alley nor Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge had premiered in 1932. King acknowledges this in the afterword.
- Angel Unaware: Mr. Jingles may or may not be a angel.
- Ask a Stupid Question: Warder Moores' wife, Melinda, has a brain tumor, which causes her to swear uncontrollably. When Paul is on the phone with Moores and asks him if he'll be home at the evening, he answers: "No, I'm taking Melinda out squaredancing. We're going to do-si-do, allemand left, and then tell the fiddler he's a rooster-dick motherfucker." Paul has to force himself not to laugh.
- Attention Deficit Creator Disorder: Turning the novel into a serial helped make things more bearable for King.
- Axe Crazy: William "Wild Bill" Wharton.
- Benevolent Boss: Warden Hal Moores, while somewhat gruff and authoritative, nonetheless cares for the men under his charge, treats the prisoners decently enough, and is a devoted family man. Especially when placed in contrast with a certain other warden from a different Stephen King story.
- Paul Edgecombe as well.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: To show how tough he is, Edgecomb tells a story of how Moores faced down a prisoner with a shank. It ended with the prisoner on the ground with a broken wrist, calling for his mommy. Moores replies, "I'm not her, but if I were, I'd hike up my skirts and piss on you from the loins that gave you birth."
- Berserk Button: Wharton likes his nickname to be Billy the Kid, not Wild Bill. Wharton earns himself some time in solitary by abusing a guard. Paul Edgecombe calls him Wild Bill while applying a straitjacket, and gets back a writhing, agonized lecture about the difference between the two names. "Brutal" Howell proceeds to lean in to the restrained Wharton and push that red, shiny, jolly candy-like button with both hands.
- Big Electric Switch: Labeled "Mabel's Hair Drier (sic)"
- Blatant Lies: "I didn't know the sponge was supposed to be wet."
- Blessed with Suck: Coffey. "It's like pieces of glass in my head. All the time."
- Edgecombe's long life. "Sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation."
- Card-Carrying Villain: Wharton. When Coffey calls him "a bad man" he responds: "That's right, nigger. Bad as you'd want."
- But you also have to remember that this was the South in the '30s, where the N-word was thrown about like it was nothing. However, none of the good guys say it without filtering it through another voice or shaming someone else.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Delacroix's botched execution. Its not called "The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix" for nothing.
- Deadly Distant Finale: In each character's last appearance, Paul describes their eventual fate. Pretty much every major character in the book is covered.
- Death by Woman Scorned: Paul mentions that during his time, there was only one woman in the death row, who put up with years of her husband beating her, but when she found out that he's having an affair, she killed him right away.
- December-December Romance: Paul and Elaine.
- Deep South
- Dirty Coward: Percy. Emphasis on dirty.
- Disproportionate Retribution: See the Nightmare Fuel entry? Percy did that because Delacroix laughed at him for pissing himself when Wharton grabbed him.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?
- Downer Ending: Edgecombe is spiritually broken after executing Coffey, and is still alive sixty years later, hoping he'll die before any more of his friends do.
- Dramatic Wind
- Electric Torture: ...Sort of.
- Empathic Healer
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The installment/chapter titled "The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix"
- Fate Worse Than Death: One can say Coffey inflicted this on Percy. And Paul. The former intentionally, the latter not.
- Fiery Coverup: Part of the crime that put Delacroix on the Mile.
- Flying Dutchman: Paul, at least to some degree.
- Framing Device: Georgia Pines nursing home.
- Full-Name Basis: Most of the guards called John Coffey by his full name. Most of the other prisoners got nicknames like The Chief and The President.
- Gentle Giant: John Coffey and Brutal Howell.
- Healing Hands: Coffey's powers require him to be able to touch his patients, as close to the injury as possible. Thus is he mistaken for a murderer: when the posse finds a Scary Black Man with a mangled white girl under each arm, bloody hands pressing their crushed skulls, who would believe he had found them that way and was trying to heal them using magic? Also creates an awkward situation when Coffey heals Edgecombe's groin infection.
- Irony: Percy ends up insane and is committed, as a patient, to the very same hospital he'd wanted to transfer into. Basically a Karmic Death without the death.
- Similarly, Dean Stanton, whom the other guards had protected on account of his kids, is the first of the four main guards to die.
- Jerkass: Percy Wetmore. Putting it mildly.
- Karmic Death: Delacroix, on Death Row for rape and murder by arson, basically burns to death during his botched execution
- Kick the Dog: Two by Percy; when he stomps Mr. Jingles and what he says to Delcroix about Mousfield not existing before executing him.
- Kick the Son of a Bitch: The prison guards do this to Percy a lot.
- The Lancer: "Brutal" (although he also qualifies as a Big Guy.
- Last-Minute Reprieve: Subverted; Edgcomb makes it a point to say the governor's line next to Old Sparky never rang. Both commutations (to a black woman who killed her womanizing husband and an insurance salesman who killed his father to collect the insurance money) were well before they were scheduled to be executed.
- Let Them Die Happy: A basic rule of the care of the condemned, and another reason Percy's a Jerkass is that he broke the rule with a condemned in the chair...
- Long Lived: Paul and Mr. Jingles, as a result of being cured by John Coffey, wind up "cured" of everything for the rest of their lives. Functionally, this means they keep aging but are immune to everything that would eventually kill them. When Paul is telling the story, he's over 100, and Mr. Jingles - a freaking mouse, - is over 60. Paul considers it his punishment for allowing Coffey to be executed. However, Mr. Jingles does finally die, so the punishment will end someday.
- Magical Negro: Literally.
- Magical Realism: A textbook example.
- Meaningful Name: John Coffey - King even joked about how blatant it was in On Writing.
- Percy Wetmore
- Inverted with Brutus "Brutal" Howell; despite being a rather intimidating powerhouse of a man, Paul acknowledges that he's really a very kind and noble person, who rarely uses his size and strength to intimidate or harm others... except for Percy and Wild Bill, who both deserve it.
- Nightmare Fuel: Coffey stating he can still hear "pieces" of convicts screaming in Old Sparky's chamber, long after they've been executed.
- Nobody Poops: Heavily subverted, as Edgecombe's urinary infection became a plot point.
- Wharton pisses on a passing guard: promising "I'm also cooking up some turds to go with it, nice soft ones!", and scares Percy into soiling himself with threat of buggery.
- Percy soils himself again (out both ends) when Coffey infects him with the disease he took from Melinda, and then he goes catatonic.
- Not What It Looks Like: Dramatic example. Coffey is found with the bodies of the raped and murdered girls in his arms. When he's asked what happened, he says: "I couldn't help it. I tried to take it back, but it was too late!" Everybody assumes that he killed the girls, and was talking about his own murderous impulses. Actually, he found them and tried to heal them, but it was too late for that.
- Offscreen Villainy: Used deliberately to allow audience sympathy. Remember, the men on death row are there because they were convicted of murder. Yet because we never witness the crimes of Delacroix or Bitterbuck, only their last days, we get to know them as people and not just criminals.
- The Rainman: Coffey, as well as being a Magical Negro.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Everyone throws one at Percy after what he does to Del.
Paul: You son of a bitch, you stand there and watch!
- Scary Black Man: Subverted. Coffey is big and scary looking, but gentle and childlike.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections: Percy
- Later defied when the rest of the guards warn him not to tell anyone that they straitjacketed him and locked him in solitary confinement, reminding him that he's not the only one who knows people.
- Elaine pulls this as well.
- Serial Novel: A very rare latter 20th-century example.
- Shout-Out: Paul and his wife dance to "Cheek To Cheek".
- Significant Monogram: John Coffey.
- A Simple Plan: The entire scheme to heal the Warden's wife, and the cover-up afterward.
- Sissy Villain: Percy.
- Stupidity-Inducing Attack: John Coffey does this to Percy, not through evil intentions but to remove the threat to his friends, resulting in the guard ending up in an insane asylum.
- Survivors Guilt: Paul Edgecombe
- Team Pet: Steamboat Willy a.k.a Mr.Jingles.
- This Is Reality: Elaine guesses correctly that Coffey was executed, because "Providence-with-a-capital-P is greatly overrated in the lives of ordinary humans"
- Similarly, Paul comments on how, in the movies, the governor's line to the execution room always rang right before the switch was pulled, and the contrast was that it never did ring in any of the 78 executions he took part in.
- Coffey is Too Good for This Sinful Earth
- Too Dumb to Live: Percy, Percy, Percy.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Literally; King's wife asked the question and it led to the Framing Device.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: Paul Edgecombe, at the end, wishes for death.
- Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: At the time the first instalment was released to the public, King hadn't even figured out the ending yet... but still a set release scheduled for it.
- Younger Than They Look: By the time Coffey's execution rolls around, the 30-something parents of the two dead girls turned basically into an elderly couple from grief.
The movie provides examples of:
- Big No: Del when Percy steps on Mr Jingles.
- Also Paul and the other guards when Percy shoots Wild Bill.
- Dawson Casting: The actor who played Percy, who is supposed to be 21, was 39 at the time. Also, Wild Bill was 19 in the novel, and was played by a 31 year old in the movie.
- The Danza: Averted; Harry Dean Stanton was in the movie but played neither Harry Terwilliger nor Dean Stanton.
- Did Not Do the Research: The book keeps the state that Cold Mountain is in a secret; the movie makes it Louisiana. The problem? The book specifically mentions the state uses counties as subdivisions; Louisiana uses parishes.
- Also, during the movie's timeframe Louisiana conducted executions at parish courthouses, not at the state penitentiary.
- Large Ham: Wild Bill, who would be pretty entertaining if he weren't such a disgusting, monstrous character.
- Last Request: Coffey receives his choice of dinner on the day of his execution as is standard, and Paul begs him to ask for other things, including a chance of escape to which he and the other guards would gladly turn the other way. John assures them that he is ready to die. Even earlier in the film, John tells them that he's never seen a "flicker show", so a projector is set up and he is allowed to watch the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Top Hat.
John: <watching, entranced> "They's angels... Angels, just like up in heaven..!"
- Seeing Top Hat in his old age is enough to spook Edgecomb into telling his story to Elaine.
- One-Scene Wonder: Gary Sinise is only in one scene, but the obvious connections with Tom Hanks put him in the trailer.
- And while Harry Dean Stanton does show up for some other scenes, he only has any real lines in one scene, which ends up being a major Crowning Moment of Funny.
- Oscar Bait
- Pragmatic Adaptation: Some of the more rational explanations in the book are turned into supernatural explanations in the movie. Instead of Paul figuring out who the actual killer was on his own, John Coffey gave him the information through his touch.
- Protagonist-Centered Morality: After John MindRapes Percy into killing William, the good guys say they understand why he did it to Percy, but ask why he did that to William. They understand fully after The Reveal, but why did it take that long? William was pretty much established as a Complete Monster who was already on death row for murder. They knew he'd done worse than Percy, just not on-screen.
- They're specifically asking why John did it to Wharton. And they'd probably be right to ask: In the book it was mentioned that the two men didn't pass more than two dozen words past each other their entire time on the Mile, and half of those were when Wharton grabbed him.
- Psychopathic Manchild: Wharton has an 8-year-old's sense of humor, but can be quite cunning, and is a rapist pedophile.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Which is why Delacroix's crime was not mentioned in the film.
- Retirony: Percy ending up a patient at the Briar Ridge Mental Institution, after being 'encouraged' to get a transfer there.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Connections: Percy Wetmore, who torments and mistreats the inmates and belittles his colleagues with impunity, because his aunt is the governor's wife.This doesn't go on for very long, though.
- Soul Fragment: John gives a "part of himself" to Paul.
- Scully Box: To make 6'5 Michael Clarke Duncan taller
- Spared by the Adaptation: Mr. Jingles. In the novel, he finally dies of old age in the end. In the film, he's last shown sleeping.
- Survival Mantra: "Heaven... Heaven... I'm in heaven..."
- Take Five: Early in the movie;
Paul Edgecombe: Percy, they're moving house in the infirmary. Why don't you go see if they could use some help?
Percy Whetmore: They got all the men they need.
Paul Edgecombe: Why don't you go make sure?
Paul Edgecombe: I don't care where you go, as long as it's not here at this moment.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: Paul taking the most epic piss anyone has ever taken after his urinary infection is cured.
- Working on the Chain Gang: Seen right at the beginning of the movie.