“You can’t hide what’s in your heart.” -John Coffey
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in eighteenth century England, believed in the doctrine of original sin. He believed that the image of God in each of us is lost because we have been marred by sin. This corruption by sin was often described by Wesley as an “infection.” Professor Ted Campbell writes that “we not only live in a world ‘infected’ by sin, but that infection touches each of us.”
Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s novel, The Green Mile, makes good use of the word infection. It is the first film that Darabont made since 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, also based on a Stephen King novel.
The film is a story that Paul Edgecomb tells from a retirement home that he lives in. Younger Paul is played by Tom Hanks. He is in charge of the Death Row unit at a Louisiana penitentiary. Paul and his fellow guards do their best to treat each inmate in their charge with kindness. They see their vocation as including these men in preparing for their deaths.
John Coffey (“like the drink, only not spelled the same”) is convicted of raping and killing two white girls. To say that John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, is a gigantic man, is to grossly state the obvious. Coffey, as Paul discovers, is not as dangerous as he looks. He is gentle, kindhearted, respectful, and well meaning.
Paul is in a great deal of pain because of a gallbladder infection. Despite his wife’s urging of him to go to the doctor, Paul goes to work in horrible pain. He goes because a new prisoner is coming in, and “Wild Billy” (Sam Rockwell) is a bit too much. The struggle with the Wild Billy proves to be too painful for Paul.
John Coffey calls out to Paul to come see him for a minute. Paul puts it off, until he can’t bear hearing John Coffey calling anymore. When Paul stands before John Coffey, in dire pain, John Coffey reaches through the bars and touches Paul in his infected area. In a few moments all of Paul’s pain is gone.
A miraculous healing occurred.
Later in the film when Percy (Doug Hutchison), who is a bit of an infection on the Green Mile, stomps on Mr. Jingles, the pet mouse of inmate Delacroix (Michael Jeter). John Coffey, filled with compassion, asked the guards to bring to the dead mouse to him. John Coffey takes the dead mouse into his hands, and in a scene that recalls images from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where the child Jesus heals a dead bird, John Coffey brings the mouse back to life.
Paul explains to the other guards that John Coffey had done the same thing to his gall bladder infection. It is not long before they come up with a plan to sneak John Coffey out of the prison one night and take him to the home of the Warden (James Cromwell). The Warden’s wife, played by Patricia Clarkson, is dying from cancer. In a powerful scene John Coffey leans in a sucks out the infection inside her, and swallows it.
It all seems supernatural, all very Stephen King like. But it also very theological. John Coffey takes the infection away. While John Wesley described sin as an “infection,” he preached that the remedy was grace.
In the film, “infection” is used beyond death and disease. John Coffey, when he touches Wild Billy, sees what Wild Billy has done. “He’s a bad man, Boss,” John Coffey tells Paul. He is able to share the vision with Paul, and Paul is able to see that Wild Billy was working for the father of the dead girls, and he is the one who raped and killed them. As John Coffey says, “You can’t hide what’s in your heart.” John Coffey was trying to use is powers to give them life. But he was not able to do so.
Percy, the newest guard on the Green Mile, got the job because his aunt is married to the Governor. Percy may not be a murderer and rapists like Wild Billy, but he is not kind, he is not generous, and he is not humble. John Coffey sees Percy as an infection. When John Coffey takes the cancer away from the Warden’s wife, he swallowed it, and later breathes it into Percy. Moments later, Percy shoots Wild Billy. Paul and the other guards are dumbfounded. “They were bad mens,” John Coffey says.
When given the opportunity to have Paul and the Warden stand up for John Coffey and explain that it was Wild Billy who killed the girls, John Coffey declines. He willing goes to the electric chair. This humble act of sacrifice is the final act of John Coffey’s that make us think of Jesus Christ. I have no idea if Stephen King did all of that on purpose or not. But it is there.
As we return to present day Paul telling the story, we learn that “the math doesn’t quite work out.” Paul is 108 years old. He and Mr. Jingles have been living for a long time. Paul says that John Coffey gave a bit of himself to Paul. “A part of his power is in me,” Paul says. John Coffey infected Paul with life.
Is there a better Easter message? Jesus Christ comes into our lives, bearing the remedy for the infection we suffer from. Jesus Christ gives us a little bit of himself when we welcome the gift of grace. And Jesus Christ infects us with life.