Good and Evil on the Mile

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What is good?

Back in elementary school being “good” was simply not doing anything considered “bad.” Sticker systems kept track of and rewarded the good so you always knew where you stood. Easy enough. But as I got older, good and bad became a lot more complicated. C.S. Lewis writes that evil is not the opposite of good, but rather the perversion of good.

The Green Mile subverts any lingering elementary school notions you may have of good and evil. And while it certainly won’t answer every question you have, the film addresses the complex relationship between the two realities. At the beginning of the film, Paul Edgecomb’s [Tom Hanks] life works. It is not always pleasant, and not always perfect, but it works. He knows good when he sees it and evil when he sees it. Sticker system, check. That all changes when a man named John Coffey is sentenced to death and finds himself on the Mile under Paul’s watch.

This John Coffey has a strange talent of being able to (literally) suck evil out of the world and spit it back out. By all standards of the time and setting (the Deep South in the 1930’s) Coffey is not a “good” man. As his story unfolds, however, we see that “good” and “bad” are not so simple. It takes great amounts of “good” to combat the “evil” in the world and there are consequences to confronting evil with good. John Coffey may not be able to tell us how good and evil exist and interact in the world, but The Green Mile makes it clear that these two realities are connected and pushing against each other in ways that we don’t (and maybe will never) understand.

One of the most entrancing images of the entire film is when John Coffey spits out evil. It escapes from his mouth as something like little glowing insects and eventually turns to smoke before disappearing. A man with such power also possesses a beautiful amount of innocence; he is delighted by joy and weeps over pain. The Green Mile portrays Coffey as the person who stands on the front lines of the war between good and evil. A divergent hero figure from our image of the justice warrior directly and obviously battling evil in the name of good.