"This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there too, of course."
— Paul Edgecombe
1996 dramatic novel by Stephen King. Originally released as a Serial Novel in six installments.The year was 1932. 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, but proves he didn't do the crime. Sadly he still does the time, but the journey toward Old Sparky changes the compassionate lead guard's life forever.Eventually made into a movie in 1999, directed by Frank Darabont, who also directed The Shawshank Redemption, and starring Tom Hanks. And like Shawshank, it was an Oscar charmer, if not a winner.
The book provides examples of:
Adoring the Pests: This book features Mr. Jingles / Steamboat Willy, a mouse found running around the death row cells. They decide not to kill him, aside from the Jerk Ass Percy, because of his unusual behavior: fearless in the face of humans, accepts food only from the regular guards, and his searching of the cells as if he's awaiting for somebody. Mr. Jingles adopts Eduard Delacroix when he arrives and entertains all with his spool fetching trick, even performing a show for the guards on another block.
Animal Motif: Paul compares Percy Wetmore to a Banty Rooster because of his large hair and aggressive personality to make up for his rather small stature.
Ask a Stupid Question...: Warden 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.
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, Edgecombe 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.
Edgecombe's long life. "Sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation."
Card-Carrying Villain: Wharton, who awarded himself his own card. When Coffey calls him "a bad man" he responds: "That's right, nigger. Bad as you'd want."
Cruel and Unusual Death: Delacroix's botched execution. Its not called "The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix" for nothing.
Cut the Juice: Averted during Del's execution. Even though it goes horribly wrong, Paul orders his men to continue because shutting down and doing the whole thing again would be even more cruel.
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.
The stupid bastard thought it would be a "cute little prank" to see what would happen if he didn't wet the sponge that they used to channel "Old Sparky's" shock into a person's brain. He got more than he bargained for, and Paul made sure he watched the entire thing.
Electric Torture: Not by the intention of most of the guards, who try and take care that the executions are quick, clean, and as painless as Old Sparky allows. But what happens in the Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix certainly qualifies.
Forced to Watch: A rare example of it being done on a villain. While Delacroix is being slowly electrocuted to death due to Percy's actions, Paul forces Percy to watch the horror unfold after the latter turns away.
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 finally got to go to that hospital, but not as a doctor...
Similarly, Dean Stanton, whom the other guards had protected on account of his kids, is the first of the four main guards to die.
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.
The average lifespan of a mouse is one and a half year, topping at 3. Mr. Jingles lived to see 60. If we follow the pattern, Paul will live up to 20 times the human lifespan, or about 1000 years for someone born at the early 20th Century.
Though one could argue this is not an example of the trope as Spike Lee would define it, since John Coffey's influence actually makes Paul's life far worse than it would have been otherwise.
Magical Realism: A textbook example. Psychic visions, supernatural healing and near-immortality are all plot points, but the real focus is on the fairly mundane story of a prison guard bonding with a wrongfully accused prisoner on death row.
Meaningful Name: John Coffey - King even joked about how blatant it was in On Writing.
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.
Older than They Look: Paul comments on Melinda retaining a youthful look through her older years due to Coffey's healing powers.
Popcultural Osmosis Failure: At the guards' meeting that brought out the simple plan to cure Moores' wife, Paul's wife buts out by saying she's "visiting with Miss Jane Austen, and she's very good company." Harry immediately inquires as to Miss Austen's availability, and Brutal has to tell him that she's an author that's been dead for over a century.
Riddle for the Ages: Who exactly is John Coffey? Why does he have healing powers? Even he doesn't know.
Sympathetic Murderer: Eduard Delacroix. He committed a horrible crime: he raped and murdered a young girl and killed her, then set the corpse on fire to destroy the evidence, but the fire spread to a building and six more people died. However, on the death row he appears to be a shy and gentle man, who never does anything violent. Paul states that "whatever it was that had done that awful thing was already gone".
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.