Three years ago, when Stephen King's serialized novel The Green Mile was topping bestseller lists, I received an advertisement from a book club that read: "Sometime soon, Steve, when you're alone in the dark, he will come for you. And he will scare you to death. Stephen King is back with The Green Mile."
Hawking Stephen King's image rather than his writing probably makes good business sense for the book club, but it helps kill the chance that King will ever fully escape being pigeonholed as a simple horror writer. That's unfortunate, because he's one of the few modern writers willing to regularly tackle spiritual themes, who asks the reader to believe in what he calls "an unseen world all around us." His stories can be vehicles for contemplation and renewal for Christian readers who are willing to look beyond the King stigma. The just-released film version of The Green Mile might help with that process, as King's involvement is shadowed by the collection of Oscar-winning talent at work, including audience favorite Tom Hanks. While many movie adaptations of King's books leech away emotional depth in favor of the horror trappings, this one is faithful in content and tone, effectively capturing the grim search for hope by its conflicted protagonist.
The Green Mile tells of prison guard Paul Edgecombe (played by Hanks in the film), supervisor to all executions at Louisiana's Cold Mountain Penitentiary during the Depression. The job bothers him, but it's the only work he can get in that economy, so he carries out his duties with as much compassion and humanity as he's able. When Edgecombe befriends the childlike giant John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), who is brought to Death Row, he slowly comes to suspect that Coffey is a conduit for God's miracles and does not deserve death. The mainstream press has called King's story an indictment of capital punishment, a tale of grace and beauty in ugly places, and an examination of how pride distances us from our neighbor all true. But for Christians, the book (and the movie, for they are almost scene-for-scene identical) strikes a far more personal nerve; since Coffey is a clear Christ figure in the story, Paul's torment embodies the torment we each feel for the role we played in putting our Savior to death. I can't be sure if King meant to emphasize that relationship, but I know that the film's writer and director, Frank Darabont, did. In an interview he said his movie asks the question, "Why is it every time we have a Jesus Christ or a Gandhi, we nail him to the cross?"Darabont is no stranger to Christ figures. The main character in his previous movie, The Shawshank Redemption (also a prison movie based on a Stephen King story), is a type of messiah. Andy Dufrense (Tim Robbins) enters Shawshank prison as Christ entered the world: "not much to look at," in the words of "Red" (Morgan Freeman), the film's narrator. But his actions are not ordinary. He treats the downtrodden inmates with compassion, respect, and love, helping them to see there's a world of beauty beyond the confines of the prison, restoring their hope. A physical salvation is delivered to Red by accepting a free gift from Andy. While some of Andy's Christlike traits were added by Darabont in expanding King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the parallels do exist in the original work. Here, King uses the Christ figure to deliver celebration and thanksgiving rather than introspection.
It's not just King's ability to use Christ figures that makes his work relevant to Christians; to some degree that's actually a storytelling crutch because it can inject meaning so easily. What's noteworthy is how he uses those two Christ figures as means to different ends. In all of King's spiritually themed stories he uses repeated elements of faith, sin and salvation for different ends, creating a surprisingly complete view of basic Christian principles.
Sin is practically a main character in King's short stories Blind Willie and Quitters, Inc. and his novel Thinner, yet each tale focuses on a different nuance of sin. Quitters, Inc. demonstrates the human inability to eradicate bad habits through a sheer force of will. Dick Morrison, a smoker who's trying to quit, gets suckered into a treatment program that puts the lives of his loved ones at stake if he ever lights up again. Despite the company's promise of surveillance, Morrison keeps slipping back into the habit, just as we too fall back into sin although we know God is watching us. Thinner chronicles the ordeal of Billy Halleck, who kills a gypsy's daughter in a car accident. Halleck won't admit his culpability in the accident, protesting in the all-American manner that he's a basically good guy. The moral of the story, so to speak, can be found in 1 John 1:8: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves." The gypsy places a curse on the 246-pound Halleck to make him lose weight at an abnormally fast pace, and the story parallels his shrinking flesh with how quickly sin eats away at us. The main character in Blind Willie, conversely, is well aware of his sin. Bill Shearman is a Vietnam veteran still haunted by his actions in war, spending each day trying to atone for his sins by taking on a second persona. Yet it's clear from the haunted tone of the story that Shearman indeed, every person cannot redeem himself.
Salvation also marks several of King's stories, most notably The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Desperation, and The Stand. The young girl who gets lost in the Maine woods in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon puts her faith in God to deliver her, following the example of her favorite baseball player, Red Sox relief pitcher Tom Gordon, who gives credit to God for every save. Desperation is a darker tale in which salvation comes at a high price. Young David Carver is one of a few strangers who find themselves battling a demon in an abandoned mining town. He finds he's God's instrument in the situation, but pressing onward requires more sacrifice and pain than he ever anticipated when he turned his life over to Christ. Desperation affirms that God is in control, but it accurately points out that the Christian life won't necessarily be comfortable. The Stand likewise affirms God's supremacy, as the forces of good battle evil for control of the world after 99 percent of the population falls victim to a plague. In this case the main characters who battle "the dark man" are not Christians but they grow to accept the idea that God is real. God isn't just providing salvation from disaster in this story, but as the disaster makes the characters less reliant on their own power, he's moving them one step closer to a greater salvation.
Using King's depiction of sin, Christ, and salvation, one could conceivably explain the Gospel message to a King fan using his stories: We all have sinned (Thinner) and cannot redeem ourselves (Blind Willie). If we accept the free gift of Christ who paid our debt (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), God will deliver us (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). Life as a Christian will not be easy (Desperation), but we will be given freedom from sin (Quitters, Inc.). I have no idea how much of this King actually believes; perhaps miracles and faith mean as little to him as vampires and werewolves just tools of his craft. Perhaps he's a man on a spiritual journey, looking for answers. Either way, King's willingness to venture into the spiritual realm in his stories allows room for God to speak anyway. As the character of John Coffey shows, God's tools are sometimes the last ones we'd expect.
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Read Susan Wise Bauer's article, "Stephen King's Tragic Kingdom | Why so many people visit this in-your-dreams theme park, where entertainment means watching truly horrible things happen to good people." It appeared in the March/April 1997 (page 14, print only) issue of Books & Culture, Christianity Today's sister publication.
The Official Stephen King Web Presence has updates on King's recovery from his traffic accident as well as information about his past works.
Before King's The Stand aired on television May 8, 1994, he discussed it with a Web site called The Haunted Inkbottle. In that interview, King talks about how The Stand reflects his "fundamentalist Christian" upbringing, what he believes about God's involvement in the world, and his belief "that you have to give your will over to the will of God and that sometimes God requires a sacrifice to put things back on track."
King also talks about the God of his books in an interview with The World of Fandom: "There's been a lot of criticism of [Desperation] where they say the God stuff really turns them off. I'm thinking to myself that these guys have no problems with vampires, demons, golems, werewolves and you name it. If you try to bring in a God who can take sardines and crackers and turn it into loaves and fishes, then these people have a problem. I say to myself, if you have a real problem then I'm doing what a novel of suspense and horror is supposed to do, which is to just scratch below the surface and sort of rub your nerves the wrong way."
See what Christian critics are saying about King's latest, The Green Mile, in yesterday's Film Forum, also by Lansingh.
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