Its a long walk along The Green Milelonger than this adaptation of Stephen King's serialized novel set on a Louisiana prison death row ought to be. Director Frank Darabont scored a critical and belated popular success with his first film, The Shawshank Redemption, another King period prison tale, but more is less in this epic treatment of a rather modest supernatural fable.

Tom Hanks heads another fine ensemble cast in the role of Paul Edgecomb, the compassionate head guard of E block, home to doomed prisoners at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in 1935. Awaiting execution on the block as the story begins are sorrowful Native American Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene) and feisty Creole Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter). They are soon joined by John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), a massively built, towering black man convicted of the grisly murder of two little girls. Despite his fearsome appearance, Coffey is a soft-spoken, childlike fellow who confesses to being afraid of the dark. In contrast, the next arrival on death row is 'Wild Bill' Wharton (Sam Rockwell), a savagely devious killer who immediately causes a ruckus by pretending to be sedated and attacking the guards. Along with loose cannon Wharton, the guards must also contend with a pest within their ranks: Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), the sadistic, weasely nephew of the governor's wife, a coward who craves the thrill of overseeing a death by electric chair.

Taking its cue from the six-part King paperback, Darabont's adaptation proceeds unrushed from one episode to the next. A tremendous amount of screen time is devoted to one Mr. Jingles, a clever mouse who becomes an object of fascination for the guards and the beloved trained pet of Delacroix. The movie also dwells uncomfortably on a painful urinary infection that nearly incapacitates Edgecomb; were audiences really clamoring to see double Oscar winner Hanks grab his crotch in agony or urinate while kneeling in the backyard? Still, that malady leads to the story's big revelation, as a sympathetic Coffey clutches Edgecomb's privates and magically absorbs his illness, exhaling it in a cloud of locust-like particles. This is Stephen King-land after all, and Coffey has the power to heal; when the gentle inmate similarly revives a stomped-on Mr. Jingles, Edgecomb becomes convinced that a man with such astonishing spiritual powers couldn't possibly be a killer.

The narrative ultimately leads to a 'caper' of sorts, as Edgecomb and his co-workers sneak Coffey out of prison to the home of the warden (James Cromwell), whose wife (Patricia Clarkson) is wasting away from cancer. Though Coffey succeeds in curing the woman, and even finds a way to prove his innocence to Edgecomb, the man still must die and Edgecomb must wrestle with his participation in Coffey's execution for the rest of an unusually long life.

A parable of innocence and evil, moral responsibility, forgiveness and guilt, The Green Mile has spiritual uplift for those who like their sermons nice and clearcut (but who may not like their executions as graphic as depicted here). With the exception of Wharton, the death-row inmates are awfully likeable, and the details of their crimes are unexplored. And, with the exception of Wetmore, those guards are decent, homespun types, even if they do make a living from watching men fry.

Giving much life to these fairly undimensional characters is a strong cast, with Hanks turning in another empathetic lead performance. Duncan is quite memorable and will probably score an Oscar nomination as the hulking but poignant Coffey; Jeter brings colorful energy to his Louisiana firecracker; David Morse is solid as Edgecomb¬°|s second-in-command; and Hutchinson creates a villain the audience just loves to hate. Period production values are top-notch, though many audience members will be eager to escape that drab prison corridor after more than three hours inside.

--Kevin Lally