Serialized storytelling is having yet another moment in pop culture: Netflix, Serial, and made-for-web series have captured our collective attention. It turns out viewers love stories that are broken down into individual chapters. Whether episodes are released one a time or all at once in a binge, TV and podcast episodes allow space for viewers to pause, think, react, recap, and discuss.
Books used to be told this way, too. Back in Charles Dickens’ day, what we know as massive brick novels like Great Expectations, and Bleak House were “serialized,” published one section at a time over many months. Although mostly gone by the wayside, serialization enjoyed a brief revival in the ’80s and ’90s. One such story captured the cultural zeitgeist: The Green Mile.
March 28 marks the 20th anniversary of the first installment of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Set in a Louisiana prison in the ’30s, The Green Mile tells the story of death row guard Paul Edgecombe and John Coffey, a black prisoner who displays genuine empathy (and even a little magic) despite the heinous crime of which he was convicted. When “The Two Dead Girls,” the first installment of an eventual six, was first released on March 4, 1996, King didn’t even know how the story was going to end. He was still writing. This, again, mimics the frantic pace of TV shows, which are often still finishing filming when their first episodes begin airing. “I have always loved stories told in episodes,” King wrote in an introduction to the first section.
Tom De Haven reviewed “The Two Dead Girls” for EW, and reveled in the story’s unique format. “One of the big dangers of book reviewing is giving away too much of the plot and spoiling things for potential readers,” De Haven wrote. “Well, obviously that’s not going to happen here. Is Coffey innocent? I don’t know.”
The installments were published on a pretty regular basis, once a month from March 28 - Aug. 29, 1996, another testament to King’s famously prolific output. The six chapters have since been collected into a single volume, and adapted into a movie in 1999 starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan.
King hasn’t attempted something similar since; few people have. It would certainly be interesting, amidst this Golden Age of Netflix, to see a book published in the episodic installments of TV. In the meantime, happy 20th birthday, John Coffey.