What The Shawshank Redemption Means to Us
“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” didn’t attract the same level of critical acclaim as “Apt Pupil” and “The Body” did when Different Seasons was first published, but it’s always been my favorite of the bunch. As such I approached watching the film adaptation with some trepidation. At the time, all I knew Frank Darabont from was the short film “The Woman in the Room,” also a King story. I wasn’t expecting much, given how scattershot the quality of adaptations of King’s work had been up to that point.
Man. What an experience. What a film. I expressed earlier this week (or last week, maybe) that I’m a little burnt out on The Shawshank Redemption – that I’d seen it too many times. I guess I was wrong. Just rewatching little bits of it for this writeup reminded me how much of a perfect film it is. How enjoyable and downright satisfying it is. There are differences between the film and the story, but unlike the usual adaptation shenanigans every edit only enhances the story. Every actor only makes their role more iconic. I thought I was burnt out on the film. Instead, I was just forgetting how much I love it. And how much I need to see it again.
My family went through a rough patch for a few years that we seem to have finally put behind us. But it wasn’t always clear to me that we were gonna make it through. My wife was sure, though. And she had a powerful image that she used to remind me that better days were around the corner.
She would say “Remember how Andy had to crawl through the river of shit before he washed himself clean in the river and the rain on the other side? We’re in that river of shit right now. But the river is up ahead. If you strain, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re gonna come out the other end, and the water is gonna wash us clean.”
When something bad would happen, I would look at her and ask “Are we still in the river of shit?” And she would nod. “Yes, but the river is close. We’ll be washing the shit off before you know it. Just hang on.”
It seemed like we would never find the end of that tunnel, but we did. We came out the other end, stood up, and let the rain wash the shit of the previous few years away.
In a way, The Shawshank Redemption got me through probably the toughest time in my life. That’s the power of this movie, and that’s what it means to me.
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
At first look, The Shawshank Redemption probably had little going for it. A prison drama revolving around a man convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover, adapted from a short story by Stephen King, whose track record with Hollywood adaptations of his work was shaky but for a handful of gems. Its director had only one credit to his name, a short film called The Woman in the Room based on the short story by, you guessed it, Stephen King. The Shawshank Redemption would be his first full-length feature, so expectations were not very high.
While popular with critics, no one was very surprised when the film was released in 1994 and was more or less a box office flop. It grossed a mere $16 million worldwide on a $25 million dollar budget, although its subsequent Oscar nominations helped push it past the $50 million mark. Would casting more bankable stars have helped? Should the studio have pushed the film on Stephen King’s name – something they refused to do in order to avoid being thought of as a horror movie?
Does it even matter? A large box office haul does not equate to a classic, or even a good movie. But the mark of a classic is longevity and there are few films with as much longevity and there are few movies with as much longevity as The Shawshank Redemption.
Thanks to its Oscar nominations and word of mouth, Shawshank became one of the biggest VHS rentals of 1995. Increasing its popularity was the acquisition of the film by TNT, who aired it regularly. The theme of hope resonated with audiences across the world and continues to do so today. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected The Shawshank Redemption for preservation in the National Film Registry.
It’s always difficult to imagine how any filmmaker could take a novella and stretch it into the length of a feature film without adding a bunch of nonsense or completely reworking the story. It’s happened many times to Stephen King’s work, leading to a lot of disappointment amongst his fans, general audiences and critics. Even Stephen King was a little skeptical about how Frank Darabont would take some inner musings of an imprisoned Irishman and make it work as a feature. Darabont was insistent that it could be done and paid King a whopping $5000 for the rights to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
When he finally sat down to write the screenplay, Darabont did what several other screenwriters had done to King’s work. He merged, cut and reworked aspects of the novella. But rather than remove the heart and soul of King’s story in order to please Hollywood, Darabont’s changes elevated it, giving its themes more clarity. The smaller, supporting characters, such as Brooks, have just as much depth and significance as Andy Dufresne and Red. Their stories may even be more painful to watch unfold than Andy’s is. The script came together over eight weeks and shortly after, shopped to Castle Rock Entertainment. Shawshank got picked up by the studio and Darabont took the chance to direct the film himself, after turning down Rob Reiner’s offer of $3 million for the chance to direct it himself.
I think it’s safe to say this was a wise choice, as Reiner’s casting preferences had been Tom Cruise as Andy and Harrison Ford as Red. Instead, Morgan Freeman took the place of Red, insisting he would have played any part in the movie, just to be a part of it. Tim Robbins took the role of Andy after Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks and, yes, Tom Cruise passed on the project. Darabont added a handful of well-respected, talented character actors, Clancy Brown, Bob Gunton and James Whitmore, and got to work. What followed was the creation of a film still revered today, even if it didn’t exactly find its audience at the time of its release.
If there is one scene in this movie that I could watch on a loop, it’s the ending. The beginning of the end is simple fear. Andy sits in his cell with a handful of rope, a look of apprehension and determination on his face. The possibility of suicide is high. After all, he and Red have spent twenty years locked up together, resigned to the knowledge that they will die in Shawshank as well. Will Andy leave on his own terms, a noose of rope around his neck? It’s clear on Red’s face the next morning, when Andy is unaccounted for at roll call, that he feared the same. And then begins a whirlwind of exposition, narrated by Freeman, as he explains just what Andy had been up to over the past twenty years. His escape had been hiding in plain sight the entire time, hidden over the years by wall posters of beautiful women – Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch.
“I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
To watch Andy’s plan unravel is a thing of beauty. From the pure fascinated shock on Red’s face, to the Warden’s disbelief, anger and subsequent unraveling, it’s a wholly satisfying conclusion to a two and a half hour drama that spent most of its time making us feel frustration, fury and sadness. Andy’s escape turned those emotions into amusement and elation, followed closely by Red’s release and the two men’s eventual reunion. Shawshank may be known for being a prison drama, but it’s truly a love story between two men and the hope of happiness and freedom. Did you shed a tear at the sight of Red walking down the beach to Andy, a smile on his face? I bet you did. How many other movies make you feel that level of emotion anymore? Shawshank may have the best, if not one of the best, endings of all time.
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
To narrow down just one perfect scene in what could arguably be described as a near-perfect movie would be impossible. When you hear the word Shawshank, what do you think of? Prison? Stephen King? Maybe you think of Andy Dufresne, standing in the night, his arms lifted in an almost Christ-like position as rain washes away remnants of filth and waste? Suds on the roof. Tommy’s fate at the hands of Warden Norton. The opera being played over the prison speakers. Or perhaps you simply hear Morgan Freeman’s smooth baritone, narrating Andy’s journey from wrongfully convicted to freedom. If you ask anyone what their favorite moment of the film is, you’re likely to get a variety of answers. These moments speak to us in so many ways. There is a reason the cast and crew of this movie have been approached over the past twenty-eight years by people who just want to tell them that the movie changed their lives. Celebrities and filmmakers constantly name The Shawshank Redemption as their favorite film or the film that inspired them to get into the business.
The Mansfield Reformatory, where parts of the movie were shot, was to be torn down a couple of years after filming wrapped, but has since become a tourist attraction, bringing in nearly $16 million a year in revenue. Anniversary viewings of the film are held at the site, often attended by many of the cast and crew. To name every single Best Of list on which Shawshank appears would be an exhausting feat. In 2008, The Shawshank Redemption dethroned The Godfather atop IMDB’s 250 Greatest Movies and has remained there ever since. It’s safe to say that Shawshank’s legacy is matched only by a handful of films, and remains one of the most beloved movies of all time.
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