Introduction to The Shawshank Redemption
In 1994, a movie called “The Shawshank Redemption” was released. Despite its failure at the box office in the United States and incurring losses, the film somehow started to make a profit when it was pulled from theaters. There has never been another film where the most powerful marketing tool in the world, word-of-mouth, has worked so hard. The film’s VHS and DVD revenues were staggering, and it still remains one of the highest-rated films on television. According to user ratings on IMDB, the world’s largest film database, it is “The Greatest Movie of All Time”. So, what makes this film so special? What does it owe to having such a fanatical and loyal audience? We will investigate this now.
Despite the long-standing debates over whether his novels are considered literary works, at least some of Stephen King’s books are of such quality that they leave no doubt. In fact, some literary critics argue that King is more of a good storyteller than a novelist. Among the novels adapted for the cinema, Stanley Kubrick‘s “The Shining” (1980) is considered the most successful, although Stephen King hates this film. The original novel, which Kubrick adapted freely, is actually good too. It is interesting that King generally does not approve of film adaptations that are considered successful. Perhaps the author does not want the film to overshadow his book.
Interestingly, Stephen King’s thoughts on “The Shawshank Redemption” are positive. This may be due to his trust in screenwriter/director Frank Darabont. In fact, the history of “The Shawshank Redemption” actually began a year after it was written, in 1983. A story that King wrote in 1983, “The Woman in the Room,” was adapted by Frank Darabont into a short film in 1987. King watched this film in some way and congratulated Darabont with a letter he wrote. This friendship that started between them led to Darabont buying a story of the author’s that was published in 1982 for a very cheap price in 1987. That story is “The Shawshank Redemption”…
“Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” is a story that is part of Stephen King’s book “Different Stories,” which does not have any horror elements. The other two stories, “The Body” and “Apt Pupil,” were adapted into films directed by Rob Reiner and Bryan Singer, respectively.
Frank Darabont, who had previously written the script for “Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” worked on the adaptation of King’s story and had also worked on the scripts for “The Fly II” and episodes of “Young Indiana Jones.”
Darabont considered Rob Reiner’s offer of $2.5 million to direct the film adaptation of “Shawshank,” but ultimately decided to direct the film himself. He cast Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the lead roles, with a budget of $25 million, which ended up ballooning to $35 million.
Upon release in September 1994, the film did not do well at the box office, but received positive reviews from film critics. Despite being nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Freeman, and Best Adapted Screenplay, the film did not win any awards.
However, the film’s reputation grew through word of mouth, and it became the most rented video of 1995. It eventually turned a profit through DVD sales and TV syndication, proving to be a success despite its initial box office failure.
What is the reason for the fact that a prison drama, which can be considered low-paced, initially failed at the box office but later became so highly regarded on various “all-time” lists? In short, why has this movie been loved so much?
Hollywood has a rich history of highly successful prison dramas, such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962), “The Great Escape” (1963), “Brubaker” (1980), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), and “Papillon” (1973), among others. These films contain effective human stories and most of them depict how people under captivity maintain their spirits against great difficulties. “The Shawshank Redemption” follows the golden rule set by all of these movies from the very beginning. The first 25% of the film introduces the characters, sets their direction and goals, and reveals the challenges and threats they will face. The middle 50% shows their efforts and developments toward achieving their goal, and in the final 25%, the film speeds downhill toward the phase of achieving the ultimate goal. In the following lines, we will reveal where “The Shawshank Redemption” fits into these stages.
We find ourselves in 1946. A young and promising banker named Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is waiting inside a car, drunk. The song “If I Didn’t Care” is playing on the radio. With this song, we are introduced to a man who has been hurt by love and is now drunk and spying on a house across the street. Andy’s wife is inside, cheating on him with a golf player. Andy takes out his gun from the glove compartment, loads it with bullets, and stumbles out of the car, heading towards the house.
In a parallel storyline, we go to the courtroom where the prosecutor is questioning Andy, who claims he didn’t kill his wife and her lover, but all the evidence suggests otherwise. In a short trial scene, the prosecutor presents strong evidence that Andy may have committed the murders. The judge delivers the verdict: Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences for the murder of two people. Andy’s clean face is frozen with terror.
The first detail we notice is the missing gun, which will make us doubt whether Andy is guilty or not. The second detail is that we saw Andy heading towards the house with a gun in his hand. However, Robbins’ clean face and his bewildered and humiliated expression in court make us sympathetic towards him. As the heavy iron door of the prison slams shut, the director’s name appears on the screen. This signifies that everything that follows will take place behind this dark door and that he will be the one to tell us about it. The credits end here. In the first eight minutes, we have met the protagonist of our film. Now, it’s time to meet our second hero.
Ellis Redding, also known as Red, is trying to convince five officials at the Shawshank prison that he is rehabilitated after serving 20 years: “I have learned my lesson, and I can honestly say that I have changed. I am no longer a danger to society.”
Red’s request for parole is stamped with the word “REJECTED” in big red letters. As he walks out to the prison yard, he begins to narrate the story. He explains his position in the prison – he’s the guy who can get you anything you want. Even when Andy Dufresne asked him for Rita Hayworth in 1949, he said “no problem.”
Director Darabont shows us the arrival of the “fresh fish” by taking us on a tour of the Shawshank prison from above with a helicopter shot. This is one of the film’s most impressive scenes. We see Andy at the back of the prisoner bus, dressed in a suit and looking sad. The prison guards, led by Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), let the prisoners off the bus. Andy’s entrance to the prison building is shown in a special shot. As he enters the building with chains around his wrists, he lifts his head and the camera follows him up. It’s like we’re entering a stone castle that would be the setting for a horror movie.
Prison warden Sam Norton (Bob Gunton) presents the new prisoners with Bibles in his hand. Norton is actually the film’s false prophet, as we will later discover: “Rule number one: no blasphemy. I won’t have any of that. Two: you’ll follow me or you’ll regret it. I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible… Here, you’ll receive both.”
Andy and the other prisoners are stripped naked, washed with high-pressure water, and sprayed with a white powder that looks like talcum powder. They are stripped of their identities. This is the moment when they are cut off from the outside world. They are given identical clothing and Bibles. Their prison life has begun. Narrator Red describes their first night in prison with well-written expressions:
“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing shit they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home… that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
Shawshank, The Prison of Hell
One of the new prisoners really does cry that first night and is brutally beaten to death by head guard Hadley. This event is like a short trailer for the hell hole Andy has fallen into. It describes the difficult situation our heroes are in and introduces us to one of the film’s threats, Hadley. The morning after, we are introduced to Andy and Red’s fellow inmates at Shawshank. Among these inmates who will later become Andy’s disciples, we notice an elderly prisoner named Brooks. Brooks has been at Shawshank for a long time, and he has been entrusted with the responsibility of the library. He feeds a crow chick that he has named Jake. Director Darabont skillfully weaves Brooks’ story, which originally only took up a paragraph in the original story, into the script. (He will use the same trick in his 1999 film, “The Green Mile”). It is also clear that Brooks feeding the crow is a reference to “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
We continue to discover the threats within Shawshank. This time, we encounter a group of rapist inmates known as the “Sisters.” The worst of the bunch is a man named Bogs, who makes advances on Andy during shower time. Andy’s rejection does not deter him. Later, as Red warns him to be cautious around the Sisters, Andy asks for a small rock hammer to pass the time. Red advises him not to use it to kill anyone or dig a tunnel. Andy smiles and says, “You’ll know when you see it.” In a later scene, we see just how small the hammer is, as Red does. Red describes Andy from his own point of view: “He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.” Red’s endorsement of Andy from the beginning of the film endears him to the audience even more. This is precisely when Bogs, the most vicious of the Sisters, rapes Andy, further solidifying his status as a victim.
“Shawshank Redemption” is a movie that tells the story of Andy’s two-year stint in prison, where he faces constant abuse and violence. This first quarter of the film sets up the characters and their struggles, while the next half follows Andy’s resilience and determination to fight back.
Thanks to Red, Andy is chosen to be part of a team of prisoners who work on repairing the prison roof for a few weeks. During one of these workdays, Andy helps the head guard with a legal issue and in return asks him to bring cold beer for his fellow inmates. This act becomes Andy’s first miracle, providing some relief to the oppressed prisoners and allowing them to feel like free men for a moment.
Andy goes on to perform more miracles, such as playing opera music over the prison’s closed-circuit system and helping to create a rich library for the inmates. These moments in the film draw parallels to the miracles performed by Jesus in the Bible, with Andy becoming a Christ-like figure who brings hope and redemption to those around him.
The prison is depicted as a corrupt and immoral institution, with a warden who initially appears to be a pious man, but is later revealed to be using religion to justify his own evil deeds. Despite the hardships he endures, Andy becomes a leader and inspires his fellow inmates to believe in him and in hope. The film also implies that salvation may be found in the Bible, adding another layer of depth to this powerful and thought-provoking story.
Rita Hayworth on Stage
The scene in which the prisoners watch “Gilda,” a 1946 film that made Rita Hayworth one of Hollywood’s legends, serves as a nod to the power of cinema in “The Shawshank Redemption.” In this scene, we see the inmates enthusiastically watch the moment when Hayworth appears on screen for the first time. In the film, Gilda’s husband, a casino owner, introduces his wife to his right-hand man, Johnny, as the “new bird in his cage.” However, later on, Gilda will join forces with Johnny and cheat on her husband, ultimately flying the coop (quite fitting, don’t you think?). Andy asks Red, who boasts about being able to get anything inside the prison, whether he can bring Rita Hayworth. Red promises to get him a large poster of her.
Film watching is the one activity that makes the prisoners forget their current situation and equalizes them, providing them with hope. The film pays tribute to the power of cinema and the role it plays in providing the inmates with an escape from their troubles. Watching movies together is the only thing they enjoy doing as a group. And in the end, it is the posters of cinema goddesses like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch that will help Andy achieve his freedom.
With the warden exploiting Andy’s banking genius to do his dirty financial work, our protagonist enjoys a temporary respite from the harsh realities of prison life. However, the arrival of fresh fish Tommy changes everything. Tommy reveals that he knew a thief who broke into a famous golfer’s house and killed him and his girlfriend. Andy shares this information with the warden, thinking he will help clear his name. But the warden has no intention of helping Andy, as he already has a free accountant to help him with his money laundering schemes. The warden throws Andy into solitary confinement and orders the murder of Tommy by head guard Hadley, leaving our hero in a dire situation and losing hope.
This part of the movie completes the first 50% of the story, where it seems like evil is going to win and our hero has lost all hope.
Andy Dufresne has been in Shawshank for 19 years, having spent his life in captivity for a murder he did not commit. During this time, he has lit small lights in the midst of all the bad conditions, teaching Red and the people around him not to lose hope. It is time for Andy to escape from Shawshank. In his final conversation with Red, he tells him he has to choose between living fast or dying fast.
Andy makes a request to Red like a will. He tells him that if he gets out, there is something very important to him buried under a oak tree in a place he describes, and that it is a stone that does not belong to this world, hidden under volcanic glass. This is one final advice that keeps Red from losing hope.
Darabont puts the suspicion of Andy’s suicide both in the minds of his friends who love him and in the minds of the audience. However, Andy has chosen to live fast, not die fast. Andy makes his escape (rebirth) that night by stealing the warden’s suit and shoes and digging a tunnel with a small pickaxe that he has hidden behind the Raquel Welch poster for years. He has hidden the hole he opened in the wall first with Rita Hayworth, then with Marilyn Monroe, and finally with Raquel Welch.
After the news of Andy’s escape, Darabont has Red tell the story of his escape in a beautiful narrative. Andy crawls through the narrow sewage pipes of the prison covered in filth. It is raining and Andy falling into a puddle after climbing out of the pipe recalls his resurrection 40 days after Jesus was crucified. Andy experiences a kind of purification (baptism) by falling into the water. He opens his arms up to God as if thanking him. The Andy in Shawshank is dead, and a new Andy is born. The new Andy has also obtained financial security by hiding the warden’s dirty money in a bank account under a fake name. While sending the warden’s ledger to a daily newspaper, he also left his own Bible for the warden. When the warden opens the Bible, he is surprised to see that a section has been carved out to the size of a small pickaxe. He remembers saying to Andy while returning his Bible during a cell check, “Salvation lies within.” Andy left a note at the beginning of the Bible that reads, “Dear warden, you were right. Salvation lies within.” When the warden opens the “Exodus” section of the Torah, he sees that a small pickaxe fits into a section carved into the pages. This is another notch in the film’s Bible connection: Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.
The manager commits suicide in his office, and the chief guard Hadley is arrested for killing Tommy. Shortly thereafter, Red’s 40th year in prison is up, and his parole request is granted. When Red is released, he does what Andy asked him to do: he finds the buried box that belongs to him, which contains a sum of money and a letter from Andy. Andy is waiting for him in the Mexican seaside town he told Red about. In the original story’s ending, Red expresses his hope to someday join his friend, if he can gather the courage. The story ends there. However, Darabont makes one more change and shows us the two friends meeting on the beach. “The Shawshank Redemption” ends with this scene…
First of all, the changes that Darabont made to the original story are truly the right moves that will affect and move the audience. For example, in the original story, Tommy is not killed but transferred to another prison by the warden. The brief story of the elderly prisoner Brooks becomes a poignant short film in the movie. The implication is made that if Andy had not become friends with Red, the same fate may have befallen him as well. In the original story, there is no single warden. Warden Sam Norton is the third and final warden of the story. His suicide is a decision made by Darabont. These changes are Darabont’s tricks as a screenwriter to capture the audience.
The movie has all the tricks that this kind of films carry. The message is also conveyed very strongly. A man brings hope where hope is lost. Especially he provides redemption for the character of Red. Even Thomas Newman’s music contains connotations of “hope.” Despite taking place in a prison, the film provides therapy for the audience. It speaks to the subconscious more than other “losing hope” films. Darabont solidly puts this together on three different pillars:
- By making religious and faith-based references
- By using classic story themes such as divine justice and patient dervish
- By expertly using the possibilities of cinema (screenplay, music, acting, angle and use of objects)
The film has two points that stand out, or rather, two points that may bother some viewers. First, did we really need to see Andy and Red reunite at the end? Ending the film when Red decides to find his friend, just as King wrote it, would have been a more fitting finale. Second, it’s a bit fantastical to think that even prisoners in such dire circumstances would be so moved by Mozart.
Despite these flaws, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a powerful film, with one of the best depictions of male friendship in cinema. While it initially seems like a misogynistic film, with Andy suffering because of his cheating wife, it’s ultimately the posters of women on his cell wall that provide him with the tools for escape, as nobody suspects a heterosexual man of hiding a tunnel behind them.
Although the main character is white, the film’s guide is Red, a black man, and the film stands out from other prison dramas by featuring a happy ending in which Andy successfully escapes the corrupt system. The film celebrates and condones Andy’s illegal rebellion against the corrupt warden, making it an unconventional and memorable film.
The film’s attention to detail, whether it’s the religious references or its adherence to Vladimir Propp’s theory of fairy tales, enhances its emotional resonance and helps cover up any plot holes. Ultimately, “The Shawshank Redemption” is beloved for its ability to appeal to people from all walks of life.
Director Frank Darabont attempted to replicate the film’s success with “The Green Mile,” another non-horror Stephen King adaptation, but it failed to capture the magic of “The Shawshank Redemption.” However, Darabont later took a bold approach with his adaptation of one of King’s darkest stories, “The Mist,” which left audiences in shock.
Last modified: September 24, 2023