Writer-director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption gets more right than just improving the title. It fleshes out King’s slender tale of a prison inmate, wrongly accused of murder, and his meticulously executed escape plan into an entirely satisfying, fully rounded two-hour feature. It might not be the best film derived from the King oeuvre, but it certainly has the broadest appeal. The first and most obvious reason for that, is it’s not scary, which may perplex diehard King fans but, believe it or not, a lot of people don’t like movies that deliberately set out to put the wind up them. It’s also a timeless story that touches on old favorites like friendship, hope, altruism and, as the name suggests, redemption. It has its full quota of uplifting moments, counterbalanced with strategic downers, and it’s populated by a cast of vivid characters, unambiguously (or ambiguously enough to keep things interesting) divided into goodies and baddies. With Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in the leading roles, it’s perfectly cast, beautifully acted and, in all other respects, a top-notch production of impeccable quality.
The film received glowing reviews on its release, received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and promptly bombed at the box office. In retrospect, that’s not entirely surprising. Prison movies hadn’t enjoyed much popularity since the heyday of Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien (ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, 1938), and neither the title nor the poster, which depicted a cruciform figure caught in a downpour, gave potential ticket-buyers much to latch onto. With the internet in its infancy, it took repeated showings on cable TV to find an audience and to get the all-important word of mouth flowing. When it did, something strange began to happen. Plucked from the Blockbuster bargain bin of history, it became one of the most beloved movies ever made.
The list of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION’s (1994) attributes is impressive, but no more than you’d expect from any prestige studio production. And yes, it’s a compelling story, well told: Mild-mannered banker Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is wrongly convicted of killing his wife and winds up serving a life sentence at the film’s titular slammer. On the inside he is befriended by sagacious fixer Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Freeman, on signature form) from whom he learns to accept his fate with equanimity. As the years pass, Andy selflessly dedicates himself to improving the lot of his fellow inmates while bringing down the prison’s corrupt warden. His saintly behavior, is, however, the perfect cover for a brilliantly conceived, agonizingly drawn out bid for freedom.
Again, it’s a terrific yarn. But the reason for SHAWSHANK’s miraculous resurrection, a year or more after its release, is that it was something more than that; something more, to coin a cliché, than the sum of its constituent parts. It is one of those rare mainstream movies that touches audiences on a deeper emotional level than standard Hollywood fare is designed to. Much has been made of the Christ allegory and it’s there is you’re looking for it, but that’s not what floated most people’s spiritual boat (it’s alluded to by the poster but, for the record, Darabont refutes it entirely). What makes SHAWSHANK special for so many people is more primal than any religious symbolism. Its overarching motif is freedom, which might sound obvious since the film is essentially about a prison break, but we are, as you might’ve guessed, in more abstract territory here. Freedom, and the yearning for it, takes many forms. Before Andy makes his escape from Shawshank, for instance, he has freed himself from its nonphysical constraints by mentally rising above them. There are few people who, when pressed, would not admit to some element of their life that they would wish to escape from. Debt, addiction, anxiety, pain, depression, a dead-end job, a bad relationship, you name it; everyone, in some way or another, is seeking that perfect white sandy beach of the soul. It’s SHAWSHANK’s ability to tap into that yearning, without being either schematic or patronizing, that makes people love it, often without even realizing why.
For most SHAWSHANK fans, words like ‘motif’ and ‘allegory’ are the preserve of pretentious cineasts – which they are – but they would still admit that their relationship to it is more deeply felt and more enduring than the usual feel-good hit. “It’s very important to people,” said Robbins in a 2018 interview on NPR. “And it’s beyond just liking the film. It is more profound than that. I’ve had people tell me that it’s shifted the way they think, that it made them understand a deeper truth about themselves.” How much of that was intentionally built in from the outset is debatable. There is no doubt that freedom and escape are thematic as well as narrative elements of Darabont’s original script, as they are of King’s novella. But it’s in the finished film as a whole, with all the miraculous transformations that occur between script and screen, that they find their fullest expression. Even so, Shawshank evidently had a distinctive aura from the get-go. Rob Reiner (who directed 1986’s STAND BY ME, another beloved King adaptation) loved Darabont’s screenplay so much he offered him the unheard-of sum of $2.5 million for the chance to direct it himself. Darabont refused, sensing, he said, that it was his “chance to do something really great.” Warner Bros. too showed unprecedented faith in the project. Despite of its disappointing theatrical run, the studio shipped 320,000 copies of the film to video rental stores in the US, a figure utterly at odds with its box-office performance. It became the most rented video of 1995, and one of the highest-grossing video rentals of all time.
If Shawshank is among your favorite movies, you’re in good company. It’s Morgan Freeman’s favorite among his own films, Raquel Welch (who plays a not insignificant role in proceedings) is a big fan, as is Ted Turner who sold it to TNT, his own network, for a pittance to ensure that it was broadcast regularly and often. It has a 98 per cent audience rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website and is number one on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 1000 movies list. Stephen King rates it highly too. In fact, he liked it so much he never cashed the $1000 check Frank Darabont paid him for the film rights. Instead, he had it framed and sent it to Darabont with a note that read, “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.”