“I will grant any student filmmaker the right to make a movie out of any short story I have written (not the novels, that would be ridiculous), so long as the film rights are still mine to assign. I ask them to sign a paper promising that no resulting film will be exhibited commercially without approval, and that they send me a videotape of the finished work. For this one-time right I ask a dollar.”
- Stephen King
In 1980, Stephen King made one of the first of his “Dollar Deals” with a 20-year-old filmmaker named Frank Darabont. The resulting short film, “The Woman in the Room”, impressed King so much that the two began a correspondence with each other, becoming friends in the process.
In 1987, Darabont optioned the rights to another of King’s short works, the novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”. Not for a dollar this time, but at a favorable price, in consideration of his relationship with King.
The resulting film would eventually become one of the most cherished movies of all time.
Darabont adapted the King story to screenplay himself.
When finished, he took the script to Castle Rock Entertainment, due to the history of the company. Castle Rock was founded by Rob Reiner (and others) following the success of Reiner’s “Stand By Me”, which was also based on a King novella. Darabont had had enough experience as a screenwriter to realize that his screenplay was in jeopardy of being damaged by studio interference, and he thought that Castle Rock would provide him the best possible chance of keeping it intact. Upon receiving it, Reiner offered Darabont $2.5 million for the rights – in order to be able to direct it himself. Reiner envisioned Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford for the lead roles. Darabont refused to sell, however, recognizing that he had the opportunity to do something special.
With a budget of approximately $25 million dollars, Darabont and his cast and crew began production on June 16th, 1993, shooting on sets and on location in Mansfield, Ohio, including the Ohio State Reformatory, which had only recently been closed.
The movie tells the tale of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is wrongfully imprisoned for life for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Truly innocent of the crime (he was only convicted due to circumstantial evidence), imprisonment is a hellish nightmare for Dufresne… not simply an ordeal, but an ordeal he’s been subjected to unfairly. A layer of injustice is present in every indignity he suffers.
Life in the Shawshank penitentiary is brutal for Dufresne. In addition to facing a life behind bars, Dufresne is faced with abusive guards and sexual assault from other inmates. He continues to fight for his safety and sanity, unsuccessfully for the most part, but refusing to accept his suffering willingly nonetheless. He refuses to surrender his spirit.
The one thing that makes his existence tolerable is the friendship he begins to develop with fellow inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding. In addition to his company, Red is able to procure goods from the outside world, and obtains for Dufresne some small comforts. The tools to practice his rock sculpting hobby, a poster of Rita Hayworth, small things that make his time more bearable.
Things begin to change for Dufresne when the prison roof needs tarring one summer. Red uses his influence to get his friends selected for the detail in order to enjoy the weather outdoors. While there, Dufresne overhears the head guard (Clancy Brown) bemoaning the money he’ll have to pay in taxes on an inheritance he’s recently received. Though it’s a daring risk, Dufresne approaches the Captain and advises him on a tax loophole that would allow him to avoid losing any money. He’s almost thrown off of the roof before he can get the information out, but once he has, things begin to change for the better for him.
The immediate benefit is an opportunity to drink beer for the inmates on the roof detail – that was Dufresne’s “charge” for the tax advice. But soon thereafter, the guards beginning watching out for him, beating the prisoners who had been sexually assaulting him mercilessly. The rapes and beatings stop for Andy.
The tax preparation begins. Guards line up from that point forward to have Dufresne prepare their returns for them.
He also begins to facilitate the Warden’s criminal enterprises. When Shawshank begins a prison labor program, opportunities abound for profiteering. Embezzlement, kickbacks, bribes… the dirty money pours in and Andy helps wash it. Using a fake identity he established via mail, Dufresne sets up bank accounts and makes investments, all untraceable to either the Warden or himself.
The scheme rolls on and the years pass. Andy Dufresne aids and abets, appeasing his conscience by improving the library for the prison and helping his fellow inmates earn their GEDs. Just under twenty years into his sentence, however, a new inmate arrives with some incendiary information. He knows who actually killed Andy’s wife. He knows who committed the crime Andy has been convicted for.
Far from being exculpatory, though, the information creates an explosive situation. The warden is not about to release Dufresne and lose his accomplice or jeopardize his ill-gotten revenue stream. Instead he has Tommy, the young informant, killed. Dufresne himself is sentenced to two months in solitary confinement and threatened in order to keep him in line.
And so begins Andy’s escape. For years, unrevealed to the audience ’til this point, Dufresne had been tunneling through the wall of his cell with the rock hammer he’d obtained and covering the hole with his posters. In the wake of Tommy’s murder and his time in solitary, he realizes he the time has come to make his attempt. He crawls through the wall, and busts through a sewer pipe, crawling through hundreds of yards of human waste to freedom, ecstatically emerging in the rain to be washed clean.
It’s one of the most iconic images in film.
After watching Andy beaten, raped, confined to solitude, forced into servitude and literally crawling through shit, we finally get to see him free. It’s an amazing moment, especially in light of the fact that such weather would not normally be considered beautiful. I recognize, obviously, that it’s cleansing for him. But to me it’s still a testament to the power of the movie that during that torrential downpour, with all the accompanying lightning and thunder… it all seems so overwhelmingly beautiful.
He also absconds with the records of the Warden’s illicit activities. This allows him to not only take the profits from their enterprise for himself, but to have evidence to release to the press and the police detailing the Warden’s crimes.
Faced with his imminent arrest, the Warden takes his own life.
The Warden isn’t the only character with despair to deal with. Though happy for Andy, Red has lost his best friend. Ironically, his state of emotional detachment plays in his favor at his parole hearing and he’s released from Shawshank. However, for a life long prisoner like Red, freedom is not equal to happiness. As we’re shown earlier in the film with the release of fellow inmate Brooks Hatlen, the “outside world” isn’t necessarily easier for institutionalized inmates. Brooks couldn’t make the transition to society, and wound up taking his own life.
Would Red be able to cope?
Morgan Freeman gives his most famous performance here. Kind, wise, patient. Tired. We’ve come to think of Freeman as an institution, as an icon, but that wasn’t the case prior to “Shawshank”. Not that he wasn’t an accomplished and respected actor, he had already been nominated for two Academy Awards (“Street Smart”, 1987 and “Driving Miss Daisy”, 1989). But he hadn’t achieved that “National Treasure” level of reputation yet. “Shawshank” would help him cement that. His work here would earn him another Academy Award nomination (he would eventually win for “Million Dollar Baby”). In addition to his fine performance, his narration gives the movie much of its soul.
Robbins is rarely mentioned amongst the acting greats, but he, too, is an Academy Award winner (“Mystic River”, 2003). Here, he gives an unearthly performance. He makes Andy Dufresne incredibly easy to sympathize, and difficult not to empathize with. It’s the moments where Dufresne lapses into his own thinking though, where Robbins really shines. He’s able to summon an almost ethereal countenance, as if he’s having an out-of-body experience… it’s a very special thing to watch. It’s completely understandable how a man in his situation would get lost in his thoughts, and Robbins makes watching it wonderful.
The main reason people love “Shawshank”, however, is its powerful message of hope.
That’s not revelatory, certainly, the film is overt in its themes. The movie’s poster announces it – “Fear can hold you prisoner, Hope can set you free.” Throughout the movie, Andy and Red debate the role of hope in a place like Shawshank. Andy’s persistence with the State for library funds. The opera in the courtyard. The emergence from the sewage pipe. Brooks and Red’s divergence. Zihuatanejo. The final words of the film are, in fact, “I hope”.
The power of and the need for hope is the central message of “The Shawshank Redemption”, undeniably, and it delivers it exceptionally well. That’s why the movie resonates so strongly viewers. We all have “five hundred yards of shit smelling foulness” to crawl through in our lives at one time or another. Disappointment, disillusionment, depression, disaster, death… We all experience situations, times or events which could lead to despair. Our challenges are unique to each of us, but we each have them. No one is immune. At points in all of our lives we’re faced with the essential spiritual decision presented in “Shawshank”…
“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”
“Shawshank” enthusiastically advocates for getting busy living.
“The Shawshank Redemption” was given limited release towards the end of 1994, and a wide release in early 1995 to coincide with the Oscars. It grossed a mere $28 million during its theatrical run, barely recouping its budget. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. It won none of them.
However, upon release on home video, the movie began to establish itself in the hearts of movie fans everywhere. It was the highest rented movie of 1995, and continued to grow in esteem through the years. It cracked AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) at #72, but most impressively, “Shawshank” now sits at number one on IMDb’s Top 250 - it’s the movie that is highest-rated by users of the Internet Movie Database. With almost 750,000 ratings taken into consideration, “The Shawshank Redemption” averages a 9.2 out of 10.
Powerful, extremely well crafted, and widely beloved.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.