Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Shawshank Redemption”

“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”.

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75 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The Shawshank Redemption”

  1. Great look at this exceptional film, Fogs. I still think this remains Darabont’s masterwork, even with some of his later films with SK material. Well done, my friend.

    • Thanks Mike, I appreciate the compliment, and the promotional assistance. Thanks for “Hooking me up” :D

      This is unquestionably his masterpiece, I dont think any of his other flicks are on this level, and I like Green Mile and The Mist each quite a bit.

  2. Haven’t seen this one yet, but it’s in the stack of waiting-to-be-reviewed movies on my coffee table

      • dont worry! I already knew the gist of it. There are actually lots of well-known movies I haven’t seen yet.

  3. So much good in this movie. I found myself oddly affected when I saw a news report from a short while ago that that tree at the end of the film was hit by lightning and destroyed.

    Definitely a MTESS.

    • Came across that during my research… heartbreaking isnt it? I wonder how many people had visited it after this movie.

      I’m glad spring is finally here. We had an untimely winter storm last year that decimated the trees in our state. They need a growing season, badly. So much damage. Everywhere you look still you can see devastated trees.

  4. Great review. I didn’t know the back story of King and Darabont; very cool! I assumed they had somekind of friendship being that they worked together on The Mist later.

    Shawshank is definitely a MTESS! I haven’t come across someone that hasn’t seen it in quite some time, but when I have in the past I nearly freak out at them.

    • It’s funny you mention The Mist. They’re both about hope… they just come at it from different angles. Shawshank focuses on the power of hope. The Mist focuses on the futility of losing hope. :D They’re very very different tones, to say the least.

  5. The year Shawshank was released I rarely went to the movies. I was spending all my weekends at the local comedy club since I was just starting out as a stand-up comic. But Shawshank was one of the few I did see and was amazed by it. As you can guess, this is part of my DVD collection. An excellent film in which everyone was cast perefectly. Great review.

    • Thanks Alan. Stand up, huh? Know any Shawshank jokes?

      Three guards and a warden are patrolling the yard. One of them says, Hey Warden….

      Naw, man, I dont know, LOL. This is why I dont do stand up!

  6. Another great selection in this series, man. This is such an excellent film, and perhaps my favorite prison movie ever. Freeman and Robins are both fantastic, and you’ve summed up all the great reasons why this film stands the test of time.

  7. Unbelievably, i only watched this for the first time a few months ago. It’s easy to see why it’s so revered. One of my favourite scenes is when Andy plays the music over the speakers and everyone just stops and listens, enjoying the simple pleasure they’ve been deprived of – in the same way as drinking the beer on the rooftop.

    Another great post in this series.

    • Thanks Terry. Great moment. I was sad I wasnt able to touch on it, thanks for mentioning it in the comments at least.

      Mozart – from Figaro. Cant hear that now and not think Shawshank (not that I hear it often or anything)

  8. This is one of those movies for me that always seems to have a spot in the top 10 movies that I want to see, but hovers near the bottom of that list and I’ve always picked something else to watch instead. I imagine I’ll watch it eventually.

  9. Fantastic review of this film I think you have got the emotion exactly right. Is there a better tagline than ‘Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free’ Amazing film and it is remarkable the amount of people that love it as IMDB suggests. Definitely a movie everyone should see

    • Thanks Patto, appreciate the compliment, thanks for posting up.

      I cant get over the IMDb rating. After 750,000 votes what an incredible average. Above a 9!

      Technically its tied with the Godfather (both have 9.2s) but the greater amount of votes Shawshank has gotten puts it in the top spot…

  10. This ranks in my top 5 all -time along with another King-Darabont collaboration called The Green Mile. ‘Reach down into your Soul’ film making doesnt get any better than this.

  11. This is absolutely a movie that everyone should see. One of my all time faves, always in my all time top 10, and frequently in my top 5. It’s overwhelming themes of the battle of dispair versus hope, of right versus wrong, of inertia versus action are powerful and inspiring. “Get Busy living or Get busy dying” indeed.

    But I think my favorite piece of dialog was the part about music and hope:

    “Andy Dufresne: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
    Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
    Andy Dufresne: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
    Red: Forget?
    Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.
    Red: What’re you talking about?
    Andy Dufresne: Hope. ”

    I get choked up every time.

    • Yeah, its really well done. It had to be. They’re pretty much spelling out the theme of the film in that moment. The exchange there between Andy and Red about hope being dangerous… if that was in the hands of a lesser filmmaker or actors it would clang loudly. But as it is, theyre all so good, it just comes across naturally. Great scene. Great flick. Glad you agree.

  12. Excellent choice and writeup, Fogs. I am still a little shocked that this is #1 on IMDB, but I won’t complain too much — it’s a 10/10 in my book.

    • Thanks Eric!

      It surprised me too, for awhile, but not anymore. It IS a great movie and the themes are very accesible… you dont have to do a lot of digging to get meaning out of it. So I can see how that would appeal to a broad array of movie fans.

  13. Wow, fantastic post about one of the most beloved movies of all time. Ask any guy out there and he will probably tell you he has seen and likes/loves The Shawshank Redemption. It’s a great film about perseverance, friendship and standing tall for who you are no matter where life brings you. Again, nice write up Dan!

    • Thank you, sir! :D

      Appreciate the kind words.

      It certainly is about perserverance, holy god, right? I mean, the stuff that Andy went through…

      But obviously, he was rewarded. As are all people who perservere.

  14. I think I’m one of the few people to have not fallen in love with this movie. Sure, I like it, and I think it’s well crafted, but it just seems so average to me.

    • Wow. Yeah, probably then. I dont think its average at all. LOL. Sounds like you know that though…

      I hate being stuck in those extreme minority film position viewpoints, its a bummer, I’ve been there.

      For me I would make that exact same comment on “Back to the Future”

  15. I have to confess that Shawshank is a movie that sat in my netflix pile for months and months, making me feel guilty as I kept passing it over, only to eventually send it back without seeing it. Probably I just didn’t want to endure the brutal stuff I had heard was in the movie. But over the years I haven’t felt compelled when people’s reaction to the fact that I haven’t seen this classic was to say in a sudden hushed, solemn tone ‘oh, you need to see it. it is a very good movie.’ You don’t make it sound like medicine! I’ve known that it’s one I should see, but now there is a very good chance that I actually will. So thanks for giving me *the hope* that I will love it when I do.

    • LOL Jan. Thats an excellent description there of how people react when you say you havent seen it. I can totally imagine that. :)

      Its true though, this is some serious classic stuff. You SHOULD see it. And it IS brutal… but its so worth while, it is most assuredly a trip that’s worth taking.

      Its a safe, safe bet that you’ll love it.

      Speaking of Netflix, wasn’t it you that recommended “Free Enterprise”? It came via Netflix the other day :D Will be watching it soon…

  16. I rented this movie in the summer of ’95 and watched it with my dad. When it ended, we turned and looked at each other for a long moment before blurting out at basically the same time, “That was amazing!” Then we tried to convince my mother to see it. “I don’t want to watch a prison movie,” she kept saying. And we kept saying, “It’s more than a prison movie! Trust us. You’ll love it.” Finally, after months, she watched it. To this day, whenever it comes up, she says, “Oh my God, that movie was SO GOOD!” And my father and I just look at each other and roll our eyes.

    How Shawshank didn’t win Oscars for Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman I will never understand.

    Thanks for the write-up!

    • Thank you DB – for the comment! Thats a funny story, I can totally picture that :D

      Yeah, Shawshank has grown in esteem over the years, there’s no doubt. And Gump has fallen off, too. I think this is widely considered one of those “Oscar botched it” years.

  17. Fantastic look at one of the best films of all time. I try and make a habit out of watching it at least once a year.

    I have to ask. Whatever happened to Tim Robbins? Did he do one too many films with Martin Lawrence?

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