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”.

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

  1. Hi, fogs and company:

    Excellent work!

    Though not a huge fan of ‘Shawshank’. I’d read and enjoyed the short story in King’s ‘Changing Seasons’ when it first came out in print ages ago. It’s still one of the best adaptations of his works. Second only to Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’.

    Best things about ‘Shawshank’ are Clancy Brown’s Capt. Byron Hadley. Morgan Freeman’s Red and the prison itself. Still don’t understand the film’s high rating at IMDb.

    • Hiya Jack. Thank you, first off. Thanks.

      Yeah, the IMDb thing is surprising. While I hold this movie in high esteem, I am still surprised it sits at the top of the heap in the public’s perception. I’ve put a lot of thought into WHY over the course of the past few days, and here are the three reasons I would guess as to why:

      1) The mesaage of Hope. Bright, hopeful films always triumph over darker fare. Period. All other things held equal, a hopeful message wins.

      2) It’s extremely well made. The “Level of difficulty” may be kind of low, Darabont wasn’t attempting anything stylistic or anything, but the acting and directing were completely rock solid across the board. Utterly flawless craftsmanship.

      3) Its rewarding without being overly challenging. This isn’t 2001 a Space Odyssey or the Tree of Life or any type of film that requires anaylsis. The themes are right there for you, its narrated, it is straightforward as it gets. Yet it manages to be rewarding intellectually and emotionally.

      Those are my guesses at it, Jack.

  2. Actually, I have more to say regarding your above comment to Jack than anything else. I’m a fan, and though I think it’s slightly overblown I also think that that’s just a potential consequence of time.

    I definitely agree that Shawshank doesn’t really push any boundaries in terms of advancement of the craft, but like you I don’t think that matters. It’s often said that “simple” is more difficult to pull off than “complex”, because if one detail is out of whack in a work of art constructed simply, then the entire thing becomes noticeable and irrevocably marred. Meanwhile, more complicated and stylized stuff can fold errors ibehind that aforementioned stylization.

    So maybe Shawshank is straightforward and classical in terms of craft, but it’s done perfectly, which absolutely earns it some serious credit.

    I also think you’re onto something with how easy it is to read and process the film, though I’d add that it’s not immune to analysis; I’d wager there’s a lot to mine out of the film beyond its obvious surface qualities, but those obvious surface qualities are probably a respectable part of why it’s nearly universally beloved.

    Anyways, I’m rambling, but thumbs up on this entry, buddy.

    • No, youre not really babbling at all, that made sense, totally.

      There probably could be a lot of symbolism within if you choose to mine for it.

      I also agree, something simple really needs to shine. I mean, it needs to really be special if its going to stand out. Shawshank, of course, does.

    • Awesome Ankit, nice choice.

      It’s in my top 50, I’m not sure how high… lets see. Flickchart says…. Oooh. #45. LOL. Thought it’d be higher than that! Still, I’ve ranked over 1,000 movies, so thats not too shabby! :D

  3. There should be a Shawshank channel on cable that plays it 24/7/365. I would tune in anytime there is nothing else to watch (which would be often.)

    Great review, Fogs.

    So many quotable lines. You touched on some. My favorites: “What say you, Fuzzy Britches?” and “Lord, it’s a miracle!!! A man up and vanished like a fart in the wind!!!”

    Easily in my top ten all time.

  4. Always baffles me that this film seemed to fly under the radar when it was first released as I don’t know anyone that hasn’t seen it and loved it. It easily slips into any top ten list because its so perfectly pitched, acted and its such a great story. I remember the first time I saw this, so so long ago, and being blown away by the “twist” having been lucky enough not to know what happened! Its actually a film where I’m jealous of people that get to see it again for the first time! Great review and great choice!

    • Thanks Ben, I appreciate that! And thanks for posting up!

      I think… as to the “Flop” status of it, well, first off, it wasnt given wide release. So when a movie studio chooses not to push a movie, its not going anywhere. And then, too, it is a prison movie and it didnt star any bankable stars (Stars who are going to make a movie a blockbuster just by being in it). It caught on pretty quick as soon as it was released at home I think this was just one of those movies that everyone decided to wait til it came out at home. I know I did. I have to be honest.

      Thanks again for chiming in. :D

  5. Well-written and evocative summary. Your words bring me back to the film and the power it still has even after I have seen it a bunch of times. I’m on the side of the 750k+ people in IMDB that has given it such a high rating. I gave it a 10, a 5 in my own rating system, one of the few films I would not change anything about. Simply flawless. Morgan Freeman’s best role, a deserving nominee and an undeserving non-winner. 1994 was full of awesome timeless classics.

    • Agreed. And thanks for the compliment!

      I would have to give it my highest rating if I were reviewing it now, too. You’re right, what is there to change? Nothing, right?

      You’re right, too, Freeman got hosed. Not by not beating Hanks, Gump was a freight train that year, they just should have got out of its way. They should have entered him as a supporting actor, I think he might have won. I love Ed Wood, but cmon…

      I dont know. Tough year. Pulp Fiction that year too, and Samuel L was deservant, too.

  6. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite films and one of very few I would score 100% on reviews. Also my favourite Steven kind adaptations and there are alot of good ones. Great post I will follow this site :)

  7. Amazing film. Robbins was fantastic. I remember as a young kid reading the short story by SK and loving the theme of redemption and hope. Andy is a character we can all relate with.

    • Cool. Its a solid choice for your top spot, Chuck. The highest rated film according to IMDb, and that’s really saying something…

      It is a very emotional film. I think the scene where Andy finds himself free, in the rain is one of the most inspirational ever.

      Thanks for stopping by!!

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