By: Garrick Hoffman, Guest Editorial
“Polls and rentals reflect popularity, but don't explain why people value ‘Shawshank’ so fervently. Maybe it plays more like a spiritual experience than a movie.”
So went the words of the famed film critic Roger Ebert in his review of The Shawshank
Who could have ever predicted that such a dark and morose prison drama, with almost no female actors and a limp box office turnout, could have gone on to resonate with audiences so much that it has solidified itself as one of the most popular films of all time?
Fast forward 25 years since its release and The Shawshank Redemption is still one of the most enduring films, with a permanent home in the hearts of so many.
Not only does it have a rating of 98% by audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, it still holds the No. 1 spot on the IMDb Top 250.
To commemorate the quarter-century since it opened in theaters on September 23, 1994,
Cinemagic in Westbrook held a screening that I couldn’t not attend. Homework? It’s gonna have to wait. Shawshank is my favorite movie of all time and has been for more than a decade. If I didn’t see it in theaters, I may never be able to…or I’d have to wait another five to ten years. No thanks. I’ve made it a tradition of mine to watch Shawshank at least once a year, so watching it in the theaters for the first time was a treat. I still marvel that at almost two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like a long movie – a feeling I remember having when my uncle first showed it to me when I was 13.
This movie is unique because not only is it one of those rare films that is a great adaptation of a story originating in literature, it’s a better one.
Director and screenwriter Frank Darabont adapted the film from Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, a piece featured in his book Different Seasons.
The story centers around the life of Andy Dufresne, a banker from Portland, Maine, who is accused of murdering his adulterous wife and her lover.
Andy, played by Tim Robbins, is sentenced to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary where he befriends a man named Red, an inmate played by Morgan Freeman, who was imprisoned for murder and serves as the go-to guy for myriad contraband.
We watch through Red’s lens as Andy endures his trials, wins the respect of the nefarious Warden Norton and his guards, and uses this respect to his advantage in some clever ways.
In adapting the story, Darabont took some liberties with Rita Hayworth – something
readers are typically dubious of, or worse.
But they worked so well that they actually improved the story. Characters are expanded, fabricated or killed off, which enhances the drama.
The ending is modified, but much to the satisfaction of the audience and without treading into the cliche.
The movie “landed with a hollow thud at the box office,” director Frank Darabont
admitted in an interview in Shawshank documentary Hope Springs Eternal.
Paradoxically, it was highly acclaimed by critics and went on to earn seven academy award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography, but won none.
As Darabont mentions in an interview with Charlie Rose, this was also the year that Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction were released- some formidable competition indeed.
Though it won no Academy Awards, it went on to win the hearts of so many via
seemingly ceaseless cable television broadcasting (specifically on Ted Turner’s TNT network), word of mouth and VHS rentals. One can now find it in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.
So what made it deeply resonate with audiences, including me?
“Stephen King and Frank [Darabont], in his distillation of that story, had captured
something, some deep longing, some deep reality that is universal,” actor Bob Gunton, who
played the nefarious Warden Norton, asserted in Hope Springs.
“I still think it’s the best script I’ve ever read, and it’s the most complete piece of work in
script form that’s out there,” actor Gil Bellows, who played Tommy, remarked. Robbins and
Freeman have expressed similar feelings.
Ebert said in his 1999 review that Shawshank “creates a warm hold on our feelings
because it makes us a member of a family. Many movies offer us vicarious experiences and
quick, superficial emotions. ‘Shawshank’ slows down and looks.”
Shawshank is a movie that harbors so many wonderful qualities that it takes no fool to see
why it went on to garner a plethora of awards and nominations, tremendous respect and
admiration, and seemingly infinite replay on cable television.
It’s a film that can’t be described as just some “run of the mill” prison flick; it’s a character-driven film that conveys a multitude of emotions: hope and hopelessness, humor and sorrow, sympathy and contempt, the macabre and the tender.
We watch the poignant, intimate nature of Andy and Red’s relationship in the
haunting institution that it rests in. We vicariously feel the pain, exasperation, and sometimes elation through the characters; we share their emotions throughout their many trials.
And in the end, we deduce that the movie is a testament to one thing in particular: hope.
Over the years I’ve developed an affinity for employing Shawshank metaphors and
allusions in everyday life simply because they’re so rich in the movie.
Just this past summer, I included a quote from the film in an essay for a course, and referenced the ending as symbolism of how hope, resolve and effort can be tools for escape from our own hell.
I discussed how my own trials with depression were ameliorated by “carving my own tunnels” like Andy Dufresene did, even if it means crawling through 500 yards of human waste.
“We’ve been shown by Andy’s example that you have to keep true to yourself, not lose
hope, bide your time, set a quiet example and look for your chance,” Ebert mused.
To me this is the most powerful theme in the movie. While we delight in the friendships
and despair at the tragedies, it’s hope that stands above all, which is why Andy is so emphatic about it, and why it went on to be his greatest tool. We can face adversity and choose to assume a woe-is-me, hopeless-victim mentality in its wake, or we can choose to stand up to it like David did with Goliath.
We can be slaves to our own prison, or we can resolve to surmount those walls.
“One of the lessons is that you can overcome adversity,” Morgan says.
“And it starts inside yourself,” Rose responds.
Yes. That’s exactly right.
As an arguably infallible film that provokes a sense of introspection in its audience, The
Shawshank Redemption has earned that #1 title.
So if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor. Or, as Andy says, “Get busy living or get