The Shawshank Redemption

As I write this in February 2007, over a decade after its initial release, The Shawshank Redemption has taken on the status of a modern classic. People have paid website tributes to it; it routinely appears near the top of the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 Movies list (as of this moment it holds steady at #2, trailing behind The Godfather; in the past it has resided at the very top). All this for a movie that flopped theatrically, won no Oscars, and had a decidedly mixed critical reception. It has become, if you will, the Forrest Gump that is acceptable to worship because it didn’t take the box office and Academy by storm. People can gush over the movie (which is really no less manipulative than Gump) and feel they’re backing an underdog. It is the large found object of mainstream movie fans, a cult phenomenon that your grandparents could appreciate.

Not having seen it since its 1994 debut, I popped in the DVD just tonight, to see what the fuss was about. Had I missed something all those years ago? I remembered it as a good, solid, well-crafted drama, but certainly not one of the greatest films of all time. Having now revisited it, I stand by my 1994 assessment. The Shawshank Redemption, the first theatrical feature written and directed by Frank Darabont (he’d previously directed Buried Alive, a nastily entertaining made-for-TV thriller starring Tim Matheson and Jennifer Jason Leigh), is based on a 91-page story by Stephen King called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” which he wrote shortly after finishing The Dead Zone and eventually published in his collection Different Seasons. (The same collection has also yielded the fine films Stand by Me and Apt Pupil.) Darabont had also, in the early ‘80s, adapted the King story “The Woman in the Room” as a short film, and of course he went on to direct The Green Mile, another King prison drama. All King has to do is write one more, and Darabont can adapt it and complete the trilogy.

The aspect of The Shawshank Redemption that its admirers seem drawn to, first and foremost, is its transcendent theme explicitly stated in the film’s tag line: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.” (Indeed, the section containing the King story in the collection is headed “Hope Springs Eternal.” It’s interesting to note that “Apt Pupil” is headed “Summer of Corruption,” while “The Body” — basis for Stand by Me — is headed “Fall from Innocence.”) Hope is a major motif in story and film — the dangers of hope, the necessity of hope. Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) appears before us as one of fiction’s dustiest archetypes, the unjustly imprisoned saint (King dusted it off again for The Green Mile with John Coffey). Andy spends nineteen years in jail for a double murder he didn’t commit; his friend (and the story/film’s narrator), Red (Morgan Freeman), is actually guilty of murder — though in King’s story we’re told what he did, whereas in the movie we don’t find out, presumably to preserve our sympathy for Red. For much of the film we’re watching two sane, civilized men forging a friendship among savages, which include a cartoonishly brutal guard (Clancy Brown) and a weaselly warden (Bob Gunton) who in this telling isn’t merely a corrupt hypocrite — he’s also a murderer.

Darabont lets the movie breathe; he takes his time, though the film still feels compressed (it’s amusing to watch Robbins and Freeman “age” over the years, getting only a little more stylishly gray every 20 minutes or so). He’s a gifted director, but I’m not sure of him as a writer. His dialogue, when it doesn’t come verbatim from King, sounds inspired by King; when the guard refers to “God and sonny Jesus,” which he never does in the original story, it’s a classic King-ism. What sticks in the craw, though, are the scenes he adds to the story — none of which do much except lengthen the film and add plastic pathos.

The major addition, of course, is Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore in a terrific twilight performance that takes some of the starch out of the character), an old-timer inmate who runs the prison library and keeps a pet crow. Brooks (under a different name) is only alluded to in King’s story, in an anecdote about a prisoner who set his pet bird free upon being released; the bird was later found dead in the prison yard — it couldn’t survive on the outside. King meant this to symbolize the lifers who, upon release, can’t deal with life outside prison walls — they’ve gotten too used to the routine and don’t know how to function in a world where they’re no longer respected for their lengthy time in jail. Darabont had originally planned to have Brooks’ crow die, but decided against it.

As it is, Brooks gets his own subplot in which he is released and we see the tough, sad time he has in his brief existence outside Shawshank. This is touching in and of itself, but the movie seems to stop dead for a few minutes so that we can follow Brooks to his lonely end. Later, much too coincidentally, Red will be released, get a job at the same supermarket where Brooks worked (it looks like he’s even bagging at the same terminal), and get the same room where Brooks stayed — he carves his own name next to “Brooks Was Here” on the wall. If the crow had been found dead (symbolizing Brooks’ own inability to survive outside), and if Red had stumbled upon Brooks’ old room later, we would’ve been able to deduce Brooks’ fate without Darabont slamming the brakes on his movie to spoonfeed it to us.

In the other addition, Andy locks himself in the prison library and plays some classical music over the loudspeakers. Every scarred hardcase in the yard stands stock still, presumably moved to their souls. This isn’t remotely credible, and hints at Darabont’s Capra-esque streak, later to be given full bloom in the execrable The Majestic. Darabont has taken King’s rather hardboiled, Papillon-style tale of escape and upgraded it to uplifting Oscar bait. As it happened, Oscar didn’t bite, being too distracted by Gump and its opposite number Pulp Fiction that year. Darabont is a humane director, as he showed in the rather touching “Woman in the Room” (his best work to date), and he and master cinematographer Roger Deakins map out some appealing compositions of Kubrickian symmetry. He gets a convincingly haunted yet (sorry) hopeful performance out of Tim Robbins, though he also polishes Morgan Freeman’s halo a bit too much. This great actor deserves richer meat to sink his teeth into.

The bit where Dufresne stands in the rain and lets it wash off the mud and grime of imprisonment is presented without irony, though Raising Arizona had already parodied the cliché seven years earlier. Darabont is sincere to a fault, and that sincerity is what the movie’s fans cherish — it’s an old-school melodrama at heart, sturdy and forthright and upstanding, but without a whisper of complexity or wit. Perhaps movies have gotten so cluttered, sarcastic, and insecure that a movie so simple and squarely certain of its own virtue can be lionized as a classic.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, tspdt

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