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It’s Stephen King season. Autumn is breathing down your neck with winter close behind. October’s gnarled knuckles are about to knock on your door. Leaves of every rustic colour rustle down the roads. IT: Chapter Two is out in cinemas. King has a new book – The Institute – out this autumn. But we’re not going to talk about autumn anymore, we’re going to talk about spring instead.
The first story of Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons is a novella called “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” It sits under the happy three words “Hope Springs Eternal”. Each of the four stories in Different Seasons are listed under a season and we begin as we must with spring. But this isn’t about “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” It’s about Frank Darabont’s adaptation The Shawshank Redemption.
Young banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is arrested and swiftly convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank Penitentiary in Maine. There, he strikes up a friendship with lifer and prison fixer Red (Morgan Freeman) after asking the older, wiser man for a rock hammer. Between then and his escape Andy fights off rapists, becomes the guard captain Byron Hadley’s (Clancy Brown) tax man and improves the prison and his fellow inmates.
The Shawshank Redemption is a prison movie, sure, but it’s also the most successful and popular prison movie. Other movies like Papillon, Escape From Alcatraz or Cool Hand Luke were successful and popular prison movies but The Shawshank Redemption stuck around like cultural glue. The film, 25 years after its release, is still ranked number one on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) far ahead of Papillon which sits uneasily at number 248. Darabont’s film came out to rave reviews but it was a box office flop, at first. Word of mouth spread via Oscar buzz and a rerelease redeemed Shawshank.
Why though? Why wasn’t The Shawshank Redemption doomed to bargain bin obscurity? Why does it still reign at the very top of the internet’s most arbitrary and most famous film poll? Why does such a grey, dour and long film remain, ostensibly, the most popular film of all time? The answers to these questions, like the film, are pretty simple.
The Shawshank Redemption ran with the tag line “Hope can set you free” on its posters. It was that simple. The film, despite its unquestionably dull colour palette, captivated audiences with a story that revolved around compassion, resilience and the strength of the human spirit. It’s hard not to fall for that kind of stuff: after all, King had done it before with Rob Reiner and Stand By Me and he’d do it again with Darabont and The Green Mile. But The Shawshank Redemption was Darabont working at the peak of his powers as both a writer and director.
It’s safe to say that Morgan Freeman’s narration makes the film much as it made his career. It’s the spine of the film and like the best spines it’s strong but subtle. While the choicest quotes from the film might now seem cringey and tired from overuse there’s still a magic to them. Freeman’s performance in both voice over and onscreen builds from a beaten down man to a person who thinks that maybe hope isn’t the prison he thought it was and that daring to step out of the cage he’s built for himself might be the only thing that can save him. Red is the most well-rounded character in the film. We know he’s guilty of murder, of who we never find out, but it’s clear he regrets his decisions and has resigned himself to the fact that he will die within Shawshank’s walls, until Andy comes along that is.
Upon first viewing Tim Robbins can seem very bored when he plays Andy. But the more you watch it the more you realise that boredom is actually a steely resolve around a burning, righteous heart. There are moments when Robbins makes Andy almost mystical. A Christlike figure come to save the sinners, except poor Brooks, but it’s never their redemption we’re interested in: it’s his and Red’s.
Andy is a paragon of virtue. He barely drinks or smokes and he only fights when he has to defend himself. The Warden Norton (Bob Norton) is, despite his religious fervour, Andy’s polar opposite. He is a greedy, hubristic, evil man with a brute of a guard captain as his own personal sledgehammer. Between them they kill prisoners, commit tax fraud and put Andy in solitary confinement. But all of this just makes Andy’s eventual escape all the sweeter.
“500 yards. That’s five football fields. Andy Dufresne crawled through a river of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine, or maybe I just don’t want to.”
Red’s description of Andy crawling through a literal river of human shit in order to escape is the quote I most remember from The Shawshank Redemption. Is it heavy-handed that that was his method of escape? Definitely, but my God it works. Darabont may as well be beating his audience over the head with Jesus metaphors in this scene but it’s hard to think of an escape sequence that’s more satisfying outside of The Great Escape. That’s basically the climax of the film and it’s telling of Darabont’s inexperience as a director that the rest of the film is essentially a montage up to Red’s release but once again Freeman saves the day.
It takes a heart of stone not to get a little misty eyed at the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. Although Frank Darabont’s inexperience caused tension between him and Freeman he still managed to draw one of the finest performances of his career out of him. Although Darabont would go on to helm the overlong The Green Mile and the brutal, brilliantly nihilistic The Mist, it’s The Shawshank Redemption that remains his masterpiece. It’s easy to dismiss it as sentimental Oscar bait but that ignores the love and genuine care this film has both for its characters and its audience. Twenty-five years on and the last few lines are impossible to shake.
“I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend again and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.