The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Stephen King has a program where film students can adapt one of his short stories (NOT his novels or novellas) for only a dollar, provided they send him a copy of the film. King declares that the best of these was The Woman in the Room. It’s not a horror story but rather about a man wrestling with the decision to euthanize his dying mother. Heavy stuff. The film was made by a young Frank Darabont, who became a successful screenwriter of 1980s horror films (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the 1988 remake of The Blob, & The Fly II). The time came for him to make his feature film directorial debut and he went back to the Stephen King well to do a novella from Different Seasons called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” He’s gone on to direct the other King adaptations The Green Mile and The Mist, as well as the Frank Capra homage The Majestic. He developed the televisions series Mob City and the most successful cable series of all time The Walking Dead (being unceremoniously fired in the second season because his ideas cost more than AMC wanted to spend). He’s had a long full career but when he shuffles off his mortal coil the obituary headline will refer to him first and foremost as the director of The Shawshank Redemption, his first directorial outing. So is it the legacy he can be proud of?

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is a banker convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover. Wrongfully, he insists. But so does everyone else in Shawshank State Prison. We mostly see the story unfold through the eyes of Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), who serves the important prison role of being “a man who can get things.” Much serves to break Andy’s spirit: the pious-yet-corrupt Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), the ruthless Captain of the Guard Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), or Boggs Diamond (Mark Rolston) the head of a gang of prison rapists called the Sisters. Andy is more resourceful, though, than his quiet demeanor would suggest. While the skills of a banker might initially seems less than useful in a prison environment, Andy finds ways to put them to good use making life better for himself and his friends. Red cautions him about how dangerous hope can be, but Andy insists that it’s the only thing that matters, especially in a place like Shawshank.

About sixteen years ago, the American Film Institute did their “100 Years, 100 Movies” retrospective. Citizen Kane won as the “best film” on that list. It’s hard to argue with, as Orson Welles’s film pioneered many film-making techniques we take for granted today and was a compelling a character study inspired by one of the more fascinating figures of the 20th century (played by one of the others). Massive polls of film critics tend to also go towards Kane, or sometimes Jean Renoir’s masterful study of class The Rules of the Game. But enough about the ivory tower… what do the people think? On polls conducted amongst the general film-going public, there is one film that tends to come out on top. On IMDb’s Top 250 (a list that tends to be biased on the whole towards recent films, but has a pretty consistent top 10) this one film is usually the number one on the list (though it sometimes trades places with The Godfather). Need a hint? Then you’re not too bright since I just spent two paragraphs talking about it…

The Shawshank Redemption is one of my all-time favorite films. Given the above paragraph, there’s a pretty good chance it’s one of yours too. Why is that? Well, it’s been called something of a guy movie because it’s one of very few movies that focus on a long term friendship between two guys (the movie’s plot spans about twenty years). That’s probably part of it, sure, but it’s way more than that. Hope is, as the movie points out several times, a powerful thing. Hell, it got our current president elected. People love a good inspiration story, but so many of them end up being hokey. The Shawshank Redemption is not hokey. It is moving and powerful and just generally fantastic in every way. Watching Andy stick through every horrible spirit-crushing the place can throw at him and still (uh, vague spoiler) come out on top just raises the spirit in a profoundly satisfying way. There’s even a great counterpoint in the character of Brooks Hatlen (the late great James Whitmore), a man who gives up in the movie most tragic scene. (Fun total digression: his name is Brooks. He has a bird named Jake. My name is Jake Brooks. Stephen King is sending me coded messages. Awesome.) The four novellas of Different Seasons all are preceded by some season-based pun. The one before Shawshank is “Hope Springs Eternal.”

I actually did read Different Seasons before I saw The Shakshank Redemption (as well as before I saw Bryan Singer’s movie version of Apt Pupil but after I had seen Rob Reiner’s adaptation of “The Body,” Stand By Me). It changes things. The four or so wardens who come and go in the book are merged into one odious one. The time frame is cut from just shy of thirty to just shy of twenty years. Red is Morgan Freeman instead of a redheaded Irish guy. But every aspect of the film-making process is perfect. The casting is dead-on in every role. The great master Roger Deakins brings an epic scope to his cinematography. Thomas Newman delivers one of his best scores. And Frank Darabont proved himself a supremely talented director right out of the gate. Furthermore, it’s a career-best performance for Morgan Freeman, who has had one hell of a career. This is a movie of which I would not change a single frame. It is an example of the way cinema can buoy your spirit. It does everything a great movie should do. If you haven’t seen it, get on that. I hope you see it. I hope you enjoy it. I hope.

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