In August 1982, Stephen King released his new book. It was something of a portmanteau novel combining four separate novellas under the title Different Seasons, linking each with reference to the changing seasons. One of the novellas was a little fable called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”. So was born a tale of hope and its redemptive power. In 1987, an aspiring young film-maker and screenwriter named Frank Darabont optioned the rights to make the story into a feature film for the princely sum of $1. He had impressed the novelist with a previous adaptation and the pair had maintained a pen pal relationship over the years. This was to say the least something of a coup for Darabont. The director Rob Reiner has been desperate to acquire the rights to Shawshank having offered $2.5m in the hope of writing and directing his own adaptation to have starred Tom Cruise as the main protagonist Andy Dufresne and Harrison Ford as his friend Red. However Darabont had his own vision for the film and saw it as his opportunity to make something special. Thankfully for all of us, he got to realise his vision.
In Portland, Maine in 1947, a wealthy young banker named Andy Dufresne, played with a Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz like charm by Tim Robbins, is accused of murdering his adulterous wife. She had left him for a local golf pro and the pair of lovers had been found murdered the next morning. Andy protests his innocence; he went to the house on the night in question and sat in his car drinking with a loaded weapon which he later claims to have thrown in the river. He is found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences to be served at Shawshank State Penitentiary. We soon learn that Shawshank is a violent and brutal place overseen by the corrupt religious ideologue Warden Norton, a fantastic career best performance from Bob Gunton, and the thoroughly evil Captain Byron Hadley, played by Clancy Brown. Andy’s quiet and aloof manner is taken by his fellow prisoners as an indication that he sees himself as a cut above. It is not until a couple of months of passed that he speaks a word to anyone. The man he chooses is Red, a prisoner who knows how to get things. Whatever you require, Red will provide. Morgan Freeman delivers perhaps his greatest performance as Red imbuing the character with wit and charm while retaining a hard edged outlook on prison life borne of his own life sentence. Andy asks Red to procure a rock hammer; he was a collector of rocks in his former life and wishes to do so again. He later asks Red to procure him a poster of Rita Hayworth. As the year pass by, the pair develop a friendship, something to hold onto against the bleak landscape of the prison. Andy is targeted by a gang of rapists, the Sisters, led by the malevolent Boggs. He is repeatedly attacked, sometimes fighting them off, sometimes not.
Eventually Andy manages to find himself useful in aiding the corruption at the heart of Shawshank and in particular Warden Norton. Years pass and we find ourselves moving through the 1950s and 60s. Andy is put in charge of the prison library and freed once and for all from the attentions of the Sisters. Throughout the decades of drudgery and setbacks, Andy maintains the hope of eventual freedom. Red on the other hand comes to accept that he may never leave the prison. As we reach a thrilling and life affirming ending, we are left in n doubt that hope can overcome all and bring redemption to those who have long given up on it.
I am determined to keep as much of the plot under wraps as I can for those unlikely few who have yet to see the film as it is such a joy to behold. Andy overcomes so much and yet maintains a lifelong friendship with Red. It would destroy lesser men and indeed the film certainly hints that Andy has taken all that he can take.
There are too many superlatives which could be applied to the film so I will only offer up a few small thoughts. The nuance and exactitude of Darabont’s storytelling is something to behold. There are no moments of fat on the script, it is tight, well thought out and leads to the finest of denouement. In terms of performances, the film is replete with some really fine turns. Tim Robbins perfectly captures a vulnerable and quiet man who is thrust into hell but hopes to retain his human dignity. He seeks only peace where others might need revenge. Morgan Freeman is equally adept as Red or Ellis Redding to give him his full name. He manages to bring a sense of loss to the character. A man who knows that but for one stupid mistake as a young man he could have lived his life. It is this sense of loss which drives him to survive and not rely on superfluous (in his mind) things like hope.
Of course every hero needs an enemy and in Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, Andy has one for the ages. From the first moment we meet him, he is a steely eyed zealot determined to enforce absolute rule on the prisoners. Much like Jesuit missionaries or the crusaders of old, he cannot be reasoned with and has a quote from the scriptures to justify all eventualities. Yet he is a deeply immoral man, through the use of Andy’s skills he creates a vast network of corruption with ill-gotten money flowing toward him.
Ultimately the central theme of the film is justice or the lack thereof. Andy may find redemption but he never gets justice. Neither his wife nor her lover could be said to have received it either, their true murderer remaining unaccounted for. Warden Norton uses his own method to avoid the long reach of justice. I suppose the heart of the film is that you can’t rely on outside forces to deliver you safely; it is only true personal determination that we can hope to survive.
Having watched the film again for the purposes of this, it is strange to think that it was a commercial failure on its initial release, earning a grand total of $16m before it left cinemas. It was however well received by critics and went on to garner seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was only when it reached the home video market that it truly began to be seen by cineastes as the triumph it is. In the years since, the legend has grown to the stage where it is now Number 1 on the IMDB 250 and appears unlikely to be toppled any time soon. It has become something of a Western cultural touch stone which everyone sees at some point. For that alone, I think Stephen King got his $1 worth.