The Shawshank Redemption. 1994. Directed & Written by Frank Darabont; based on the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King from his collection Different Seasons.
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows, James Whitmore, Brian Libby, & Mark Rolston.
Castle Rock Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 142 minutes.
We all know that The Shawshank Redemption is pretty much the most well regarded adaptation of Stephen King’s writing. There are some other great ones. As a horror fanatic, I do love Pet Sematary and The Mist, Carrie, among many more. But the greatness of King’s writing doesn’t always come through, even in some of the decently made films. Certainly not in the real abortions that have crawled onscreen like The Mangler (botched an awesome story of modern witchcraft for cheap and flashy horror) or the middle of the road adaptations such as Apt Pupil that are creepy enough but sanitise King to a degree where his original themes are nowhere near as strong.
The Shawshank Redemption is up there with the best of King adapted to film. If not right at the very top of the heap. Perhaps because it has everything you’d expect from one of his stories: good characters, interesting dialogue, and the darkness for which he’s known so well. Too many people consider him a strict ‘horror author’ but that’s only if they’ve never dug into his catalogue. Yes, he writes a lot of creepy stuff, plenty of horrific stories from novels down to the short stuff. Yet above all else he is a storyteller. He specialises, no matter the genre where you stick him, in getting the reader involved, drawing us in to a place of familiarity where we understand and know his characters before they’re plunged into some unpredictable, tense situation. You can put those characters in a jail, in a post-apocalyptic landscape, a far off fantastical version of the United States of America, or stuck in a car. With King, it’s always going to be interesting. And it just so happens Frank Darabont is the most capable director who’s proven themselves up the point of this writing in regards to adapting these tales for the screen. This is one of the most revered films for a reason. It isn’t just because liking it is popular, or something foolish. The Shawshank Redemption is a top notch work of cinema. One of the best out of the 1990s, and a towering force of dramatic power amongst films of its kind.
Part of why I’ve always so hugely admired Darabont’s work on this picture is that he took an excellent novella and adapted it brilliantly. The storytelling in the Different Seasons section labelled Hope Springs Eternal – “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” – is expert stuff from King. He’s one of my favourite writers because of his ability to really get us into the rhythm of his characters. The novella starts us right out in the perspective of Red (played in the film by Mr. Morgan Freeman a.k.a The God Damn Man). Instead of doing that immediately in the screenplay Darabont opts to give us a little preview of Andy Dufresne (the equally amazing Tim Robbins), as we see him the night of the crime he says he didn’t commit, a brief scene in court. Then we start into Red’s point of view. What I like about that is we’re given Andy’s perspective outside the walls before encroaching on prison territory, where Red is the man to follow. This opening sort of mirrors the entrance into jail that we experience alongside Andy, taking us from one side of the gate to the other. Almost chilling, in a way.
Moreover, Darabont generally sticks to the staples of the novella. Something I dig about short stories and novellas is that often their natural length is pretty conducive to adaptation onto film. With big novels that are between 300-500 pages, or more, you run the risk of omitting too much, omitting the wrong bits and pieces, which generally becomes a figurative minefield for a screenwriter. That’s why, far as I’m concerned, so much of King’s great works end up as utter shite on film. “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” is a 96-page novella, and if you work off the 1 page = 1 minute rule (not always applicable but just for general purposes) that comes out to just over an hour and a half. It’s feasable to see how Darabont was able to stretch that out a little bit extra to include particular sequences, visuals, so on. Whereas if you take a massive King book, some of the 800-1,000 epics, to try making a single film out of ALL THAT is far too ambitious. Maybe it’s why I trust Darabont most out of anybody else to adapt these awesome stories. He knows how to navigate the writing.
The strength of the relationship between Andy and Red is what sells the original story, so it’s no surprise the same goes for Darabont’s film. Even in the way Red talks about Andy, narrating the novella, you can feel the relationship in his tone. Only gets better for the fact Morgan Freeman plays the role. He has that great voice, and more than that he’s such a thoughtful, intelligent actor. He has a ton of range while still always giving us that star quality for which he’s known. His performance makes Red incredibly vivid. By the time the finale rolls round you feel as if you’ve spent all those years with him in prison. Of course the same goes for Tim Robbins in one of his best performances, up there with The Player, Jacob’s Ladder and a few others. His version of Andy Dufresne is every bit as affable, calm and collected as King’s characterisation. Then there’s the stretch where everyone wonders if Andy is about to kill himself, right before his big escape attempt – Robbins pulls you into that despair Andy’s feeling, that cold, dead look in his eyes, as he thinks about Zihuatanejo in Mexico. A bunch of other scenes reflect that empty void in Andy after all those years. However, it’s this moment between him and Red where he actually feels hopeless, hearing his long-time friend admit to being institutionalised himself and feeling like “shitty pipe dreams” aren’t worth entertaining. That scene could have been plenty less intense and emotional. Having these two men, specifically Robbins, together acting their asses off pushes it forward to be the calm before the storm. This is the scene preceding the plot’s climax. Without the emotional depth and range of Robbins, as well as Freeman, the reveal of what happens next would never reach the heights it does. Even if you see the big finish coming, even if you’ve read the novella by King, the acting takes us to that special place where the unexpected grabs you and doesn’t let go. Let’s hope they never remake this one. I don’t hate remakes, though I can’t see any other pair doing these roles justice to make it anything better than what both Freeman and Robbins accomplished under Darabont’s direction.
Like a lot of other cinephiles, I’ve watched The Shawshank Redemption many, many times. Literally, it’s probably been close to 200 times since first seeing it a little over two decades ago. It was one of those VHS tapes I threw on when coming home from school, eating lunch and watching 20 minutes before heading back to class. I’d view it in bits and pieces, sometimes as a whole. There are scenes I could just turn on to watch then put it away again. Yes, I’m a die hard Stephen King fan. I have a ton of his books on my shelf, I’ve read most of what he’s published, including his short stories and non-fiction writing texts. So there’s that bias, I guess. But this is just a damn good slice of cinema. Everything from the acting to the production, the period look of the prison and other locations, it’s all done to perfection. Roger Deakins as director of photography, giving us that signature look of his filled with extraordinary techniques which help this prison film look better than most. Sometimes movies with voice-overs, particularly those with lots, can get boring. Like Scorsese, Darabont is able to keep us enthralled, and his adaptation of King’s work allows us to indulge in a ton of story without every feeling bogged down.
I could preach the good word forever. Just know, this is absolutely one of the greatest films. No. Doubt. Rag all you want on nostalgia, or whatever. This is a work of incredible mastery, from the top down.