FEAR CAN HOLD YOU PRISONER. HOPE CAN SET YOU FREE.
The top 10 list that Internet Movie Database users have put together over the years is full of great movies. For many years now the number one slot has been occupied by a film that wasn’t a huge hit at the time. It received very good reviews and an overwhelming number of Oscar nominations. The fact that so many voted for the film to get nominated was perhaps an early indication that The Shawshank Redemption would become more popular over the years. In 2015, it was preserved by the Library of Congress, another sign that the years had been very kind to this Stephen King adaptation indeed.
In 1947, small-town banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sentenced to serve the remainder of his life at Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine after being convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. Andy’s first experience of life in prison is harsh, as he’s frequently assaulted by a gang called ”The Sisters”. Eventually, he befriends an older man, Red (Morgan Freeman), who’s been in prison for a long time. He also seizes an opportunity when it presents itself, offering the brutal captain of the guards (Clancy Brown) to help him with his taxes. That puts him in a unique position, solves his problem with ”The Sisters”, and introduces him properly to the warden, Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), who also needs his help…
Earlier collaboration with Stephen King
The very first film that director Frank Darabont ever made was a short adaptation of Stephen King’s novella ”The Woman in the Room”; the film was even considered for an Oscar nomination in 1983. Darabont and King agreed that the director could make a movie out of another one of the author’s short stories, ”Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”, but he wasn’t ready at the time. Darabont made a name for himself in the late 1980s and early ’90s as a screenwriter, before Rob Reiner gave him the chance to finally make another Stephen King movie. Significant themes of The Shawshank Redemption are rehabilitation and how to handle life in prison – is it possible to accept what has happened and come up with real motivations how to survive? In Andy’s case, everything is particularly challenging because he’s innocent; Robbins gives his character an almost angelic halo, but we care deeply about him.
The same goes for Red, as portrayed by Freeman. Their friendship, the bond between them, is one of the ingredients that risk making this film too saccharine (along with the general predictability), but the actors are so good at making these characters come alive that audiences don’t seem to care. Another memorable performance belongs to veteran actor James Whitmore who plays one of the oldest prisoners at Shawshank who’s suddenly released after spending most of his life locked up, finding his calling in the prison library.
As a whole, the film is well directed and engaging, in spite of its length, with a sweet music score by Thomas Newman; along with his even better Little Women soundtrack, this was his breakthrough.
I still don’t know why this film is considered a masterpiece by so many people out there. But Darabont understands Stephen King and found something in his works that the writer is not usually famous for – humanity. Remember, that’s also what made Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) a hit.
The Shawshank Redemption 1994-U.S. 142 min. Color. Produced by Niki Marvin. Written and directed by Frank Darabont. Short Story: Stephen King (”Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”). Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Music: Thomas Newman. Cast: Tim Robbins (Andy Dufresne), Morgan Freeman (Ellis Boyd ”Red” Redding), Bob Gunton (Samuel Norton), William Sadler, Clancy Brown, Gil Bellows… James Whitmore.
Trivia: Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were allegedly considered for the parts of Andy and Red.
Last word: “[Robbins and Freeman] had already developed a friendship and an effortless chemistry by the time we had started shooting. I was always on the outside of that, and I was content to be, because the bonding really had to happen within the cast. I just needed to let that happen and to be smart enough to point the camera at them. A smart director gets out of the way of that
and keeps the train going.” (Darabont, Indiewire)