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The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

A 1994 movie directed by Frank Darabont

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Fear Can Hold You Prisoner; Hope Can Set You Free

  • Jul 14, 2009
  • by
In 1982, Stephen King released a book he merely called "Different Seasons".  It was a book that included four novellas that weren't really horror at all.  It was a book that showed people that King could write something that wasn't about things that go bump in the night.  It was also one of the few books he released in the 80's that silenced his critics.  Temporarily.  Within it was a story called "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption."  It is a story that to this very day, even huge Stephen King fans seem unaware that he wrote in the first place.  When I often bring to people's attention that The Shawshank Redemption began as a novella from Stephen King, they always look rather shocked.  King himself enjoys relating a story in which he was at the supermarket and a woman came up and told him she didn't like his work because she doesn't like to be scared.  "Why can't you write more uplifting things like that Shawshank Redemption.  I like that."  To which King replied that he did write that.  And the woman didn't believe him.  Well, considering he mostly writes horror... watching this preview does make it seem like it couldn't be King.

The story itself caught the eye of Frank Darabont.  Darabont and King began their relationship with Frank was still in film school.  King had this thing called a "Dollar Baby".  Where he let aspiring student directors make films out of his short stories.  Darabont chose to adapt "The Lady in the Room" and King actually liked it.  So much so that King had no problem saying yes to Darabont when he asked if he could make a movie out of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  The film itself has a lot of history.  After writing the screenplay, it was apparently so well loved by Hollywood that several people offered to buy it off him.  Rob Reiner (director Stand By Me which is based off another novella in Different Seasons called "The Body") reportedly offered Darabont $20 million dolars just for the screenplay.  Darabont turned it down because this was his chance to become a great director.  The film took a while to get off the ground.  It was easy to fill Andy Dufrense with Tim Robbins, but casting Red proved problematic because they needed someone who also had a good narrative voice.  Eventually they approached Darabont with Morgan Freeman and at first Darabont wasn't sure that would work because Red was an Irish man and Morgan Freeman is--stereotypically--not Irish.  Supposedly black irishmen don't exist (I'm not kidding, this was the reason they didn't want Freeman at first).  But because of Freeman's soothing voice and his calm, sagelike demeanor, Darabont eventually decided that Morgan Freeman was perfect for the role.

Despite opening up to incredible reviews and Stephen King even going so far as to say in an intereview that it was the BEST adaptation of his work, Shawshank didn't really go anywhere in theaters.  In fact, it's box office run ended after just nine weeks, and the film only grossed around $28 million on a budget of $25 million.  It seemed as though this fantastic movie wouldn't be recognized.  But to the surprise of Darabont and several millions of movie goers, when 1995 rolled around the Academy Award nominees were presented: The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven of them.  Including Best Picture.  "Shawshank?" people thought.  "What kind of a name is Shawshank?  And what IS this movie?"  As a result of its nomination, The Shawshank Redemption became the most rented film of 1995.  It's fair to say that The Shawshank Redemption found an audience after all.  And to be nominated for best picture was a huge honor.  Especially considering it was going up against the likes of films like Pulp Fiction and Forest Gump.  Two unreasonably popular films.  While Shawshank won no awards that Oscar night, it still became a film that got universal acclaim among fans and critics.  The Shawshank Redemption became one of the biggest cult classics and films of all time.  As of writing this review: The Shawshank Redemption sits at #1 on the Internet Movie Database's top 250.  Almost every best films of all time lists includes The Shawshank Redemption.  Even now when you read about it, the film seems like the Citizen Kane of the 1990's!  

King himself was surprised.  When he first got a look at the screenplay he thought the film couldn't be done.  King thought no one would sit around just to hear a bunch of people talk for two and half hours.  Nothing blows up.  There's essentially not a lot to draw you in.  Indeed, The Shawshank Redemption is a slow going movie and a long one at that.  But Darabont isn't just talented as a director, he's also very talented as a screenwriter.  Stephen King was glad to know he was wrong.  Simply put, this is the rare moment where critics and audiences actually agree on something.  That something is that The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps one of the greatest films ever made.

The Shawshank Redemption centers on two people in particular.  First there is Andy Dufresne.  A man who is imprisoned for the murder of his wife.  A murder he did not commit.  And Andy really IS innocent.  Yet he is not proven so and is sent off to Shawshank state prison.  Rather than whine about it, Andy accepts what has happened.  He keeps holding onto hope, and is often tested.  Especially by the prison's sadistic warden.  It also doesn't help that Andy has become a target of a group of aggressive men known as "The Sisters."  Yet there is one thing about life in Shawshank that Andy does like.  He meets Red.  A man who knows how to get things.  The two meet when Andy asks him for a rock hammer.  Red provides it, only on the condition that Andy doesn't use it for malice and keeps it hidden.  Andy does.  It is when Andy comes to Red a second time that their friendship truly begins.  Andy wants a poster.  A poster of a woman named Rita Hayworth.  He seems pretty excited about it, and Red is able to get it. 

Life in Shawshank is not exactly that fun.  Especially for Andy.  But as the movie progresses, Andy proves that he is more resourceful to the prison than he appears.  He is able to help the prison guards and staff on their taxes.  He is well educated that the Warden decides he is probably best served by helping him rather than doing the laundry.  Of course, Andy is still doing dirty work as the Warden finds a way to Launder money, and behind the scenes is Andy Dufresne.  As Red tells the audience: "Prison time is slow time.  People will do most anything to keep their mind occupied."  Indeed Andy does.  He helps prison inmates get their high school equivalencey, builds a library and helps the staff get lots of things done.  He becomes so well liked that the guards protect him and the Warden treats him nicely (sometimes).  Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) is also a very religious man, who makes his prisoners read the bible.  But he's also corrupt, which is shown by all the moves he pulls to keep Andy in the prison and working for him.  Warden is also a big fan of solitary confinement, and he puts Andy in there more than once.

The biggest theme throughout the film is hope.  And it's something that Andy never loses.  He comes close in one of the film's more iconic scenes, but it's still there.  What Warden Norton doesn't know, however, is that Andy Dufresne has his own plan.  And it will strike back at the Warden and ruin him and his corrupt prison.  Unfortunately it takes years to pull off.  And in the process of those years, Andy becomes incredibl friends with Red.  We are watching what can best be described as a love story and as a prison fairy tale.  This is essentially about the friendship between two men that grows and binds itself through the years.  As a result Shawshank is often branded as a film that is primarily for men.  That doesn't mean women don't like it.  In fact, a great deal of women do.  It is only to say that there's a lot of testostrone here.  The cast, save for Andy's wife (and that's in a flashback) is made entirely of men.  And Darabont makes it a point not to hide the brutality of prison life nor does he hide the nature of its inhabitants.  There's so much packed into the film.  Including the theme of institutionalization.  In one of the films most iconic moments (there are a lot of iconic moments but this one is especially nice) we learn as an inmate who has spent such a long time in there gets out and can't keep up with the world and how it's changed... and he refers to Shawshank as home.  This is the man who has lost hope and he winds up killing himself.  Frank Darabont is always an emotional director.  Here it's no different.  To some people, The Shawshank Redemption may very well be one of the most depressing movies they'll ever see.  Yet while being so dark and down, it ends on perhaps one of the most uplifting notes a movie could end on.  Despite being beaten over the head with a depressing nature, Shawshank manages to be one of the most feel good movies you'll ever see.  In the end all the badguys get their commupence and the main characters do prosper.  Getting there may require you to sit through dark moments and depressing times, but nevertheless, the last forty five minutes in particular are incredibly uplifting.

The performances are really nice as well.  Morgan Freeman is the star here.  It's Tim Robbin's movie but it's Morgan Freeman in all his wisdom and genius that provides us with the most entertainment, and he ultimately does the best job of the entire cast.  The movie is narrated as well as taking place in real time.  Morgan Freeman may have one of the best voices for narrating, and he does great in Shawshank.  His voice is calm and soothing.  In instances such as when Andy is getting beaten up by the sister's, Freeman's voice can help us take in the moment because his voice is soothing.  Like a mother to a child after he's slipped and skinned his knee.  But the film doesn't overplay it.

There's hardly such a thing as a perfect film.  Shawshank is no different, but it's problems are minor things.  The first being that it's... well... long.  Very long.  The slow pacing doesn't exactly help either.  Roger Ebert argues that since one of the themes is patience and time, the length and pacing works thematically.  I respectfully disagree with the critic.  The movie is just long.  It is true that there is a moment which talks about patience and time, but Darabont has a reputation for making long movies.  But he also has a reputation for focusing a lot on characters.  This may add more to the movies length than the theme of time and patience.  As we come to really enjoy Andy and Red.  And because they're portrayed by two good actors, one of whom is charming in any role he plays (that being Morgan Freeman) we can really sit back and watch.

I'm not too big on whether or not the movie accurately depicts what happens in the original story.  A movie can still be good even if it misses the mark.  And just because a movie is just like the book doesn't exactly make it good.  I will say, however, that as an adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption actually surpasses the original novella that King wrote.  If anyone has actually ever read the novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" you might also realize that of all of King's works... it has one of the most complex narratives.  The story itself is simple, but the narrative is so complex that upon watching the movie there's one thing I could think of.  That it couldn't have been easy to adapt in the slightest.  King is--literally--all over the place in the narrative.  It's appropriate, but not something that can be done easily with film.  Darabont simply took King's narrative and put it in order.  The novella also has a lot of different characters.  In the movie it's the same guards and warden throughout.  In the novella they were changed up as the movie went forward.  After reading the novlla a second time (after seeing the movie) I came to have a greater appreciation for what Frank Darabont did.  It was such a hard story to tackle in and of itself because King's novella was surprisingly complex.  For Darabont to take that and turn it into a film of this magnitude is incredible.  It most certainly couldn't have been easy.

In the end, is Shawshank one of the greatest films ever made?  It could possibly be.  It has a strong narrative in part because of Darabont's talent as a screenwriter, and Stephen King's talent as a story teller.  Mostly, however, it's just survived the test of time unlike how anyone thought it would.  It went from being a relatively unknown film to being one of the most beloved in history.  In terms of solidifying itself, Shawshank has already done that.  To this day it remains a remarkable film and has a reputation that precedes it.  In short, you are more likely to enjoy this movie than not.

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November 09, 2009
Awesome review, Sean. This is still my favorite Stephen King adaptation and easily in my top five films of the '90s list. Every time I watch it, I always feel like a fool because it always makes me cry. Amazing performances and a great director will do wonders for a film. Too bad more films based on Stephen King's stuff don't get a similar treatment.
November 09, 2009
This is my favorite adaptation from King's works as well.  And this is definitely one of my favorite movies of all time (sometimes it's my absolute favorite movie of all time).  It's one of those movies I always watch when I'm feeling a little down too.  Always cheers me up and makes me feel good.
November 10, 2009
Which is kind of funny, because it's really depressing too, but in a life-affirming way.
July 15, 2009
I didn't know that King had written that either, I remember hearing that but, it wasn't until your review that someone told me where it came from- thanks so much for sharing that info! It's also surprising that it didn't do well in theaters. It's ALSO surprising that anyone would second guess wanting Morgan Freeman in their movie- my thought when I read that part of your review was literally, if that screenwriter/director was on crack. Great review...
July 15, 2009
To be honest, I myself didn't know King did it either.  In high school I wasn't a big Stephen King fan and I had a friend who was.  She told me that she loved The Shawshank Redemption.  Hey what a coincidence!  I liked that movie too.  Then she told me that Stephen King wrote it.  At the time I didn't even read King and I thought she was joking.  So she proved it to me by bringing in the book "Different Seasons," which I read and enjoyed (and it got me interested in King).  

And sure enough, perhaps I SHOULD actually pay attention to opening credits.  It actually says in the opening credits during the trial (what an awful place to put opening credits!) that it's "Based on the Novella 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' by Stephen King."  It's actually in the opening credits, but I never noticed until my friend pointed out that King wrote it.

I'm glad you liked the review.  I like to put in a little background on certain movies.  Especially those that are among my favorites.  Shawshank has a fascinating history behind it.  A lot of the trivia can be found on The Internet Movie Database.  There's also even more you can find on the Special Edition DVD.  There's a short documentary on it called "Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back," or something like that which provided much of the information I presented in the review.  I would recommend watching it if you'd like to know more about the movie.

July 15, 2009
I'm definitely going to have to check it out, I really enjoyed the movie and always try to catch it on the telly when it's on random Sunday afternoons. You have thoroughly piqued my interest though and I'll have to look into the extras! Thanks!
More The Shawshank Redemption (movi... reviews
review by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
   Tim Robbins stars as Andy Dufresne, a successful banker youth sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. Andy is sent to Shawshank prison, an austere and depressing place where the brutality of the two guards and other prisoners are commonplace. Andy is friends with Ellis Boyd &quot;Red&quot; Redding (Morgan Freeman), a lifer who has spent many years inside. Red specializes in the contraband in prison for other inmates. Red soon discovers that Andy …
Quick Tip by . July 20, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Is there a film where Morgan Freeman ISN'T good? I don't think so. Another tale where justice is served in a deserved manner.
Quick Tip by . July 15, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Beautiful, powerful movie. See it. You will think differently about prison life.
Quick Tip by . July 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
As close to a masterpiece as it gets. Great acting. Story. Plot. Yep, it's all there.
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Great story telling in this movie. One of the most well put together movies I've ever seen.
Quick Tip by . July 10, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A Stephen King book adapted to the silver screen. It is uplifting, well told, and has a fantastic cast.
Quick Tip by . July 06, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Very powerful!
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
My favorite King story, short but amazing. What an ending!
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
A movie about hard times, hard knocks, and redemption. Matruer audiences.
review by . June 08, 2009
The first time I watched this movie was way back in highschool (about 15 years ago or so)  when it was showing on TNT.  Being that I never heard of this movie before at the time, I had the lowest expectation for it possible.  But after watching it, I'd have to say it is the best non-action movie ever!!!  It had it all, from great acting, great character development, and one of the best stories/plot I've ever seen.  The movie is about Andy Dufresne(A hotshot banker played …
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Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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When this popular prison drama was released in 1994, some critics complained that the movie was too long (142 minutes) to sustain its story. Those complaints miss the point, because the passage of time is crucial to this story about patience, the squeaky wheels of justice, and the growth of a life-long friendship. Only when the film reaches its final, emotionally satisfying scene do you fully understand why writer-director Frank Darabont (adapting a novella by Stephen King) allows the story to unfold at its necessary pace, and the effect is dramatically rewarding. Tim Robbins plays a banker named Andy who's sent to Shawshank Prison on a murder charge, but as he gets to know a life-term prisoner named Red (Morgan Freeman), we realize there's reason to believe the banker's crime was justifiable. We also realize that Andy's calm, quiet exterior hides a great reserve of patience and fortitude, and Red comes to admire this mild-mannered man who first struck him as weak and unfit for prison life. So it is thatThe Shawshank Redemptionbuilds considerable impact as a prison drama that defies the conventions of the genre (violence, brutality, riots) to illustrate its theme of faith, friendship, and survival. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, and Screenplay, it's a remarkable film that signaled the arrival of a promising new filmmaker--a film that many movie lovers count among their all-time favorites.--Jeff Shannon
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Director: Frank Darabont
Genre: Mystery
Screen Writer: Stephen King, Frank Darabont
DVD Release Date: December 21, 1999
Runtime: 142 minutes
Studio: Castle Rock
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