In 1994, I saw The Shawshank Redemption as a paying customer, at the Kabuki multiplex in San Francisco. These days, trying to prove that without a ticket stub is like trying to prove you once saw Nirvana. I have a confession: my cousin Aran and I were actually planning to watch half of Shawshank and then sneak into Timecop. Well, as of this week, 20 years have passed, and I still haven’t seen Timecop.
What is it about The Shawshank Redemption? Why is it the people’s choice for the Best Film of All Time? (By people I mean imdb users, by far the largest group of people to vote on such a thing.) Why is it always on TNT? Did it invent the bromance? Why have we now been living with Shawshank longer than Andy Dufresne lived in Shawshank?
Glad you asked.
We’ll get to the bromantic thing later. Let’s start with the Rembrandt-like camerawork and understand why knowledgeable people consider Roger Deakins to be the greatest living cinematographer. It’s the aching, aquamarine beauty of the prison shirts, the glowing precision of the lighting fills, the fluid mastery over high-angle-crane shots (like when Andy plays The Marriage of Figaro on the speaker system), and it’s also knowing when to slightly overcrank, to give certain 35mm shots an organic slow-motion vibe that digital video can’t reproduce. Next, let your spine chill as you recall the first time you heard Thomas Newman’s score, which won’t be easy considering how many people have “borrowed” it since. Listen again as Red talks about missing his friend – the two minor chords over the hum have since become almost standard melodramatic fare. Next, the casting and acting: you really can’t imagine anyone else in any of the roles; they feel as lived-in as old prison shoes. Tim Robbins does nothing wrong, but it’s Morgan Freeman, in his first voice-over-y role, that really makes you want to see it again…and again.
Beyond those aspects, we must ask exactly what writer-director Frank Darabont did. Mark Kermode’s TV documentary and British Film Institute book about the film explain all the pertinent changes from Stephen King’s source material as well as collect information from the principals including Darabont, Robbins and Freeman. I can give you the Cliff’s Notes.
While King’s novella specifies “nine or ten” men working on tarring the prison roof, the movie uses exactly thirteen roof-tarrers including Andy, the same number as Jesus and his disciples at the First Communion. Depending which Gospel you believe, Jesus pretty much refuses the wine, just as Andy tells Heywood he gave up drinking while Red tells us (in a line not from the book) “We were the Lords of all creation.” Later in the film, Red narrates that Andy “helped a dozen guys get their degrees,” again pegging at 12 the number of Andy’s followers, or “co-workers” in Andy’s memorable phrase. After Andy escapes (ascends?), we see gratuitous scenes of his old friends discussing him. In the novella, we never really meet Andy; for all we know, he’s a tall tale of Red’s. In an interview with Kermode, Darabont confirmed that some of his favorite films (he named Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)) are “tall tales,” and that Shawshank was structured as such a thing from Red. Of course, Darabont stopped short of saying that the Gospels are tall tales, but like the New Testament, the Shawshank story (in print and on film) gains power from being told by a “convert” and friend.
As Yogi Berra must have said, you can see a lot by watching. In Shawshank, most of the profanities are blasphemies – God this, Jesus that. There are many, many conspicuously heavenly references, like Red’s “God’s honest truth” in parole hearings, the prosecutor’s “They sinned, but did their sin merit a death sentence?” and various proselytizing from Warden Norton. Mansfield Reformatory, the set, was chosen for its gothic aspects, for its power to make you look up…as Red does when we first see him step onto the yard, only to look down again, as though considering heaven but accepting hell (or purgatory). Even the name “The Sisters” feels like an allusion to fallen (or hopelessly perverted) nuns. In Norton’s cell-tossing scene with Andy, Norton’s errors are more than unwise – they’re ungodly. Norton fondles Andy’s Bible but fails to appreciate what’s actually inside it. To counter Andy’s Bible quote, Norton offers “I am the light of the world. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness. But shall have the light of life,” setting himself up as Andy’s savior (that’s idolatry) and Lucifer, the bearer of light. When Andy correctly identifies Norton’s quote from John 8:12, Norton replies that Andy is “good with numbers,” reducing the Bible to an accountant’s ledger. Andy will later complete this ungodly error for him, with disastrous consequences for Norton.
I want to add to Kermode’s case about religion. Three times, each from a bird’s-eye view camera, we see Andy Dufresne’s arms splayed like Jesus on the cross: once when Hadley is about to throw him from the roof, once when Bogs and the Sisters are beating him within an inch of his life, and once…well, you know the most famous shot in the movie, the one on the poster, when he escapes the prison.
What Kermode doesn’t say, and you should know, is that in each of these three cases, a villain starts and finishes the scene thinking he has the best of Andy, while Andy actually has the best of them. Hadley believes he has enlisted a sort of slave accountant, when in fact he has set Andy on a course that will land Hadley behind bars. Bogs believes he is destroying Andy, when in fact Bogs’ actions will put him (Bogs) in a wheelchair for life, courtesy of Hadley. (This parodic inversion of Jesus’ curing of the lame is achieved by inverting the novella, where Bogs’ comeuppance occurs a year before Hadley takes on Andy as accountant.) And of course, at the time of Andy’s rain-soaked, prostrate moment, Warden Norton believes that Andy’s recent two months in solitary has broken his spirit, when in fact it is Andy whose actions are breaking Norton’s. When Jesus is on the cross, the pagan Romans believe they have the best of him, when in fact their overreach has set Jesus down a course that will lead to their destruction.
Talking to Kermode, Darabont called Andy Dufresne a “Joseph Campbell mythic hero, the stranger who rides out of the desert, cleans up the town, then rides away,” but won’t go so far as to call him Jesus. (Of course, Joseph Campbell made it clear that his so-called monomyth included Jesus.) The obvious question: then why do so many secular people love The Shawshank Redemption? Well, they may not realize the timeless appeal of the Christ story, but Shawshank is most un-Biblical in its protagonists’ sober contemplation of suicide: Brooks, Andy, and Red all seem to threaten it for several filmic minutes. If this is a Gospel, it’s certainly more of a post-Holocaust testimonial.
Speaking of suicide, perhaps Darabont’s most clever change from the King novella was to make Warden Norton more like a devil (in the book, he’s three different people) and for him to kill himself in the denouement (in the book, he lives). Jesus stories don’t normally include righteous vengeance (perhaps that’s why The Book of Revelations is so popular), but most other filmic Campbellian stories do, and thus you might say The Shawshank Redemption offers a careful balancing of Christ-like trials and years of suffering leavened with the tangible rewards of hard-earned riches, freedom, and revenge that current audiences have come to expect. Perhaps secular people have always suspected that Christ was invented, or made famous, by people with some material incentive to use him; by smiting a false preacher, Norton, Shawshank satisfies the pious and the atheists alike. Actually, Andy, Red, and Norton have more in common than one may realize: they are all assiduous acquirers, obsessed with transforming value. Unlike in most movie monomyths, we see them take two decades to develop their investments, and as with our own decades-long investments and those of our neighbors, we want to see the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. Yet even that doesn’t fully explain why Shawshank has an almost religious appeal to un-religious fans of cinema.
Kermode makes the fascinating argument that The Shawshank Redemption is not only about Christianity but also the “Church of the Cinema,” and he makes this case through close analysis of the scene set in the prison movie theater where Andy asks Red for Rita Hayworth. The prisoners watch the film (Gilda) almost too reverently, and Red says “God I love it” just before confirming to Andy that yes, he can perform that miracle. After Andy’s request, the Sisters corner him in the projection room as we hear but don’t see Rita Hayworth saying lines like “My husband tells me you’re a great believer” (meaning Shawshank’s sound editor could have chosen almost any lines from Gilda) even as Andy swings a film canister at them, something Kermode calls “humorous proof of the power of celluloid to affect material change.” Kermode asks us to consider the posters that are key to Andy’s escape from prison purgatory – first Hayworth in Gilda, then Marilyn Monroe in The Seven-Year Itch (1957), then Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966). In Kermode’s words, Andy escapes “quite literally, into the sanctity of the silver screen. It is an image of cinema as a sacred medium for a secular world, subsuming Christian iconography, and offering a rebellious alternative religion whose visual fantasy will ultimately triumph over the corruption of the material world.”
Even if you don’t buy that, The Shawshank Redemption is chock full of allusions to movies made before 1967, the presumed date of Red’s release. Kermode notes that the imagery in Andy’s escape parallels The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and that the checkers match where Red confesses his guilt to Andy makes Red not unlike the confessional knight playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal (1957). Rock-n-roll Tommy’s premature death might parallel James Dean’s, though if you’re keeping score at home, Tommy’s arms are never shown splayed like Jesus or Andy. Kermode does not note the film’s more oblique allusions to the two arguably greatest directors working in Hollywood through 1967, those being John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. The famous “John Ford shot” is a doorway, set in the middle of the screen, that juxtaposes interior and exterior life, underlining Ford’s central theme of the thin line between civilization and savagery – the classic example (but hardly the only one) being the final shot of The Searchers (1956), where racist Ethan (John Wayne) must remain outside and cannot cross the threshold into the home of the family he has saved. Red’s threshold between savagery and civilization is the passage into the parole-hearing room, and in each of these three scenes, Darabont allows the little peephole window to be surrounded by a considerable amount of black space on screen – almost out-Fording Ford. (The first such shot includes the title card that says “Directed By Frank Darabont.”)
Andy has two such thresholds, somewhat of his own making: one in Norton’s office, where the camera takes a rather unusual position inside Norton’s safe, and one, of course, just behind Andy’s posters. (Let’s put aside the sexual implications of the latter.) In both cases, the camera is set so as to emphasize the darkness around the light, light which will lead to salvation for Andy and damnation for Norton…shortly after Norton blasphemes, sarcastically, “It’s a goddamn miracle.”
As for Hitchcock, it’s not that Frank Darabont apes his tricks a la Brian DePalma; his camera may out-Ford Ford, but it’s his script that out-Hitchcocks the central Hitchcockian theme of a man who is guilty, just not guilty of what he’s accused of. And I do mean Frank Darabont and not Stephen King: in the novella, Red introduces Dufresne as an innocent man, while the movie Red accepts Andy as a convicted murderer (almost 90 minutes into the film, Red says, “Caught his wife with some golf pro; greased ’em both”). It’s true that first-time close observers may note a gap in the opening sequence of events (the script separates Andy’s wife’s last night and the trial; only in post-production did the editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, shuffle the deck to further confuse us), but the weight of 90 minutes of post-trial, prison-bound screen time encourages us to see Andy like his fellow prisoners (“Haven’t you heard? Everyone here is innocent”): a justified sinner, a good man who is tainted by death and yet to achieve redemption. This last phrase could describe about half of Hitchcock’s central characters, but in those films, made under the aegis of the Production Code, we were hardly encouraged to believe that the protagonists were real murderers…if they felt guilty, you can credit Hitchcock’s claustrophobic mise-en-scène, where everyone seems to sweat a little more. Working post-Code, Darabont can and does go much further, setting up a world where we believe Andy and Red are probably both guilty, and where, after they accept their guilt (“She’s dead because of me, because of the way I am”; “There’s not a day that goes by I don’t feel regret”), their salvation seems much sweeter to us.
Did The Shawshank Redemption invent the bromance? Well, in “Millennial Masculinity,” Tim Shary says that male leads in most 20th-century “buddy” films “did not have open discussions about their emotions for each other,” while the leads of what he calls “bromances” – he names about 20 films from the current century – “already have some recognition of their affection for each other, and their struggle is to express that affection and not to simply accept the relationship with safe ambiguity.” Morgan Freeman called Shawshank “a sort of love relationship between Red and Andy [which] did go deeper than just friendship,” while Tim Robbins said “the possibility of that non-sexual friendship happening between two men is, I think, one of the reasons that film is so revered. Because I don’t think we’re given that model in too many other films.” Well, not then. But in our Judd Apatow-Will Ferrell-powered world?
To answer that, I note that Kermode is struck by the relative explicitness of Andy’s abuse by The Sisters – not that we see rape, but that its narrative presence is far clearer than in most comparable films, when Darabont could have easily cut out that part of King’s novella. I would respond that the early rapes serve two related functions: one, to make us believe that the film isn’t afraid of violence (or suicide, after Brooks’ death), which raises the stakes on Andy and Red’s fates, and two, to distinguish Andy and Red’s blossoming…something…from sordid prison sodomy. Red is unequivocal on the Sisters’ lack of homosexuality: “You have to be human first. They don’t qualify.” Perhaps one reason people love Andy and Red is that even or especially after twenty years together, they don’t really need to explain who they are to each other, white or black, gay or straight. Prison life seems horrifying enough that the film and its audience forgives them such explanations, and the forgiveness feels good…almost Christian. If Shawshank’s omnipresence on television somehow paved the way for two dozen bromantic comedies…well, Mr. Kermode, there’s your “rebellious alternative religion.”
One rarely-addressed question is: why is The Shawshank Redemption set in the 40s, 50s, and 60s; why not have the film alter the novella and be more contemporary? Kermode offers a not-entirely-convincing explanation of Warden Norton as Richard Nixon, one that would make more sense if Darabont had preserved King’s story conclusion time of 1974. Let me suggest an alternative explanation. By the 1990s, America had basically decided that the 20 years after World War II were the good period of rising wages and living standards (and cleaner, moral films), and something in the 60s ruptured America, and we have since fallen from grace. People have squabbled about the titular Redemption referring to Andy or Red or both (Morgan Freeman answered, “You don’t redeem your life if you pay the price for whatever you did. You atone. So Red atones, and Andy got redemption”), but I ask you to consider the idea that the Redemption could refer to the 1960s and America itself. The film shows Shawshank shenanigans in the 40s and 50s, dramatizing corruption under America’s then-gleaming exterior, but the film suggests that 1966-67 was a good time to cast away the repressed and rise above it all – best expressed through the motif of busing. Busing?
Yes, busing. Darabont says that “everybody’s favorite shot in the movie” is the helicopter-bound establishing shot that sweeps over the roof of the prison; less noticed is the fact that the shot begins and ends with the bus carrying Andy Dufresne to Shawshank. The movie puts perhaps the four most sympathetic characters on buses: Andy, then Brooks, then Tommy, then Red.
Andy looks pensive; Brooks frightened; Tommy more confident, the first of them to peer out the window; then Red, leaving the prison, looks out his window with the same serenity he’d just had with the parole board, mixed with apprehension…and then, in what was almost the film’s penultimate shot, Red looks beatifically out the window as the camera is for the first time outside a bus, while Red narrates, “I hope…I hope.”
We never see anyone get on or off buses; Red’s passage to Mexico is the first bus shot to balance exterior and interior, a suggestion that Red and indeed the narrative are rising to their heavenly destination. (We only see cars thrice in the film; once in the opening scene, where Andy contemplates killing his wife; once when Brooks mentions how dangerous they are; and once when the police descend on Shawshank. Compared to almost any film, cars are signs of iniquity, while buses represent journeys and necessary changes.) Compared with cars, buses represent a common, shared, populist future, and in the 1960s, buses were a touchstone of progressive movements (e.g. Rosa Parks, Freedom Riders, civil rights protests), and a not unrelated part of the counterculture, as when Ken Kesey said “You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”
Dustin Hoffman’s first two, star-making films, which were also two of the 1960s’ best films, The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), commented on the counterculture (well, sort of) by ending with Hoffman in the back of a bus, heading toward an uncertain future. Compared with Ben Braddock and Ratso Rizzo, Red is closer to the bus’s front and far more at peace with himself and his future. Brooks killed himself because he was outside, Andy almost did (we thought) because he was inside, while Red, his elbow dangling out the bus window, is finally a man who can live inside or out, on the threshold, a Lord of all creation. The film almost ended with the bus driving off into the distance, but the studio begged Darabont to shoot the beach reunion that audiences love. (I’m not sure where Andy’s boat fits into the film’s transportation milieu.) The film releases Brooks before 1957, Red in 1967; we don’t know how long Red lives Brooks’ life before keeping his promise to Andy, but it’s probably at least a year. As the film’s African-American voice rides a charter bus to freedom and Mexico, the film suggests that only after civil rights and the Kennedys could we ride to a shared state of grace – a neat inversion of the conservative narrative of the period.
The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t the only award-winning film of 1994 to attempt to come to terms with the 1960s; nor was it the only such film to feature something of a loving partnership between a white man and a black man. If you look at the five highest-grossing films of 1993 (Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Fugitive, The Firm, and Sleepless in Seattle) and 1993’s five Best Picture nominees (The Fugitive again, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day, and Schindler’s List), you hardly see 1994’s concern with African-Americans. It seems likely that most of those 1993 films were well into pre-production when, in April-May 1992, Los Angeles was rocked by its worst race riots since 1965. When Rodney King asked “can’t we all just…get along?” that may have helped Hollywood ask itself “can’t we just show whites and blacks…getting along?” Of the four most important films of 1994, one is an African-set cartoon about a black-voiced lion with a white-voiced cub (The Lion King), and the other three, which were 3 of the 5 Best Picture nominees, feature white-black best friends: Shawshank, Forrest Gump, and Pulp Fiction. These looked like reactions to racial strife because Quentin Tarantino’s previous film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), was all-white, and in the literary source material, Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba is white, just as Andy’s friend Red is white-Irish.
Call it a reaction to then-ubiquitous hip-hop, call it the Denzel Washington effect, but 1993 (Philadelphia, The Pelican Brief) and 1994 were when Hollywood decided that previously “white” prestige productions would be better with color. Forrest, Fiction, and Shawshank are all sitting pretty in imdb’s Top 15, but people still love Shawshank the most; is that because, out of Forrest-Bubba, Vincent-Jules, and Andy-Red, the latter is the only friendship to survive the film? It seems more likely that comparatively, Andy and Red simply represent a deeper, more mature, more honest pairing, more of a real proto-bromance. The racial politics of these 1994 films are rather tricky, and one could make the case that “real” African-American culture is absent from all of them (yes, even the Blaxploitation-saluting Pulp Fiction), but let’s face it, Shawshank is set in a prison, which has unfortunate and unusual resonance for blacks. There’s no one correct way to react to the novella-Irish, film-black Red as hero, convicted murderer, St. Matthew, hope convert, harmonica player, and narrator (except perhaps to say “My God! Why didn’t every single filmmaker of the 1990s beg Morgan Freeman to narrate their films?”), but it seems unlikely that the film would have been quite as popular if David Caruso had played Red. Upturning the conservative take on America requires portraying a shared destiny, and Freeman’s presence is nothing if not generous.
The Shawshank Redemption is as much about the baby boomers as Forrest Gump, it just doesn’t confront them as frontally nor comfort them as easily. Both involve a fair bit of magical thinking, and if Shawshank seems a tad more earth-bound, that may mark the difference between floating feathers and gothic wall-rocks. (Stones and geology are another big Shawshank theme I won’t get into here, but the short version is that Andy proves even stone can be changed.) Throw in Pulp Fiction (the lead men are all boomers), and all three films could serve as key texts for a future book called “Baby Boomers on Film: From Wandering to Squandering.” The wandering phase began with films like the previously mentioned Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, and was epitomized by Easy Rider (1969): the American Dream is in trouble, let’s hit the road and try to find it. By the 1990s, aging boomers looked around and wondered where the time went (like Andy and Red). Another key text of such a book would be The Silence of the Lambs (1991); academics have spent thousands of words guessing about Hannibal Lecter’s appeal (he is the American Film Institute’s #1 villain of all time) without putting their finger on it. Like the boomers (he is one), Lecter was highly educated, only to see his education and personhood squandered not just for a little while (as in many films) but for years. Society built him up, then told him it had no use for him, then needed him again through Clarice. This is white people (and some non-whites) on the other side of politically correct, a term that hit Newsweek’s cover in 1989: oh, you don’t need me anymore? Oh you do need me? Besides Anthony Hopkins’ tremendous acting, the hidden key to Lecter’s appeal is that he’s wish fulfillment for all the boomers who feel/felt their abilities have been squandered. The equally clever, scheming Andy Dufresne, and perhaps even Red, represent something very similar: all that wasted potential! Red underlines the theme by repeating and emphasizing the words “pressure and time.” Shawshank resonates more than most films, with boomers and non-boomers alike, partly because the time of squandering – decades – is more than most films. Or as Tim Robbins put it so well:
“In the end, it’s a film about people being in jail and having hope to get out of that jail. Now, why is that universal? Not everybody has been in jail. But maybe on a deeper level, a metaphysical level, people feel enslaved by their environments, their jobs, their relationships, by whatever it is in the course of their lives that puts the wall or the bars around them. And the idea that you can survive for many, many years in this kind of enslavement, or prison of your own making, and that there’s a Zihuatanejo somewhere in your future – I think that’s something that really is important to people; the idea that Zihuatanejo can exist for all of us.”
Wait, if The Shawshank Redemption is about baby boomers who squandered their potential up through the 1990s, why is the ending set in the late 1960s? Ah, but therein lays the undiscovered genius. By taking audiences on a decades-long journey where “people feel enslaved” to a conclusion of late-60s redemption, Darabont has achieved something akin to – and this is the last movie reference I’ll make – the scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939) where Dorothy learns that the ruby slippers could have taken her home at any old time. In the sort of logic that can only make sense after the twists in a film’s final act, the film is saying to boomers: you were right all along, back in 1969. You were free and full of hope, and now that you’ve accepted yourself, you can be the person you always were. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” yes, but being busy living can mean being free on a beach, as we were in the Summer of Love. Zihautanejo is where heaven meets earth, where Christian forgiveness and redemption meets Andy and Red’s material happiness. Boomers – and the rest of us – need to believe that place can exist after our wandering and squandering and, in Robbins’ terms, self-made enslavement. In a world where cinema is sacred, and seeing is believing, we need to see that again and again.