Back when I was still in school and living between my mother’s and father’s houses, my father and I would have regular movie nights. At least once a week I would say, we would sit—just the two of us—and watch something new. Mostly they were just new to me, but films my father really loved and thought I would love too—present topic included. Back then he was really into his movies and we had some great times discovering new films and series including the fantastic Band of Brothers and some of the early seasons of Lost.
One of these movies—though I have no idea how long ago—was The Shawshank Redemption. I had never heard of the movie before, but my father seemed to be very excited about it and one night we sat in the dark with his then state-of-the-art surround system blaring and enjoyed—arguably—Frank Darabont’s crowning jewel.
I remember watching it and thinking that it was quite long but I have always been a stickler for good endings, even as a much younger man, and this film delivered what I thought was a great ending! Thus, it would go on my approved list of my father’s movies. It took me a few years before I watched it again and by that point, I knew who Stephen King was and I was old enough to fully enjoy the storytelling. Let me tell you, the second time around, this film hit hard! There’s something about the way this film tells its story that really lets it crawl under your skin. It comes in at way over two hours but it seems like a breeze. There’s never a scene that you think could have been excluded or anywhere that seems slow or downright boring. Every scene has its purpose and every scene fits perfectly.
Now, at the time I first watched the movie I had no understanding of this. No concept of proper storytelling, pacing, character-building or just general movie-craft. I was not able to appreciate it fully and I realise now I only liked it for its ending. I’m not going to claim that this is the greatest movie ever made but if you have never seen it, or like me, it’s been many many years, I ask that you go and give it a go. You don’t even have to be a fan of Stephen King, and if you’re one of those few folks who are still hooked up on the misinterpretation that Stephen King only makes wacky spooky stories, this isn’t that. Far, far from it!
So let’s talk a little about the man that made it. Frank Darabont is perhaps most famous for his King adaptations, though he does have some other great credits to his name: The Green Mile and AMC’s The Walking Dead to name just a couple. For now, we’re going to stick to Stephen King though, as he’s renowned in King circles to be the best of those who would dare to make the leap from page to screen. Shawshank was actually Darabont’s second adaptation from King’s work, though the first, an adaptation of the short story “The Woman in the Room”, you will probably never have heard of. Darabont reportedly offered King $5000 for the rights to make “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, a short story in the collection Different Seasons, into a movie. It won him the rights but King never cashed the check. Instead, later returning it to Darabont in a frame with a note saying “In case you ever need bail money, Love Steve.”
The film was, unfortunately, a box office flop, returning only $15 million of its $25 million budget. It did, however, receive positive reviews and earned itself no less than seven Academy Award nominations. It eventually gained a theatrical re-release which proved a great success, returning the budget many times over and elevating the film way up to the top of many King fan’s lists. It even earned a spot on AFI’s 100 years…100 movies list. A list of the 100 greatest American movies ever made.
Darabont went on to make another triumphant King movie in 1999 with The Green Mile, another magnificent movie and a fine adaptation. Then in 2007, he would make The Mist, another novella-sized story that Darabont managed to make into a great film, though criminally underrated. Unfortunately, in this case, the film would have a much lower budget and it really shows when the film relies so heavily on computer effects, but there is one thing that Darabont gets absolutely right and that is the people.
I’ve said this before, but in case I didn’t say it loud enough, Stephen King is a master at making believable, emotional and likable (as well as hateable) characters. He writes what he knows and what he knows is working class American Life. He grew up with very little money in a loving but poor home with a single Mom. Even in adult life, he married his sweetheart and taught English at the Hampden Academy, but they still had no money. They lived in a trailer with very young children and worried constantly about where the next bottle of medicine was coming from. He sold a few stories here and there whilst juggling his family life, but for a long time, life was hard for young Stephen.
Writers write what they know and Stephen King’s life, I believe, has led him to a place where he can write stories about anyone in any situation and make them believable and it is this that I also believe is what makes Darabont’s adaptations work. It’s not just the story and the situation that you make real in a movie, it’s the people in it. Darabont is able to pull King’s characters through the page and throw them on to a screen like no other (let’s not talk about the recent Dark Tower movie) and make them just as deep and believable as they were in the book.
The original novella is essentially an account of Red (played by Morgan Freeman) observing another inmate of Shawshank prison (Andy, played by Tim Robbins) and tells the story of Andy’s 20 years behind bars and his eventual escape. King didn’t really understand how Darabont was going to turn that formula into a movie, but if you’ve seen the movie you know just how well it works. Freeman’s Red narrates The Shawshank Redemption in the first person, just as the character does in the book. This not only works tremendously well, adding depth to a character that otherwise doesn’t really do much, but also allows for the filmmakers to express the passage of time with total ease without having to worry about why characters have suddenly developed grey hair, which is a blessing for a movie that needs to cover more than two decades in two hours! Freeman’s narration is deep and well-written and the viewer can really get an intimate sense of the characters inner feelings towards Andy and the other inmates as Red doesn’t particularly express any of this verbally or physically.
Freeman was nominated for several awards for best supporting actor, including that of the Academy Awards which is not only a credit to the actor but to the people behind the character, not just those making the film, but King himself, who made essentially a narrator into an award nominee.
At its heart, The Shawshank Redemption is a film about prison life and the patience of one man who waited without so much as a raised voice for 20 years to make a silent escape. Deep down though it is about people and connections and most of all, it is about hope. The film has no action scenes but you feel invested the whole way through. You feel a connection to the characters on screen and it wrenches your heart out when things go the wrong way (you all know what I mean if you’ve seen it). The original novella was written at a time when King was experimenting with stories outside his then-usual horror genre. He wanted to tell a story that wasn’t all about monsters or the supernatural and I guess try to tell a story that would stand up based on the realism of its characters and the situations he put them in. All I can say is that he succeeded, and with Frank Darabont at his side to turn the vision into screen time, what we get is a beautiful and timeless film about hope and the human condition.
To quote both the movie and the novella, “Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” Since rewatching the film, that line has stuck with me and will always be with me, and if you need any more proof that King succeeded with his mission to break out of the monsters and the gore, I leave you with this story from the man himself.
So the story goes that a woman approaches King in the supermarket and says: “Hey I know you, I’ve seen you on TV. You’re Stephen King aren’t you and you write all those scary books? Well that’s alright for some people but I don’t care much for that, I like good uplifting stories like that ‘Shawshank Redemption'”.
King replies, “I wrote that.”
“No you didn’t,” says the woman.
And that was that. I guess the story does say something about stereotypes but it also shows King’s incredible ability to apply his craft to any genre and leave little trace of his so-called heritage.