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March|April 2004
Not So Bon Voyage By John Swansburg
World Wide Water Cooler By Charles Duhigg
Taken to the Cleaners By Katharine Mieszkowski
the prudent jurist By Stephen Gillers
Cases & Controversies
The Shawshank Reputation By John Swansburg

The Shawshank Reputation

A decade after its theatrical release, why is The Shawshank Redemption still so popular?

By John Swansburg

WHEN HE FIRST SAW THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION back in 1994, Mark Kermode, the author of a slim new volume on the movie, "had no sense whatsoever that it would become many people's favorite movie." It certainly didn't have the makings of a favorite-to-be. Its director, Frank Darabont, was a rookie whose most significant achievements had been writing the screenplays for the remake of The Blob (tag line: "Terror Has No Shape") and the sequel to the remake of The Fly. Darabont had adapted the screenplay for Shawshank from that rarest of rarities, an unpopular book by Stephen King, an author whose grocery list would be a bestseller if someone thought to publish it. Ever since the success of Brian De Palma's Carrie, King has been a juggernaut in Hollywood as well. Fifty-eight movies have been adapted from his writing, not as many as from Dickens, but more than from any other living author. His first television series, Kingdom Hospital, billed as a combination of ER and The Shining, premieres in March. As King humbly notes in his introduction to the published screenplay of Shawshank, "When asked why I had been so successful as a novelist, Bill Thompson, my first editor, said, 'Steve has a projector in his head.' I don't (it would be very bulky, for one thing, and would make it impossible to get through airport metal detectors), but sometimes it does feel that way."

Yet even King didn't think Shawshank stood a chance at the box office—and he was right. Though the movie got good reviews, and seven Oscar nominations, Shawshank in its original release grossed only about half of the $35 million it cost to make.

The movie came back from the dead on video. It was the top rental of 1995, and its popularity has not much abated since. The new Zagat film guide, for instance, rated it higher than Annie Hall and a little picture called Citizen Kane. The movie is currently ranked second on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 movies poll, behind only The Godfather. No other King movies, and no other prison movies, are even near the top. Kermode's new book sets out to answer the question, "What gives?"

The Shawshank Redemption is based on "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," a novella that King published in a collection called Different Seasons. It was a different kind of story for King, and Shawshank would be a different kind of movie for Darabont. In place of a rabid St. Bernard, this story's villain is a prison. Its hero is Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker from Portland, Me., imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover.

Darabont keeps his distance from his hero, though, as Andy seems to prefer his own company. His story unfolds through the narration of Red Redding (Morgan Freeman). He's the guy you go to for contraband: alcohol, tobacco, girly posters. Other than a shot establishing the indiscretions of Mrs. Dufresne, just about the only women we see in the movie's 142 minutes are the ones on those posters. "The Sisters," a gang of rapists who take a shine to Andy, don't count.

As it turns out, Andy is innocent: Some crazy named Elmo Blatch is the one who did the killing. Andy's an even-keeled guy (he calls the prison's sadistic warden "obtuse," but only when he's really pissed off), yet doing hard time for a crime you didn't commit would probably get to anybody, eventually. Andy, we learn at the end of the movie, has been taking his aggression out on his cell wall; using a rock hammer, an item that looks like a pickaxe for a My Little Miner action figure, he's been making a tunnel. He conceals the hammer in his warden-issued Bible, and hides the tunnel behind the series of movie posters that adorn his cell: first Rita, then Marilyn, and finally Raquel.

Kermode thinks movies are the key to Shawshank's appeal, and he makes much of the moment when Andy asks Red to acquire the Rita Hayworth poster for him. "This sequence," he writes, "is crucial (perhaps even central) to the strange allure of The Shawshank Redemption." Andy orders the poster as a full house of prisoners takes in a screening of Gilda. "What we see," Kermode says, "is a picture of men at worship, entranced by the magical light which dances above their heads, momentarily removed . . . from the grim meat-hook realities of Shawshank prison."

To Kermode, the message of the sequence is that movies "can transform the nature of one's surroundings, taking us out of the here and now and transporting us to the Elysian fields of the imagination, making us again free men." He posits that the movie reinforces this notion of cinema's power through its symbolism. Where does Andy take his stand against the Sisters? Why, it's in the projection room, where he delivers two face-rearranging blows to his attackers using the only weapon handy—a canister of 35-millimeter film! And don't forget that it's the movie posters that conceal the progress of Andy's tunneling. In the end, Kermode writes, Andy "will literally step through a movie poster to freedom."

In terms of interpreting the director's intent, Kermode may be on the money—the screening of Gilda and the escape through the movie poster are Darabont's interpolations. In King's story, the prisoners are watching Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, a classic, yes, but Ray Milland's love affair with Johnny Walker is a far cry from the ménage à  trois at the center of Gilda. And it's a poster of country's Linda Ronstadt, not Raquel Welch, that presides over Andy's escape in the novella. But do these motifs explain the movie's popularity? Are the denizens of Blockbuster—or the 760,000 people who tuned in when Shawshank was recently screened for the gazillionth time on cable—really drawn to it because it's a movie about the escapist power of movies? If so, why isn't Get Shorty just as popular?

THE FIRST TIME THEY MEET, in the prison yard, Andy asks Red how he got his name. Red pauses thoughtfully. "Maybe it's because I'm Irish," he says. It's one of the movie's only laugh lines (unless you're partial to chief guard Hadley's invocations of "mouse farts" and "monkey spunk"), and Freeman delivers it choicely.

In King's story, Red is an Irishman, but Darabont, to his credit, recognized that Freeman was right for the role. In Freeman, Darabont found an actor capable of making maudlin lines ring, if not true, then not as tinny as they could have sounded if the movie had starred Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, the headliners of The Green Mile (also by King and also set in prison) and The Majestic, Darabont's subsequent clunkers. And Darabont does give his actors some ponderous material to work with. "Some birds aren't meant to be caged—their feathers are just too bright," Red says in a voiceover, perhaps because the director couldn't get a take of him saying it with a straight face.

Robbins, for his part, has a gift for conveying a lot without saying much, as he recently demonstrated again in the critical darling Mystic River, another New England gothic tale. (And, incidentally, another movie in which the best, perhaps only, joke comes courtesy of the casting department: Dennis Lehane probably didn't have Laurence Fishburne in mind when he dreamed up Detective Whitey Powers.) When Red first sees Andy on the yard, he picks him to be the first "fresh fish" to cry for his mama that night after lights go out, but Andy doesn't make a peep, and his quietude persists throughout the movie, providing the ballast for Red's bluster.

Freeman and Robbins have both said that the relationship between Red and Andy—"a sort of love," in Freeman's words—is at the heart of the movie's appeal. Robbins believes Shawshank has continued to find an audience because "it's a film in which you actually see a relationship between two men which isn't based on car chases, or scoring some women, or some kind of 'caper.' "

Affecting movies about a friendship like Red and Andy's are uncommon. Riggs and Murtaugh, Tango and Cash, and the many duos they paved the way for, are buddies, not friends. They're opposites—crazy/straight-laced, slick/rough—put together for the express purpose of hijinks ensuing. Andy and Red have more of a Watson-and-Holmes rapport, and they're unafraid to show their affection for one another. When Andy gets back from a long stint in solitary, Red has a new poster waiting for him, free of charge. Shortly before Andy's jailbreak, he gives Red a harmonica.

But Robbins gets one thing wrong: Shawshank may not be a caper, but it is an escape movie, and the two genres are of a piece. (Breaking in isn't all that different from breaking out.) The most rented movie of 2003 wasn't My Big Fat Greek Wedding; it was The Bourne Identity, an escape picture starring Matt Damon. To overlook Andy's break from Shawshank is to miss the scenes that are at the heart of the film's popularity.

Andy doesn't just extract himself from the prison; he also exacts revenge on his malefactors, handing The Portland Daily Bugle the scoop about Maine's crookedest prison. Darabont cuts from a shot of the warden taking a gander at the banner headlines in the morning paper—and then killing himself—to one of Andy driving to Mexico with the top down, grinning.

Just a little while later, Red goes before the parole board, which we've already seen reject him twice. In the past Red's been deferential, but this time he lets the board have it; he even calls its chairman "Sonny." Improbably, his diatribe earns him what his supplications never did. The movie's morally unambiguous circle is complete: All the bad guys have been vanquished, and the good guys are free to open up Red & Andy's Bait Shop in Zihuatenejo. Everybody loves a happy ending.

John Swansburg is a senior editor of Legal Affairs.

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