It isn’t even Darabont’s best prison movie based on a Stephen King story.
Admit it. You all love The Shawshank Redemption. The feature debut of writer-director Frank Darabont enjoys a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and stands tied with The Godfather at the top of IMDb’s list of highest rated movies. Based on the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the film was released in 1994 to critical acclaim and box office doldrums. The story of its creation and eventual success is a long tale with a long tail that to this day has people approaching its stars to describe how watching the film was a transformative experience. According to Tim Robbins, Nelson Mandela wanted to discuss the movie when the Nobel laureate and actor met.
Yet The Shawshank Redemption isn’t even Darabont’s best prison movie based on a Stephen King story, and arguably ranks third among his Stephen King adaptations behind The Green Mile and the The Mist. The movie is maudlin and mawkish–perhaps the very qualities that make the film so beloved.
One explanation for the endurance of this “classic” is the home video market. For those too young to remember, there used to be a medium called VHS, rectangular plastic boxes the size of a trade paperback that contained copies of movies on videotape. These cartridges played on massive machines called VCRs that attached to television sets. There were entire stores devoted to renting VHS tapes and the “New Release” wall was where most of the business was done. In 1994, the zeitgeist was obsessed with two movies: Pulp Fiction and Forest Gump. Fans of The Shawshank Redemption were a passionate lot, but a minority that could not help the movie during its theatrical run. While Gump and Fiction dominated the awards season, Shawshank did get noticed. It didn’t win anything, but the presumed pedigree of seven Academy Award nominations made it a hit when it reached home video.
Another explanation could be the many years the movie spent as a staple of programming on Ted Turner’s TBS and TNT. Looking for more recent quality movies to show on his networks, Turner purchased Castle Rock, the production company owned by Rob Reiner and named after the fictional town in his own Stephen King adaption Stand by Me. Once the deal was done Turner sold himself the broadcast rights to Shawshank and played it on a near loop for years. These alternate means of enjoying the movie beyond the theater may explain some of the affection for this dull, plodding bit of business.
Yes, this is a movie about prison and the long haul of a life sentence, but its languid pace makes the two hour and twenty minute run time feel much longer. Home viewing offers controls on one’s time that theatrical viewing lacks. You cannot ask the projectionist to pause the movie for you and there are no commercial breaks to afford respite. Given those conditions, a viewer might only remember the film’s two great scenes: Morgan Freeman’s Red and his crew drinking beers on the prison rooftop or Robbins’ Andy Dufresne dramatic escape. You are likely to forget all the tedium in between with more control of the viewing experience.
Any movie as beloved as Shawshank accrues legends. In this case, the legend is the script. Darabont was an obsessive reader of King’s work, was acquainted with King and got the rights to the novella for a song. Darabont was barely hanging on to his Hollywood aspirations at the time and wrote the script in a creative binge. It found its way to Castle Rock where Reiner offered Darabont an exorbitant amount of money for the script, claiming it was the greatest he’d ever read. Reiner wanted to direct it, but so did Darabont and he refused to sell. Reiner would produce the movie, but this claim of “greatest script I’ve ever read” is repeated independently by Freeman and Robbins.
The thing is, there’s nothing revolutionary about the story. It exists as an extension of the movie trope of the congenial lifers as well as the innocent man wrongly incarcerated by the system. The requisite corrupt warden (Bob Gunton) and thuggish captain-of-the-guard (Clancy Brown) appear as well. A surprise witness shows up who could exonerate our hero. It’s all fairly standard for the genre, unless the darkness of sexual violence and the moralizing about the nature of criminality made the endeavor feel fresher and smarter than it actually is. Once the rapists are dispensed with, everyone wearing prison grays exhibits hearts of gold. They’re led by the benevolent Andy Dufresne, who bestows education and Mozart to his charges at great personal cost. Andy is their white savior, and his escape ends in a Jesus Christ pose. There are few tropes more well-worn and hackneyed than that, but it is the center of the “greatest script ever.”
Finally, the aspect of The Shawshank Redemption that garners universal praise but is absolutely infuriating is Freeman’s narration. In his review, Roger Ebert claimed that Freeman’s voiceover is vital because it allows us to know the insular Andy. But this is almost never the case. The narration never really elucidates anything that isn’t already happening onscreen. The one time Freeman’s narration seems important is during Andy’s escape, but it can be argued that if that event was shown linearly and not in a flashback the sequence would be more impactful without narration. Red and Andy’s other friends were afraid that Andy was about to hang himself. The film’s constant need to explain what we are seeing undermines it, and bespeaks a lack of confidence on the part of the first-time director, a studio executive or both.
A reputation for greatness can shield a film from all criticism. Film history is littered with must-sees that prove less important when finally viewed. The mass delusion pertaining to the excellence of The Shawshank Redemption will shatter one day from the sheer ennui of watching it in one sitting. It will be a film for completists who have to see everything on the AFI Greatest American Movies list. Hopefully those future viewers will shrug and wonder why the Frank Darabont/Stephen King movie they just watched wasn’t The Green Mile.