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.

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  1. Neville Ross

    October 5, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t work for me because of the whole idea of ‘redemption’ in prison; unless one was a person that needed to be redeemed in prison because they’d committed a crime, a person who’d been wrongly convicted is not a person in need of redemption, but a person that needs to be freed from prison by a person/persons or an organization that works to free people from being wrongfully convicted (c.f. Alfred Dreyfuss, Oscar Neebe, George Washington Davis, Caleb Powers, Rubin Carter, etc.) I’d rather read The Sixteenth Round, the sequel book Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and the the movie The Hurricane instead of seeing The Shawshank Redemption.

    Also, I find that the escaping from prison by Andy Dufresne to be particularly egregious; nobody wrongfully convicted (with one example that I know of ) would ever do that (Bernard Coard, one of the members of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada during the 1970’s who was convicted of the murder of Maurice Bishop, adamantly refused to flee from prison after Hurricane Ivan wrecked Grenada in 2004, claiming that ‘only the guilty flee.’) Why did King think that Andy doing this would free him or ‘redeem’ him? In real life, it would only make things worse for Dufresne.

    This movie deserves what you said about it, and I agree completely with you. But I also think The Green Mile‘s garbage too, and deserve a remake with a black actor in the role played by Tom Hanks, and a white man in the role played by Michael Clarke Duncan. At least King’s back on solid ground movie-wise with the big screen version of It.


    • Tony Sopranosa

      September 4, 2018 at 11:30 am

      We are nearly a year after this comment was made and I only just noticed it.
      In my admittedly many viewings of The Shawshank Redemption, I’ve come to believe the redemption wasn’t that of Andy Dufresne, but instead of our very own, Morgan Freeman, narrated Red (as in REDemption). In fact, one of the first scenes of the movie is Red in a parole hearing, when they ask if he is a changed man. The story of Shawshank redemption revolves around “the only guilty man in Shawshank” and how he found hope, and ultimately redemption through his interactions with the wrongly-convicted Andy Dufresne. The first and last of of the prison scenes concern Red’s parole hearing, and his ultimate growth as a person over the seven years at Shawshank. He gained hope and ultimately became redeemed within himself in order to pass his parole hearing and escape Shawshank.

      In regards to your second point, why wouldn’t a person wrongfully convicted escape? He is held captive by a corrupt warden and his crooks who will stop at nothing to extort Andy’s services and keep him at prison. Andy knows this. I think it was pretty easy to tell from the very first day that Andy was going to be unable to get out of the prison from normal means.


  2. Monkey Magic

    May 4, 2018 at 6:59 am

    Thank you I hate this truly execrable movie more than Schindler’s list and I REALLY hate Schindler’s list. Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at the audience in these two movies to make them break down into blubbering heaps of snot and subsequently oversalted popcorn. Absolutely shameless emotioneering. You have a story to tell fine then don’t attempt to manipulate me. Am I the only one to find this incredibly deceitful? The novella was good it was the weakest story in that book but I had pretty high hopes it’s strong enough material to hold its own. But as every Stephen King adaptation bar Salem’s Lot has taught us it’s all about the liberal application of schmaltz like an emotionally incontinent 80’s usa sitcom or low budget afternoon tv movie where the kid in a coma wakes and says,”mommy?”. The narration grates,the Mozart Captive O-Mouth Disco bit pathetic and most irritatingly of all it was totally needless. There are great performances from Clancy Brown,Bob Gunton and James Whitmore they alone make a memorable movie. Cut out Tim Robbins,Morgan Freeman (yes I’m that pissed off) and especially that sub-Reagan Weeeeell narration and you are left with a movie nearly as compelling as another Freeman movie,Brubaker a lost classic in my opinion. Thank you for ruining my day reminding me how unfeasibly angry I am at the cinematic version of Robert Paulson advancing towards me head cocked to the side, tear glazed eyes and a smiling in hope with his arms ready to hug me into a wet mess. Now really irk me and destroy that floating stinker Amistad I will be forever apoplectic in gratitude. One more thing Boo hoo hoo hoo!!


    • Michael Sharpe

      August 25, 2020 at 10:34 pm

      Uh, yeah. After reading that you HATE Shawshank and Schindler’s, I stopped, laughed out loud a bit at how ridiculous you sound and then wrote this without reading on. You and the moronic critic are hilarious. Tedium in Shawshank? When? Where?
      Didn’t like Morgan Freeman narrating. Haha! Sucks when your opinion is absolutely incorrect.


  3. candy dooframe!

    August 27, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you, Sir! In a society of bleating sheep you roar the truth like a Lion. Shawshank redemption fu&$in’ blows and everyone who likes it has pretensions of being smart!


    • MIK

      February 7, 2019 at 8:36 am

      Just because you want to stand out and prove to the world that you’re not a sheep doesn’t mean you’re right. This movie is for a fact one of the best movies ever made. The acting and simple filming techniques coupled with great casting and Stephen’s stories make a compelling case of why this movie is to be regarded as great. stop trying to be interesting, sometimes its best to go with the flow otherwise you’d look like an idiot.


      • Tony Cracolice

        April 13, 2019 at 3:47 pm

        You ARE an idiot.


      • Mike J

        May 24, 2019 at 11:48 am

        So your opinion (that Shawshank is “one of the best movies ever made”) is fact? I’m not sure you understand what a fact is.


  4. Blutarski

    August 22, 2019 at 10:12 am

    I get the hatred for Shawshank, which is just an emotionally-manipulative cliche-fest. But why the love for Green Mile, which is at least as bad?


  5. stu

    October 13, 2019 at 2:31 am

    The Shawshank Redemption is certainly a lot better than the shlocky mess that is The Mist. It’s also more concise and more memorable than The Green Mile, which whilst not bad escapism uses emotioneering to a far wider extent. Your reasons for not liking this film seem a little on the thin side, and I can’t quite take you seriously if you really think The Mist is good filmmaking. Here is a simple story told well and therefore a bit old-fashioned for some even in 1994.


  6. Vang S.

    August 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    You people really need to get over yourselves.


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