It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics. In the Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the contemporary reviews were highly positive. Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it gives its appreciative audiences massive satisfaction and uplift.
Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t seem widely known to be an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have. Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).
The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so. The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the slightest authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.
While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.