There’s a line in The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman’s character, Red, tells us, “Prison is no fairy tale world.” Except that’s exactly what it is in this movie. Make no mistake about it: Frank Darabont’s 1994 prison drama, based on a Stephen King novella, endures as a kind of modern fairy tale, albeit one that transplants the most basic of all human emotions to the least romantic of all story settings. Instead of happening in space, like The Empire Strikes Back, this tale unfolds in a penitentiary.

Interpretations of Shawshank abound; depending on who you ask, the film might resonate as everything from a simple bromance to a biblical allegory. However, by using the prison as a canvas for a humanistic hope parable, the film managed to tap into something sublime and all-inclusive, something that cuts across demographics and appeals to people’s innermost yearning selves. Or, as Red puts it, “something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.”

The story of wrongfully convicted inmate Andy Dufresne, played with glassy-eyed stoicism by Tim Robbins, speaks to the imprisoned dreamer in all of us. He’s a man, Red tells us, “who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” Anyone who’s ever felt trapped by their circumstances, anyone who’s ever hoped for a better life, can relate to Andy’s decades-long struggle in Shawshank State Prison. As The Shawshank Redemption turns 25, it remains essential fuel for the film-lover’s soul: inspirational and heart-aching, but also perhaps richer and more multi-layered than you remember.

Hope Springs Eternal

Since this film has grown in stature, so have the stories surrounding it – including the fact that when The Shawshank Redemption first hit theaters twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t an immediate success. In fact, during its initial theatrical run, the movie bombed at the box office (which just goes to show that opening weekend grosses, as a success barometer, can be fallible to the extreme).

Months later, when Shawshank picked up seven Academy Award nominations — including one for Best Picture — the film still found itself overshadowed by Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, two other quotable classics that seemed to draw favor from opposite sides of the cultural spectrum. 1994 was a hell of a year for Best Picture nominees. For its part, Shawshank really found its life on home video and television, as word of mouth spread and networks like TNT began frequently broadcasting it.

In the cynical here and now of 2019, the most trenchant criticism one might aim at The Shawshank Redemption would be to say that its Capra-esque brand of sentimentalism seems occasionally at odds with the harsh realities of prison life. This a film that shows us a penitentiary populated by some of the nicest inmates you’ll ever meet. One of them, Brooks Hatlen (the late James Whitmore), is a kindly old librarian who feeds birds.

But Shawshank has its share of bad guys — a whole hierarchy of them, actually. The “sisters,” for instance, fall below Clancy Brown’s fearsome guard captain, Byron Hadley, in the pecking order. However, the prison’s core social group – Red and his friends – joke around, gamble with each other, and trade stories like they’re just a bunch of grown-up kids from another Stephen King story.

When Red says, “Everybody in here’s innocent,” you almost believe that could apply to him and his friends. He identifies himself as, “The only guilty man in Shawshank,” but his guilt, such as it were, is far removed from the world of the story, where he’s clearly one of its heroes. But as we’ve already established, this a fairy tale. If you view the prison as a stand-in for the world itself, then Red and his friends could just as easily be kids at the lunch table in the school cafeteria. Andy has to fend off bullies — in this case, those bullies, led by Bogs Diamond (Mark Holston), just so happen to be prison rapists.

It’s easy to project oneself onto Andy, who dreams of “a warm place with no memory.” King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, originally appeared in his Different Seasons collection under the subtitle of “Hope Springs Eternal.” That’s a phrase that gets right to the heart of what makes Shawshank such an abiding crowd-pleaser.

As Robbins himself observed before the film’s tenth anniversary:

“It’s a film about people being in jail, and having the hope to get out. Why is that universal? Because although not everybody has been in jail, on a deeper, more metaphysical level, many people feel enslaved by their environment, their jobs, their relationships — by whatever it is in the course of their lives that puts walls and bars around them. And Shawshank is a story about enduring and ultimately escaping from that imprisonment.”

Andy faces the prospect that his hope is a false one: one of those “shitty pipe dreams” that Red warns about. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red says. “Hope can drive a man insane.” Being a dreamer doesn’t always mean being a doer. Too often, the notion of tomorrow comes at the expense of today.

Obviously, Andy has a dream of tunneling out from Shawshank and executing his escape, but it’s interesting to note that he never talks about it, even with Red. Instead, he just does what he has to in order to make it happen: chipping away, little by little, year by year, at the wall that is blocking him in. If we’re lucky, maybe we, too, will find our Zihuatanejo in the end.

The Ultimate Easter Movie

As a cinephile, my own personal relationship with The Shawshank Redemption has evolved over the years. I was 14 when the film came out, so I wasn’t old enough to go see an R-rated movie myself. But there was something about the trailer that immediately drew me to it, so I did the next best thing: I read the novella.

Different Seasons was actually my first exposure to the inside of a Stephen King book. Coming from a churchgoing household where there was a stigma about horror, it really upended my notions of him as an author who only trafficked in the macabre. Back in March of 1995, even before I had seen it, I was rooting for Darabont’s film adaptation of the novella to win the Best Picture Oscar. At that point, the film was still flying under the radar; considering its competition, it felt like a real dark horse contender. Fast forward to mid-April 1995, and the 14-year-old me would find a VHS copy of the movie in his Easter basket. My mom and I watched it together and it quickly became my favorite film. Best Easter gift ever?

There comes a point, however, even with the best of movies, when you’ve watched it so many times that it starts to dull the effect of the viewing experience. After putting Shawshank aside for a few years, I came back to it recently, and it was as if the bottom had dropped out from under me as a viewer. I saw the movie with fresh eyes, and was surprised to find a whole new layer to it that I had never noticed before.

Maybe that Easter memory just had me reading things into that weren’t there, but there’s a case to be made that The Shawshank Redemption is, in fact, the ultimate Easter movie, much like It’s a Wonderful Life is the ultimate Christmas movie. On the surface, Shawshank would appear to identify religion with the enemy, inasmuch as we see Bob Gunton’s iconic movie villain, Warden Samuel Norton, falsely parading it as part of his image. He’s a hypocrite who, among other things, accepts bribes and orders the shooting of the likable Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) to protect his own interests.

Of course, Andy can quote scripture, chapter and verse, just as well as the warden can, and maybe there’s more to this movie hero than meets the eye. To be clear, there’s no mention of Easter in Shawshank, but it’s a movie about the fulfillment of hope, and as film critic Mark Kermode has noted, Andy Dufresne functions, on one level, as a Christ figure.

When a dozen volunteers enjoy their “beer communion,” as Darabont has called it, up on the roof of the license plate factory, it echoes the Last Supper scene with the twelve disciples. Andy suffers because of someone else’s crime, becoming the sacrificial lamb for Elmo Blatch’s sin, as it were. The mechanism of his escape, the rock hammer, is concealed within the hollowed out pages of a Bible. And while we’re on the subject of book pages, it’s worth noting, too, that King based Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption on a Leo Tolstoy short story entitled “God Sees the Truth, But Waits.”

When Andy goes missing from his cell, it recalls the story of the empty tomb on Easter morning. The titular moment of redemption in the rain has him spreading his arms wide open in a Christlike pose. Meanwhile, the warden’s own framed biblical embroidery (“His judgment cometh and that right soon”) comes back to haunt him as the police arrive for him and he blows his brains out in his office.

After his escape, Andy becomes a mythic figure in Shawshank. “Those of us who knew him best talk about him often,” Red says. They’re sharing the Gospel of Andy Dufresne, whose initials, A.D., call to mind Anno Domini, the Latin phrase for “in the year of the Lord.” Andy’s Gospel is simple: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” He tells us, “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

If Andy can be seen as a Christ figure, then Red is the rest of us, all those who are merely human and whose spirits have perhaps become a little jaded as a survival mechanism. A respected procurer of items from the outside world, Red is a veteran of this prison and he fears that he, like the frail Brooks Hatlen, is subject to institutionalization. “These walls are funny,” he observes. “First you hate ‘em, then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them.”

Red has always been honest about his guiltiness, but moved by the ghost of Andy’s words, he finally learns to be honest with the parole board. In doing so, he secures his own freedom. We hear the line, “Salvation lies within,” but for Red, salvation comes through his friendship with Andy. At the end, when he joins Andy on the beach in Zihuatanejo, he’s effectively in heaven.

This is just one reading of The Shawshank Redemption. When I was younger, I was focused on “hope” to the exclusion of all other themes. Like all great works of art, however, Shawshank is a thematic onion.

Because I was young and impressionable when I first watched it, my mom tried to turn this R-rated Stephen King adaptation into a life lesson, asking something to the effect of, “What did we learn from this movie?” At that age, I lacked the ability to articulate what I had learned from The Shawshank Redemption. The language of the film was as foreign to me as the Italian opera singers in the record Andy plays for the inmates in the prison yard.

All I knew was that the movie had moved me to tears. It sprang from a story by the master of the macabre, yet it seemed more divinely inspired than any church sermon I’d ever heard. Years later, Darabont would revisit hope-parable territory with a different kind of King adaptation: The Mist. That movie’s ending is a cautionary tale. Shawshank’s is meant to uplift.

In his book, Story, screenwriting guru Robert McKee described film as “a concert of techniques by which [filmmakers] create a conspiracy of interest between [themselves] and the audience.” In Andy’s cell, Warden Norton rails against his escape as the product of “one big conspiracy.” When he says everybody’s in on it, that includes the audience.

The Shawshank Redemption has touched the lives of people across the globe, to the point where that name, “Shawshank” — which once seemed confusing and hard to pronounce in the context of a movie title — now transcends any one language. You don’t even necessarily have to speak English to know what “Shawshank” symbolizes. It’s an elemental signifier that conjures up images of a lightning-lit baptism.

Tempted by despair, seemingly overmatched by a hostile world, Andy Dufresne elbows his way through that shit river and finds redemption in the rain on the other side. Who knows – maybe it’s not too late to join him. See you in Zihuatanejo.

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