It’s a little strange to write about this film because just about everyone already knows and loves it. I guess I hope to point out some of the craftsmanship that makes it so effective.
The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Frank Darabont, and is based on the novella by Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
First let me say first that I have been a Frank Darabont fan for many years. I mean back before most people even knew his name. In fact, I didn’t even know his name.
Back in the ’80s my roommate was make-up artist Todd Masters and he was working on a show called Tales from the Crypt. (Side note: I worked for Todd and my job was putting stalactites on the Crypt-keeper’s ceiling.)
Anyway, Todd would bring home the scripts for all of the shows and, wanting to be a writer and hoping to write for the show, I would read every script. Most of the time I rolled my eyes and thought, I could write this. But one day I read a script that was supposed to be for a new show called Two-Fisted Tales (it later did become an episode of Tales from the Crypt) to be made by the same producers. I was blown away. This writer was good. He was really good. I held on to that script and still have it to this day.
A few years later I watched the Young Indiana Jones show on television every week and was mostly disappointed. But there was one writer whose shows I always liked. They didn’t feel like the other episodes.
I had forgotten this guy’s name, but was so blown away when I saw The Shawshank Redemption that I would read anything I could get my hands on about the filmmaker. It was then I realized that I had liked Darabont’s work for years.
Why do I mention this? Because this is a writer who understands craft, and it was as clear in his early work as it is later.
So let’s look at Shawshank. The story follows a banker, Andy Dufresne, as he endures several years in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover of which he claims to be innocent. While serving his time, he befriends with an inmate by the name of Red.
One of the things that Darabont does well is balance the feminine and masculine elements of his stories. Readers of my book Invisible Ink will know that I define masculine elements as the physical things that happen in a story. Things like plot, action, violence and the other things we associate with “guy movies.” Things blowing up. Think of your typical run-of-the-mill action film.
What I call feminine elements are the elements dealing with the internal world – the emotional world. Now we are talking about things like mood or the emotional life of characters. Think of what is commonly referred to as “chick flicks.”
Most writers are good at one, either the feminine or masculine element, but neglect the other. But when these elements are unbalanced the stories can become cartoonish and feel unreal.
Jaws, for example, is about a man-eating shark terrorizing a town and the sheriff who must stop it. Nothing special really – just a monster movie.
But add in the fact that the sheriff is scared half to death to be on the water, that this is his great fear, and now you have a strong feminine element and the entire thing has weight. Now it’s not just a hit, but also a classic.
Darabont knows how to balance these elements so that a harsh prison film becomes a tender story of friendship.
I had a student who could not for the life of him tell me the armature (theme) of Shawshank. He could not see it. My guess is that most of you could identify the theme without too much trouble, but let's look at the film's clues.
How about the film’s use of clone characters. Again, I do go more into this in my book, but the short definition is that clones are secondary characters who give the audience a yardstick by which to measure a major character.
The most famous clones in storydom are the the Three Little Pigs. We measure the success of the last pig, who built his house of bricks, against the first two pigs, who were unsuccessful with their houses of straw and sticks, respectively.
There is an old man at the prison by the name of Brooks who has spent most of his life in prison. He is what Red, another long-time inmate, refers to as “institutionalized.”
As Red says it: “These prison walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That's institutionalized. They send you here for life, that's exactly what they take. The part that counts anyways.”
When Brooks gets out of prison the world is too much for him; he cannot to adjust to life on the outside. The old man carves the words “Brooks was here” into the wall of his cheap hotel and he hangs himself.
Later Red gets out of prison, gets the same job that Brooks had and is in the very same cheap hotel, in the very same room. Red also has a hard time on the outside.
But what does Red do? He carves into the very same wall, right next to Brooks’ words, the words “So was Red.” And with that he leaves this room to get on with his life.
We know that Red has succeeded because, just like with the Three Little Pigs, we have poor Brooks’ failure to measure him against.
So what is the film’s armature? Well, the main character of the piece, Andy Dufresne, is able to keep his spirits up through his years of prison and he brings hope and joy to a place with little of either. He teaches the inmates to live.
At one point in the film Andy tells Red that things come down to two choices: “Either get busy living or get busy dying.”
There it is. The theme. The whole movie tells us this. Every frame. And we see that Red has learned the lesson well when he walks out of that cheap hotel. Brooks got busy dying and Red got busy living.
Wow. Such beautiful work. Such command of craft.
I think this film is one of the best films anyone has ever made. Period.
P.S. Here's some stuff about The Golden Theme:
P.S. Here's some stuff about The Golden Theme: