Thursday, March 31, 2011

Movies I Like: The Shawshank Redemption



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:
http://www.melindamckee.com/2011/03/build-your-entire-story-experience-around-the-golden-theme/
http://lynnwoolf.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/were-not-just-farmers-were-people-who-eat/

11 comments:

Quentin Lebegue said...

Oh, this has to be my absolute film of all time, along with Finding Nemo ! The screenplay is just pure perfection indeed.

Thanks you for the inspiring post !

Brian McD said...

Hey Quentin,

Glad you dug the post. Yeah, I will write about Finding Nemo one day, I'm with you on that one.

Clint said...

My friend and I didn't know squat about Shawshank when we saw it as a double-feature after something we've both now forgotten. We were both stunned when it was over. It's the best film I've seen of the last twenty years. That it lost Best Picture to the Thin Mint novelty of Forrest Gump is one of cinema's great crimes.

It's also a great example of a film I know I should analyze to understand why it works so well, but hesitate to do so for fear of it becoming so familiar that it loses the impact it's always had. It's already happened with some favorite films of mine, films I still enjoy, but no nearly to the same degree simply due to overfamiliarity. Really don't want that to happen with this one.

Brian McD said...

Hey Clint,

I know what you are talking about, but consider this. I was once at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. The Magic Castle is a private club for professional magicians where they perform for one another. These are all pros – they know how the tricks are done.

So why do they watch? To see how well it is done. To see if the illusion works despite their insider’s information. In fact, knowing just how well something is done can add to one’s appreciation.

There is a learning curve where the magic of storytelling is lost to you when you begin to see the inner workings. But after a while what happens is an entirely new kind of appreciation. I would even say a much deeper appreciation. You can enjoy the thing on two levels – maybe more.

There is something about actually doing a thing that changes what you see and how you appreciate it. A painter sees a different painting than I do. I songwriter hears a different song than I do. When you know how to paint it isn’t just the subject of the panting that moves you to tears, but the brushstrokes. Or the genius of composition. Or color choices.

There are films so well crafted that my eyes well up just at the precision of craft. I am not exaggerating. There is always more than one kind of beauty to be seen in a given piece.

As playwright Percival Wilde said, “There is no art which does not conceal a still greater art.”

The price we pay for doing something well is having to look at the innards of the thing. If you don’t know how it works you can’t learn from it. And you stand little chance of reaching the same heights yourself.

Sure when you learn too much about the thing you love something dies. But the death of one thing is the birth of something else. You’re just afraid to let one thing die to make room for the new thing.

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

Clint said...

Brian, you do know how to put things. I know you're right, if for no other reason than, like you say, fully appreciate Darabont's achievement. I appreciate it enormously just from having read the novella and the shooting script a number of times. It's one of the rare cases of the screenplay being superior to the original material. But that's merely scratching the surface, I know, so I suppose it's time to crack the nut wide open. It's an interesting observation you make about appreciating it more as a work of art than simple entertainment. I do already do that with a couple of smaller films I like a lot. I guess it's just the enormity of my admiration of Shawshank that's kept me from realizing it would be the same with it. Thanks for the insight.

williamtsadler said...

Thank you for your kind words. As someone on the inside of this film, I have to say that we all knew when we were making it that it was a strong story. Maybe even a good film. But I don't think any of us could have imagined what the film would become. Lots of people thought it was a strong script. Actually Tom Cruise wanted to play Andy for a while but backed out because of Franks inexperience. Little trivia there.
William Sadler

Brian McD said...

Hello William,

Thanks for reading and thanks for helping to put such a great story into the world.

Your Tom Cruise story reminds me of George Raft not wanting to be in The Maltese Falcon because it was John Houston's first movie. So the part went to Bogart.

Anyway, thanks for writing.

Clint said...

Mr. Sadler,

What a pleasure to have one of the finest character actors in the industry visiting. I'm very glad Tom Cruise backed out. What a different film that would have been.

I always enjoy your work.

Clint Hayes

Brian McD said...

I'm with you, Clint. William Sadler's work is always a pleasure to watch. And I am flattered that he visited the blog.

Christine said...

Such a lovely post, thanks Brian! ;o)

Joon Kim said...

Alexandre Dumbass!