The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

*. I suppose the place we have to start talking about The Shawshank Redemption is with its cult.
*. The word needs some explanation. I don’t mean cult in the sense of an underground or indie favourite — The Shawshank Redemption is as far from that as you can imagine. Instead, I’m using cult to refer to the movie’s committed following, which (just to put my cards on the table) seems irrational to me.
*. When I say it’s irrational I’m talking more about the intensity of feeling the movie inspires rather than the fact that a lot of people like it. As is well known, for many years it was at the very top of the IMDb polls as the highest rated movie ever made (David Thomson: “Times are hard.”). And indeed it continues to hold a special, indeed singular place in many people’s hearts. This is one of those strange cultural facts that critics and commentators have for many years now struggled to explain.
*. I don’t think I can explain it either, aside from pointing out the obvious. It’s a feel-good movie with a message about the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit. What’s not to like about that? Everything about it goes down as smooth as Morgan Freeman’s buttery narration, and while it mocks religious hypocrisy (a favourite target of author Stephen King) its own point of view is infused with spiritual feeling.
*. With regard to this final point, here’s a line about the film from David Thomson that I have to correct. Thomson writes that “It comes from a novella by Stephen King broadly dedicated to the notion that good nature will come through in the end, yet this is a principle that seldom operates in Mr. King’s customary horror works.” This isn’t true. King has always mocked organized religion, but his belief in a special providential force in the universe that sees to it that goodness and virtue receive their reward is almost always operative in his work. This is one of the things that has made him such a popular author, and which no doubt has contributed much to the staying power of this film.
*. Roger Ebert, a critic who could often be a reasonable proxy for an Everyman (I say that without any snark), had this to say about the Shawshank phenomenon: “Films about ‘redemption’ are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film – it sounds like work. But there’s a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it’s likely to have staying power even if it doesn’t grab an immediate audience.”
*. So . . . hope. Redemption. The triumph of the human spirit. “No good thing ever dies” (that’s a quote from the film). There is a “hunger for messages” like this. The Shawshank Redemption is soul food for the needy.
*. It’s not to my tastes. I think it’s nicely turned out, but at the end of the day it’s such a hokey, clichéd  fairy tale I couldn’t get anything out of it. Instead of feeling uplifted at the end as Andy and Red meet for a chaste hug on that great, safely nondemoninational heaven of a beach in Mexico with all the money in the world I just thought to myself, “Well, that’s nice.” How much more can you read into a film so well-meaning and so bland? Its chief virtue is its simplicity, resilient to criticism and open to all manner of interpretation. Apparently there is a whole moral philosophy contained in the admonishment to “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’,” but it’s a line that strikes me as meaningless. Am I trying too hard?

8 thoughts on “The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

  1. Tom Moody

    The original KIng novella was fairly gripping and Darabont stuck to the source, but Spielbergized it. I like the story not for any preaching about a “special providential force” but as a “tall tale” of what human will can accomplish with small, incremental acts and extraordinary patience. For example, a kid from Nowhere, Maine, resolving to write ten pages of prose every day, and working every day except one holiday, and eventually becoming a multimillionaire author. The “cult” is the same cult as that of Norman Vincent Peale and other self-help book writers. I think that’s the source of the appeal and it’s very American. As I recall the story ends with the narrator traveling to see Andy — the non-denominational heaven was added by Darabont and might still be just the narrator’s fantasy. It’s really not necessary but falls in the tradition of the lovebombing at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. Yes, it’s icky but the believer might as well get ice cream on the cake.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom. I actually haven’t read the story but I can see it being that way. King might have had a real point. Maybe I’m too big a cynic but I can’t get on board with the movie. I also find its reputation to be surprising, even while recognizing the need people have for such stories. It doesn’t leave me feeling much of anything at the end.

  2. Tom Moody

    It’s much remarked-upon that King suffers bad film adaptations. This is supposed to be one of the good ones. I tend to agree with you that it’s not — because of that Spielberg schmaltz. Like, we know Freeman isn’t going to kill himself at the end, why do we have to go through the manipulative rigmarole of having him get up on the hanging chair? One of the most compelling details from the story was omitted by Darabont, which is that when Andy crawled through human filth in the sewer pipe he had no idea if there would be a metal grate at the end, preventing him from entering the river and forcing him to crawl backward through human filth and return to his cell (and the tender ministrations of the warden). Years of patient effort were riding on that gamble. The macabre, Sisyphean dimensions of his task were omitted in the need for cinematic brevity and feel-good vibes.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, it would be hard to translate that sense of doubt to the screen but it would have worked on the page. It also reminds me of the story “A Very Tight Place” in King’s collection Just After Sunset where the protagonist has to methodically disassemble a portable toilet he’s been locked in so that he can escape through the tank. It seems to be an idea he got stuck in his head. Maybe there’s some connection to the thing that lives in the sewers in It as well.

  3. chandlerswainreviews

    I am always suspect of films which seem to generate, for whatever reason, rapturous adoration. I enjoyed “Shawshank” well enough as a popular entertainment on its release (“Dolores Claiborne” was a far more interesting King adaptation from the same time frame), but the cultish devotion it has engendered is a baffling phenomenon; certainly unmerited.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      And it’s still ranked number one on the IMDb “Top Rated” list! What a strange list that is . . .

      I haven’t seen Dolores Claiborne but I’ll try to check it out sometime soon. I guess there have been some good King adaptations but I find most of them sort of hit a wall.

  4. Tom Moody

    That’s funny, I was thinking of a list of good King adaptations and stopped after Dolores Claiborne. Misery, Carrie, and The Shining should be included, I guess (Kubrick realized the last was unfilmable and just made his own movie).

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That’s two recommendations for Dolores Claiborne. Guess I should see it. I hear the new version of It was pretty good (I’ve only seen the 1990 television miniseries). There have been some adaptations that were decent but aside from The Shining many of them strike me as small-screen, like after-school specials. That’s part of what I meant by hitting a wall. Not that they’re bad, but that they’re limited in some fundamental way.


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