THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Why King’s Anti-Prison Manifesto ISN’T a Masterpiece?

“The Shawshank Redemption” is a film that doesn’t have many revolutionary concepts, twists, or events.

Odys Korczyński

28 June 2024

shawshank redemption

Without Stephen King‘s text, this movie would not exist. No one could have written such a good screenplay – it’s practically impossible. Maybe the screenwriter and director in one person – Frank Darabont, did not work that hard because the text of the novella literally resonates in the film version of The Shawshank Redemption from the first to the last minutes. On the occasion of writing this column, I watched the film again, this time with King’s novella beside me. It felt as if the narrator was reading it to me, and the visuals were merely illustrations. This gave me a rather derivative impression, confirming my belief that my rating of 8 shouldn’t be a 10. The films I consider the three best in the world – Ingmar Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky – deserve that score. This trio remains unchanged, and I would call The Shawshank Redemption a great, moving film, but never a masterpiece as the statistics suggest. For reference, it is currently ranked first on Polish site FW with an average score of 8.76, and IMDb positions it at the same spot with an even higher rating of 9.3.

I share King’s sentiment, apparent in the text, that the penitentiary system acts as a catalyst, cause, and sustainer of a constant level of crime in societies regardless of geographical location. The prison system, judiciary, and police are the vertices of a triangle that mutually satisfy each other, with no interest in changing this state, i.e., eradicating instances of lawbreaking, actions against the group, or better yet, conduct directed against humanity and its surroundings. The cultural laws of some societies are sometimes as inhumane as the worst crimes. In short, King, through Andy’s and Red’s words, suggests that the penitentiary system in its current form should be abolished. This bitter reflection on the resocialization of criminals and the system is the greatest value of Frank Darabont’s film because images convey the most glaring ideological emotions more suggestively than text alone. However, King also didn’t want his novella to be an overly solemn manifesto, which is why he focused on the stories of people – planted, both literally and figuratively, in their lives, which are not innocent. Only Andy is innocent, at least until he ends up in prison, where he becomes a king of financial fraud. But is it important who among the characters is guilty and who is spotless? Another merit of the film is that Darabont, along with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, and even actors in supporting roles like William Sadler and James Whitmore, managed to turn criminals into characters the audience wants to root for, even like.

shawshank redemption

This can be called naive romanticization, but in King’s text, it doesn’t look so prosaic. Thus, this merit can also be a flaw, as the criminals, whose crimes are intentionally not elaborated upon, are in a sense positive characters, while the warden and guards, including the psychopathic Captain Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown), are antagonists. For me, this is not an issue. A bigger one is the aforementioned derivative nature, though moving, and the ending, which is a literal approach to King’s text. A literal interpretation of his words, in the novella’s finale, spoken by Red, who has already found the letter, the money, and is heading to Zihuatanejo. He hopes for a successful journey, crossing the border, meeting Andy – he hopes, which is crucial, and King leaves it to us to interpret whether Red succeeds. Because one must always have hope, though reality often deafens to it. A masterpiece, which The Shawshank Redemption should be, shouldn’t end so sweetly. Who knows, maybe this and the hero-criminals were why the film lost to Forrest Gump at the Oscars, a production much more life-friendly and practically reflective for viewers who statistically have a greater chance of experiencing some of Forrest’s adventures than life imprisonment in a maximum-security prison. So, I agree with the Academy’s opinion that if The Shawshank Redemption competed with Forrest Gump for the title of the best film in the world, Forrest should win. Personally, however, I believe The Seventh Seal or one of my other two lifetime films should win, and if they weren’t there, then certainly David Fincher’s Se7en.

Staying on the topic of the literalness of adaptations, I would expect more from a masterpiece than merely altering the original, but a more sublimely creative approach. King created a very specific atmosphere, and he did it in just a few dozen pages. The Shawshank Redemption has a similar atmosphere, created by narrators who too often quote the text. I generally have doubts whether any faithful adaptation should ever be called a masterpiece, and if so, it needs to demand much more than quotes about a Pacific as blue as dreams. And so, I gave it an 8, if anyone complains about my complaining. Besides listing pros and cons, it’s logical that the best film in the world should be flawless, and here the whole story has a hint of naivety, including the core of King’s concept. This is not evident in the text, as the writer’s language is substantial and intelligent. For the film, Darabont had to simplify it – that is, select King’s more sententious pieces and glue them together to make an impression.

The problem is that this story doesn’t have many revolutionary concepts, twists, or events. The prison is quite standard. We’ve seen many such ones in movies – much worse than this inhumane portrayal of a correctional facility from Brubaker. There are lifers, a corrupt warden hiding behind the principles of the Bible, and a bandit captain of the guards. The main character is, of course, innocent, and in the second half of the film, a witness conveniently appears who can exonerate the wrongly convicted. Even the rapist subplot disappears quickly, in line with the idea that all other prisoners must have hearts full of love, contrary to the stone hearts of the guards. And Andy’s escape ends in a Christ-like pose. An 8 is sufficient individually, but statistically, the top ranking of all time seems exaggerated, similar to the American vision of freedom beyond prison walls.

Odys Korczyński

Odys Korczyński

For years he has been passionate about computer games, in particular RPG productions, film, medicine, religious studies, psychoanalysis, artificial intelligence, physics, bioethics, as well as audiovisual media. He considers the story of a film to be a means and a pretext to talk about human culture in general, whose cinematography is one of many splinters.

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