But Why Do We Love It?: Allegories, Justice, and Cinematic Refinement in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
23 September 2012
Although its 1994 theatrical release was a disappointment, barely earning back what the film cost to make, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption gained popularity when released on home video, and eventually DVD. In fact, today The Shawshank Redemption is considered one of the most beloved American films of all times, ranking #72 in 10th Anniversary Edition (2007) of the AFI’s 100 Best Films list.
Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, entitled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Darabont’s film tells of the twenty years Andrew Dufresne (Tim Robbins) served in Shawshank prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. Although the film centers on Andy’s imprisonment, the narrative is told from the perspective of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), Andy’s fellow inmate, and burgeoning best friend. Shortly after Andy’s arrival at Shawshank he falls victim to continuous abuse, from other inmates, as well as guards and Warden Norton (Bob Gunton); however Andy’s unbreakable spirit and banking background make him as asset to Shawshank’s warden and guards. Andy moves up the inner ranks of the prison’s hierarchy, but, along the way, stumbles, unable to avoid the inescapable dangers of life in prison. In the film’s conclusion, Warden Norton, the guards, and the inmates at Shawshank realize just how strong Andy’s spirit has been all along, and just how strong of a person he actually is, despite how hard Shawshank tried to break him.
It is interesting that this film was not an immediate success. But what is even more interesting is how this box-office disappointment overcame its initial reputation, becoming a staple in American cinema. While it may never be fully understood how a film could make such strides in terms of popularity, there are many things about the film’s quality that, likely, lend to its eventual success.
Film critics, namely Roger Ebert, film historian, analyst, and critic, suggests The Shawshank Redemption has a strong allegorical quality to it, and that this may explain audiences’ eventual embracement of the film. The film, not so discreetly, communicates the messages that inner strength is necessary to surviving life’s challenges, and that success and achievement are still possible for perseverant people, even when one is held down in the world. Without question these uplifting messages are a part of the reason the film found home in audience members’ hearts, yet not all cinematic allegories win an audience over, so this cannot be all there is to it.
Another part to Shawshank’s success is the retribution in the film’s resolution. Andy, a strong and innocent character, endures years of inhumane treatment in prison, and the audience needs to see justice in the end for his sufferings if the masses are to accept watching a person abused to this extreme. In the fictional world of the film, it satisfies the audience to see Warden Norton’s life end in cowardice and learn that the most vicious of all guards, Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), was arrested, while sobbing like a child, for his irreprehensible wrongdoing. It is not that the audience wants more carnage or trauma; conversely, the audience has, by the film’s conclusion, become moderately desensitized to brutality, and accepts the Warden Norton’s death and guard’s arrest as reassurance that, through these final violent and degrading acts, integrity is somehow restored in the end. In no small way, the justice in the film’s conclusion allows for the redemption alluded to in the film’s title, and this is a satisfying experience for viewers.
And yet, beyond the allegorical lessons and resolution’s deliverance of justice in the film’s imperfect world, the cinematics of the film are another unmistakable reason for audience’s eventual embrace of The Shawshank Redemption. Darabont is a gifted filmmaker, and his directorial style in this film (a film he also adapted the screenplay for) is uncomplicated and precise, not to mention refined. Put another way, Darabont simply keeps the audience’s attention on the story (the content), not how the story is being shown to them (the construct), a wise move when attempting to capture a character’s emotional journey and, simultaneously, attempting to take audiences on their own emotional journeys along the way. It is sometimes the most seemingly uncomplicated filmmaking that requires the most attention to detail, and The Shawshank Redemption is no exception to this. In the darkest moments of the film—the sodomy, brutal beatings, suicide, murder—Darabont keeps the audience at an arm’s length visually from the action. Clearly a decision was made not to show any graphic content, and it is fairly obvious why, but the subtle way Darabont includes, and even emphasizes, the film’s difficult content, through cuts, angles, and pacing, alerts the audience to what is happening, but keeps them from having to bear witness to graphic images.
For example, on the first night Andy spends at Shawshank one of the other new inmates has a breakdown just after lights out. This new inmate cries hysterically that there has been a mistake, clearly panicking upon realizing that he is trapped in a cell, likely for life. The guards warn this man to quiet down, but he is unable to control himself. Eventually Hadley pulls the man out of the cell and beats him brutally on the prison’s cement floor. Darabont shows Hadley take several swings at the man, but the camera is positioned feet away from the actors, capturing the action in a long shot. Moreover, Darabont cuts to close-ups on Red and other inmates looking on at the beating. These cuts take the viewers away from violent beating, offering a break from witnessing this brutality. In all, the sound effects are what make this scene difficult, as Darabont intentionally limits the beating’s visual presence for audience members.
Similar examples are found as the film continues. Bogs (Mark Rolston) and “the Sisters” often beat Andy, but more quick cutting limits what the audience sees of these violent exchanges. Also, Darabont often uses crane shots or clever angels to restrict viewers’ line of vision. The audience is told through voiceover narration that Bogs sodomizes Andy, but that action, unsurprisingly, is never captured. Even with Brooks’ death, the audience is not allowed to see the moment he actually hangs himself; instead, the audience watches his feet as they push-off the table he stand on top of. Then, after he’s dead, which means the audience is spared watching Brooks struggling through suffocation, the audience sees him hanging, but the camera is positioned behind him, therefore viewers never look at the noosed, dead face of the beloved character.
Darabont recognized that showing the audience too much, allowing them unrestricted access to the morbid, violent, and cruel events in and surrounding Shawshank, would, likely, turn them off from the film. If the film were too difficult to watch audiences simply would not watch it. Therefore, the film’s ability to cover such difficult content in the narrative without explicitly capturing graphic images helps explain how audiences embraced The Shawshank Redemption.
Clearly there is not one reason The Shawshank Redemption went from box office disappointment to American film classic, and, in fairness, the entirely of this reason may never be fully explained. However, astute critics are certainly on point is associating the film’s allegorical nature with audience interest. And, the film’s fearless quest for justice in the conclusion, allowing all to recuperate, is also an undeniable aspect to the film’s ability to satisfy audience needs. Moreover, Darabont direction, knowing when and how far of a distance to keep the audience when handling the film’s most atrocious and inhumane content, is surely part of the film’s success.