A Look Back: The Shawshank Redemption

There are two kinds of Stephen King novels/novellas/short stories that get made into movies. One has a very basic message, such as beware of evil dogs, cars or perhaps clowns. These are the kind of book you don’t want to read when you’re home late alone, unless you enjoy having nightmares. The other type may put the protagonist in physical danger, but the bigger threat is psychological. This kind tends to win prestigious awards if made into a film, such as “Stand By Me,” “Misery,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” (incidentally all parodied in a “Family Guy” episode, “The Three Kings.”)

Directed by Frank Darabont (and winning multiple awards), “The Shawshank Redemption,” is based on King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The first two words of the title were probably dropped either because a certain portion of the audience wasn’t familiar with the name or simply because it’s less cumbersome. The movie’s message is easy to “get,” the main one is the importance of never giving up hope even when one is in a crushingly hopeless environment (and can’t leave). But there are others, including:

1. It pays to cultivate a relationship with that guy in prison who can allegedly procure anything.

And:

2. If there’s suddenly a draft near your cell, there may be a serious reason. Especially if it won’t go away.

And:

3. When in need of a place to hide something, a Bible comes in mighty handy.

And the most important of all.

4. Never ever let a prison inmate, no matter how much of a financial wizard, do your tax returns for you.

In the movie, Tim Robbins plays a banker convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to life in Maine’s notorious (literary) prison Shawshawk. Although he protests his innocence, this is hardly new for a convicted man, and he winds up stuck there for most of the movie. The narrator of the film is lifer Red (Morgan Freeman, whose character was originally Irish) who fills the viewer in on the day-to-day indignities of prison. These include sexual assault (shown in several graphic scenes), work detail drudgery, and sanctimonious or sadistic staff, including Bob Gunton, who plays the main warden and eventually gets a nice come-uppance. A savvy man in other things besides finances, Tim lies low when he first arrives, but then figures out (what we learn later) is quite a master plan to get out of there and develops a rapport with Morgan, who is “that guy” and who agrees to furnish Tim with a rock hammer and a pinup poster for his cell (several come and go besides Rita, to signify the passing of time). Although Tim is, at first, in danger of being assaulted, we come to see that his real challenge is maintaining his spirit throughout his stay at Shawshank. But he manages this, and manages to help various other inmates, including Morgan, keep theirs’ intact, too. Although Morgan’s parole possibility has come up before, he is always refused, believing that he has not yet been “rehabilitated.” But he takes inspiration from Tim.

Because Tim hasn’t lost his financial expertise along with his freedom, he eventually sets up shop doing the prison staff’s tax returns for them, in exchange for certain other favors. And of course, he maintains his innocence, but because this is Shawshank, this is seen as a running joke. However, about halfway through the movie, hope appears in the form of a young new inmate (Gil Bellows), who was formerly at another prison and heard something about Tim’s case that could possibly set him free. This does not work out the way Tim hopes, but he still perseveres and manages to triumph in the end. There are casualties along the way, but ultimately, he and Morgan reunite – this time as free men. In the process, he manages to completely turn the tables on his captors – even quoting their own words back at them.

Postscript: If you feel like seeking it out, there is a short called “The Sharktank Redemption,” starring Alfonso Freeman (Morgan’s son), about twenty minutes long, and involving an employee of a Hollywood agency who gets passed over repeatedly for promotion. The main message? Get busy dying or get busy faxing.

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