One-line review: A buddy movie for the ages about hope and happy endings.

The universal fan-favorite Shawshank Redemption needs no review almost three-decades after its release, so this piece explores why the movie still resonates with the audiences: it’s always showing on some channel and yet always difficult to skip. The film’s shaky journey from a resounding flop to cult status also offers life lessons about success and public approval. 

At its core, the Shawshank Redemption is a love story between two male friends. Male buddy movies are usually about cars, shootouts, and drinking rather than life like the SS. The ending where the two buddies meet and hug amidst the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean is more satisfying than any romantic kiss. Actor Tim Robbins best sums up the reason for the film’s enduring appeal; it earns its happy ending. Interestingly, both Stephen King’s novella and Frank Darabont’s script ended ambiguously with Red heading to Mexico, with no guarantee he would make it or find Andy. Producers Castlerock, specifically Liz Glotzer, insisted that the audience deserved to see Red make it to the welcoming arms of his friend. Darabont reluctantly shot the ending scene after the producers assured him that he had the final cut. But during the editing, Darabont too realized that there could be no other way for the film to end. 

The Shawshank Redemption is so rewatchable because of its brilliant script and spot-on casting. The film’s genesis is Stephen King’s remarkable novella, which packs a mean punch in a mere hundred pages. Darabont expanded on it, fleshing out some characters like Brooks, who doesn’t have a significant role in the book. The film also changes King’s lead characters: Andy was short while Red is a white Irishman. Tim Robbins is the perfect choice to play Andy Dufresne, tall, and mysterious with just enough star appeal for us to believe in his intelligence and innocence. And the casting coup of Morgan Freeman and the decision to use his voice-over (a launching pad for Freeman’s parallel career as a narrator). The rest of the cast say they knew they were part of something extraordinary when they heard Freeman’s narration during rehearsals. James Whitmore plays Brooks with the right amount of pathos; although lost outside prison, you know he is no sissy. When rewatching the film now, the prison warden Norton (Bob Gunton), the prison guard Brown (Byron Hadley), or the head “sister” Mark Rolston come across as one-dimensionally evil. But Darabont’s explanation makes complete sense; the film is Red’s memory of his time in Shawshank. And as a long-serving prisoner, he naturally remembers no redeeming features in these people. Byron Hadley echoes this sentiment saying that although he met several prison guards to prepare for the role, he decided to play his part as someone purely evil. 

I think the film resonates so profoundly with audiences -many have credited the film for saving them from the brink of suicide- because it satisfies our innate human desire for justice. The good survive despite all odds in the movie, and the bad get the punishment they deserve. Brooks’s suicide is an anomaly, but it strengthens our desire to see Red make it. What could be more satisfying than the universe, for once being fair, despite the delay?

The film’s journey into the audience’s hearts uncannily echoes its plot. Happy endings are hard-earned. Despite being nominated for several Oscars, it won none and tanked at the box office, not the least because its strange and hard to pronounce title made the word-of-mouth publicity difficult. Today Stephen King is an integral part of why audiences love the film, but when it was first released, King’s association with the film was downplayed, fearing that family audiences would think it is a horror film. Rob Reiner, who produced the film, wanted to direct it, but Darabont insisted on directing it, confident that no one knew the film as best as him, and even took a pay cut. Rookie director Darabont often incurred the wrath of the cast over the number of takes. Cinematographer Deakins (this was his breakthrough work in terms of recognition) also clashed with Darabont because he wanted the film to show the prison’s claustrophobic interiors than focus on its vast expanse. But Darabont thankfully prevailed and lived to tell his tale (his piece accompanying the SR screenplay is a must-read for fans). 

The film reminds us that public opinion is not a measure of success at a given point. For example, Van Gogh said his audiences were not yet born when he painted. Similarly, Shawshank’s audiences were not yet in the theaters when it was released. But then it came to their home screens; they saw it and willingly allowed themselves to be conquered.

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