From Book to Screen: The Shawshank Redemption
Welcome back to the Stephen King Book to Screen series. Last time, we covered the sole film of King’s massive epic book series The Dark Tower. Our next set of articles will continue King’s trip away from straightforward horror as we dive into his first collection of novellas, all four selections of which have had film treatments (one is still in pre-production). We get to experience a year with Different Seasons as we tackle the first story from the book, which was developed into one of the most famous and critically-acclaimed King adaptations of all-time: The Shawshank Redemption.
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is the first novella in King’s 1982 novella collection Different Seasons. Different Seasons uses four novellas to represent each of the four seasons, the first of which is themed Hope Springs Eternal. The novella collection developed in response to King and his editors’ worries about him being typecast as a horror writer. King had a series of dramatic stories ready to keep his portfolio diverse. Of course, as we all know, King’s horror was highly successful, and he needn’t have worried about being stuck in some financially-unsuccessful horror trap. Ironically, he found difficulty getting these novellas published as the market for “drama” fiction stories in the 25,000-35,000 word length was not substantial. King and his editor collaborated and developed the idea of printing four of these together as one book, and the seasons concept was the result.
The spring story, based on the enduring idea of hope and renewal, is Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Fans of King can find plenty of his trademark writing touches despite the absence of conventional horror. The story touches on some of the elements of boomer nostalgia that are replete in King’s work, taking a look back at certain type of prison in 1950s Maine. People may be surprised to learn that King based the story on a preexisting tale, Leo Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits.” Tolstoy’s story is a parable on redemption and forgiveness about a prisoner who goes to Siberia for a crime he didn’t commit. King adapted major parts of this into his novella, though he took a slightly more optimistic view of life, if only slightly, than Tolstoy did.
While there are no murderous dogs or ghosts or inescapable evil forces here, King still manages to pepper a lot of darkness into the story. Prison rape, brutality, and corruption all add to an already harsh reality for Andy Dufresne, imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. The story is narrated by Red, an Irishman named after his hair color who certainly captures the feeling of a King character. Many of King’s other authorial touches are replete in the novella, from the Rita Hayworth posters and song references to the idea that man’s inner greed is the source of great evil.
Yet there is a humanist undercurrent to the entire affair, which brims with hope and desire for something better. King expands on a subject matter that he started with in The Stand about the nobility of humanity fighting for more and a brighter future despite the darkness around us. This is exemplified in many of the dialogue choices made throughout the story, such as “get busy living or get busy dying,” and in the injustice of caging a bird that yearns for freedom. King is perhaps at his most poetic as a writer here, tapping into a style of writing that he rarely touched afterward. King would write touching dramas again, but this novella is the best example of it.
Frank Darabont. He’s a name we’ve mentioned once before in this series, and this is the start of several more mentions. He’s adapted several King stories into films, and it all starts with The Shawshank Redemption. After adapting one of the Dollar Babies we mentioned many articles ago, Darabont approached King with a $5,000 check to buy the rights to the story. King was aghast that anyone would want to adapt this novella into a film, not understanding how it could ever make a good one. Darabont clearly disagreed and purchased away. King never cashed the check and later returned it to Darabont, framed, with a note telling Darabont to cash it in case he ever needed bail money.
Writing the script over the course of eight weeks, Darabont called on a number of influences for his feature debut. The works of Frank Capra, which he described as tall tales, influenced him as he saw the Shawshank story as a tall tale more than a prison film. The Capra influence is clear in the themes and acting of the story, with thematic similarity to It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Darabont taps into that humanist well that Capra was fond of, touched with tinges of darkness and an appreciation for character. Darabont also drew influence from Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas, using its technique of narration to convey time to bring the character Red from the novella into the film.
Script in hand, Darabont still struggled to get his film made until it passed by Castle Rock Entertainment, founded by Rob Reiner in the wake of Stand By Me (more on that in an article or two). A producer at Castle Rock threatened to quit unless the script was produced. Rob Reiner didn’t require much persuasion; he liked the script and had just adapted a Different Seasons film himself. Originally planning to cast Tom Cruise as Andy Dufresne and Harrison Ford as Red, Reiner gave Darabont the go-ahead to direct the film.
Obviously, that version of the film was never made. Cruise passed on the role of Andy, as did Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and Kevin Costner. Johnny Depp, Charlie Sheen, and Nicolas Cage also received consideration, but eventually Tim Robbins was cast due to Darabont enjoying his performance in Jacob’s Ladder. Robbins would be responsible for insisting Darabont bring in Roger Deakins to do the cinematography. The same producer who championed the film suggested Morgan Freeman for the role of Red. He won everyone over quickly with his smooth, comforting baritone making him an obvious choice for a role requiring narration. The film gives a funny nod to the character’s Irish roots. The name of the film cut out the Rita Hayworth reference, as it was thought that the title was too long. It also confused actresses and their agents who initially thought Darabont was making a Rita Hayworth biopic.
Production of the film was fraught with tension. Darabont clashed with actors repeatedly. Freeman relates being forced to do multiple takes for no discernible reason, and he eventually refused to do more takes. Deakins and Darabont clashed as well. Darabont wanted large, scenic shots of the prison, whereas Deakins felt that would take away from the claustrophobia of the film. Another clash was over the ending. Darabont originally wanted a more ambiguous ending with Red heading to Mexico, leaving it unknown whether he ever met up with Andy. His producer champion argued that audiences would want to see Andy and Red reunite in the end. She won out.
Despite the success of early test screenings, the film released in 1994 to a disappointing box office. It closed within 10 weeks of release, only recouping $16 million on a $25 million budget. Darabont thought himself dead in the water. Yet like the film’s main character, perseverance would be key. Despite being almost entirely unknown, the movie racked up a series of Oscar nominations. Darabont recalls his fortunes turning after the film was mentioned multiple times on that year’s Oscar broadcast. TBS subsequently acquired the TV broadcast rights and soon broke the record for home broadcast of a film, and Shawshank finally found its audience and secured its place in film history. Its almost viral success story indicated that the film resonated with people in a major way.
And indeed, Darabont’s debut is quite excellent. Robbins and Freeman have fantastic chemistry together, forming a friendship that helps center the film. Robbins captures a character that endures great darkness, yet in a near-Stoic manner endures. He conveys Andy without melodrama or overselling big moments. Deakins cinematography, as in so many of his films, is gorgeous. There are several iconic shots that despite Deakins’ own negative thoughts on them remain beautiful. The lighting of Robbins, faced turned to the sky, hands hurled upwards to the heavens, is exemplary of the beauty of the film.
The film has attracted its share of naysayers in the years since. Its perennial standing near the top of IMDb’s film rankings is considered criminal by some who find the film overly sappy and bland. Yet The Shawshank Redemption is undeniably excellent cinema. Despite Frank Darabont’s inexperience as a director, he creates a thoroughly modern blend of Capra and similarly-styled classic Hollywood filmmaking. His insistence over Deakins on the use of establishing shots works to his favor here. Instead of creating a straight prison drama, the film takes on that “tall tale” quality that Darabont desired.
It is through this window that emotional highs and lows can be properly interpreted as more than shallow pap. The film delves into darker territory to craft a work that explores the human condition. To suffer is to be human in many ways. Yet The Shawshank Redemption gives truth to the Stoic mantra “It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” Andy refuses to do what so many in the film do: surrender to despair and hopelessness. And despite the focus on Andy, Darabont properly remembers that the main character is Red. Red who at the start of the film has resigned himself to his fate. Through Andy, he remembers what it means to live again.
Another Stoic truism becomes an underpinning of the film: “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” Andy’s intense interest in geology, a study of “pressure and time,” is examined throughout the course of the film. Darabont adds these classic Hollywood moments into the film, showing the gem of Andy’s soul. He defiantly blasts music throughout the prison, reminding people of a life outside the dark, confining walls. For years on end, Andy pens letter demanding funding for a prison library. Whether King intended or not, he wrote Andy into a Stoic example, and Darabont wisely grasped this with his script. This attention to humanity also helps to humanize prisoners and treat them as actual people instead of numbers in a block.
All of the fantastic scripting choices aside, The Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful film to look at. It is visually-dynamic throughout with shots conveying character, tension, and beauty. There is frequent use of eye-level and POV shots that help to center a human story of endurance in a human point of view. For depictions of the corrupt Warden Norton, a common technique of low shots to convey his imposing nature and stature sets him apart from many of the other characters in the film. This attention to character makes Darabont a natural at adapting King stories.
While the short story is an unexpectedly strong piece of non-horror writing from King, few would likely call it their favorite King work or even their favorite King novella or short story. Yet The Shawshank Redemption transcended into one of the best Stephen King films made. The irony of one of the best Stephen King films being a non-horror film is not lost, and one wonders if King could have stayed away from horror his entire career and still become a successful writer. Regardless, this is one of the most iconic adaptations ever made and the epitome of what is possible with a director who “gets” King. Without hesitation, it can be said this is the definitive adaptation of this story and no further versions are needed, though there is a stage version out there. It even tops the written form. It is the highest-ranked film on the global Flickchart we will cover in this series, and for good reason.
- Ranked #5 globally
- 86,693 users have ranked it
- Wins 77% of match-ups
- 3,091 people have it at #1
- 1/91 on the Stephen King filter
These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Carrie (1976)
- The Dead Zone (1983)
- The Stand (1994)
- Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
- Cat’s Eye (1985)
- The Running Man (1987)
- Cujo (1983)
- The Shining (1980)
- Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
- Salem’s Lot (2004)
- Children of the Corn (2009)
- Salem’s Lot (1979)
- Firestarter (1984)
- The Dark Tower (2017)
- Carrie (2013)
- Children of the Corn (1984)
- The Mangler (1995)
- Graveyard Shift (1990)
- Maximum Overdrive (1986)
- Carrie (2002)
- The Lawnmower Man (1992)
- Trucks (1997)