If aliens came to Earth demanding to see the art that best represents us as a species, I would advocate for The Shawshank Redemption as the single film that embodies everything it is to be human. 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption is a tale of hope and despair, purity and corruption, and, perhaps most of all, victory and defeat.
Adapted from Stephen King’s 181-page novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” writer-director Frank Darabont found the perfect story in a collection of King’s work called Different Seasons. King himself loosely based “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” on a short story called “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” by Leo Tolstoy.
Short stories and novellas aren’t adapted as frequently as full-length novels, but in Hollywood, they’re as valuable as cigarettes in a prison yard. Notable films adapted from short stories or novellas include Minority Report, Brokeback Mountain, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Darabont’s endlessly quotable script (“Get busy living, or get busy dying”) is more faithful to King’s novella than most. The story follows Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), an introverted banker who is wrongfully convicted of killing his wife and her lover, and his time in Shawshank prison.
Behind bars, Andy is a fish out of water; he quickly finds himself allied to those who are clever and sensitive enough to empathize with him. Illegal prison merchant Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman) and librarian Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) become his closest friends inside. Serving two consecutive life sentences, Andy helps his fellow inmates with their finances, aids them in getting GEDs, and fights to improve the prison library. It’s all Andy can do to take his mind off of the abuses he suffers at the hand of other inmates while he attempts to find a way out of his wrongful conviction.
Robbins leads an extraordinary ensemble cast, including Bob Gunton as Warden Norton, William Sadler as Heywood, and Clancy Brown as Captain Hadley, all giving the performances of a lifetime. The Shawshank Redemption is masterful at every turn. The film is narrated by Freeman, and although narration can often be attributed to lazy storytelling, The Shawshank Redemption is emotional and novelistic enough to get away with it. Best-cinematographer-of-all-time Roger Deakins was behind the camera, and Deakins’ inspired work on the film helped him to cement his legacy. The Shawshank Redemption is a period piece, and its costumes, set design, and score stand on their own while executing Darabont’s singular vision.
Like many of King’s stories, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” ruminates on the battle between good and evil. Although the black and white fight at the center of the film consumes the viewer’s attention, The Shawshank Redemption still finds time for the shades between, and those gray areas separate it from its peers. Themes of police brutality, the struggle of a newly released institutionalized man, and the second-class treatment of inmates in this country make The Shawshank Redemption a story of America, and more broadly, the human experience. When the aliens come in search of art, send them a copy. They’ll understand.