The Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 American drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the 1982 Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” According to the Internet Movie Database and Allmovie.com, The Shawshank Redemption is eclipsed only by The Godfather as the most popular movie of all time. As good a novella as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is, the book never attained the same cultural resonance as the film. In fact, moviegoers always impressed by the number of people who still do not recognize that the film version of Shawshank is adapted from a King narrative.

1. Feministic Approach:

The Shawshank Redemption revolves around men in prison—their interpersonal friendships and conflicts, their coping mechanisms in adjusting to “all the time in the world,” and their adaptability to lives that exclude freedom of movement. Perhaps less obvious, but nevertheless central to the film’s plot, the men in Shawshank are also forced to reconsider their relationships to women.

There are only three or four “living females” who appear in this two and-a-half hour movie, and they occupy cameo roles: Andy’s wife, who opens the film in a torrid embrace with her adulterous lover just before they are both murdered; the two landladies who unlock the door to the same apartment Red and Brooks will share; and the sole woman who is a member of Red’s third parole board when his petition is finally approved. None of these women is present in her respective mise-en-scene for very long.

At first glance, the loss of contact with women in The Shawshank Redemption seems designed to be part of the punishment that the inmates must endure; moreover, it is easy and natural for viewers to enter a celluloid microcosm devoid of women because the film’s men are so interesting to observe. Yet, despite the obvious male-centeredness of this filmic text, sounds and images of women haunt its perimeters—from the posters of the three Hollywood starlets that mark the decades of Andy Dufresne’s term while also hiding his escape tunnel; to the two sopranos whose duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro graces the prison yard with feminine song; to the rock wall in a Buxton hayfield where Andy made love and asked his wife to marry him and, later, serves as a reference point for Red to reconnect with Andy; to the film’s final shot on the beach at Zihuatanejo, the Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean whose native name in Nahuatl “Cihualtan” means “the place of women.” Furthermore, in the course of the movie, Dufresne becomes more and more “feminized,” sympathetic to and affiliated with feminine oppression, images, and gendered behavior; women in The Shawshank Redemption, particularly through their artistic representations that undermine patriarchal authority, are inextricably connected to Andy’s quest for redemption.

As the film takes us deeper into Andy’s life at Shawshank, his acts of hegemonic rebellion are subtly but increasingly affiliated with feminine representation and resistance. In arguably the most famous scene in The Shawshank Redemption, Andy defies the prison authorities long enough to share the gift of music with his fellow inmates. Instead of being gratefully humbled when his request for books and records is so generously answered by the state legislature, their arrival encourages Andy to push the envelope in an act of insolence.

Using the prison public address system, Dufresne fills the prison yard with the music of two sopranos, “beautiful birds that flapped into our drab little cage,” as Red calls them. The stunned silence that freezes convicts and guards alike is as much about hearing song emitted through the rusted loudspeakers in the prison yard—long accustomed to issuing the dry commands of a bureaucratic penal system—as it is the introduction of the feminine into this exclusively masculine domain.

Andy stands apart from the other inmates at Shawshank because he integrates feminine traits into his personality, especially since the women who are referenced in this film employ their femininity as a means for asserting themselves against the male power arrangements they respectively encounter.

Andy’s feminine face and body (when he first notices Andy, Red calls him a “tall drink of water”) and eccentric personality are compelling features that both prison inmates and authorities find impossible to resist. Andy draws the entire prison population to him—out of a desire to befriend him, or to exploit his intellect, or to possess him sexually. Like the traditional gothic heroine in literature and film, Andy is under personal siege and must constantly protect himself against masculine intrusions that endanger his integrity and personal code of conduct. The film reveals him to be, if not the exclusive then at least, the primary target of The Sisters’ violent sexual lust. Once freed from their oppression, however, he becomes the warden’s “bitch,” made to prostitute his business acumen for Norton’s illegal schemes:

A convicted murderer who provides solid financial planning is a nice pet to have.” To ensure Dufresne’s continued cooperation in his criminal operations, Norton relies on sexual intimidation that once again assigns Andy to a feminine role: “I’ll pull you out of that one bunk Hilton and cast you down with the sodomites. You’ll think you were fucked by a train.” The warden’s threat of course is an explicit reference to rape, the means by which desperate men always exert emotional as well as physical dominance over women.

Within the prison culture itself, Andy is a teacher, friend, and nurturer to a degree that would have been considered “feminine” during the 1940s and beyond. He designs and maintains the Shawshank library and is responsible for tutoring several convicts, enabling them to attain high school equivalency diplomas. Andy emerges as a highly stable resource that dispenses kindly advice; throughout most of this film, his character is best defined as an aid to others. In effect, Andy becomes the surrogate mother all these inmates should have had in their misguided lives.

In one scene, the audience observes him staring at the classic photograph of Marilyn Monroe trying to maintain control over her white skirt as it billows around her thighs. In this particular mis-en-scène, the audience is unaware that Monroe is more than simply a black-and-white poster image fueling Andy’s lascivious fantasies; she is also the keeper of his literal portal to freedom, and Andy is as much transfixed by that secret knowledge as he is by Marilyn’s legs.

The full title of King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Re-demption, initially strikes the casual reader as an odd choice. But King’s original title, shortened to The Shawshank Redemption for Darabont’s film, implies the importance of connecting Rita Hayworth herself (as well as the various other women in the film who sing and appear in poster photographs) directly to the concept of redemption—the emancipation or liberation that comes through payment of a price—as it operates within Shawshank prison.

Although there are no living women featured in Shawshank, all the women who are referenced in this film are versions of Rita Hayworth: Sexualized sirens of an unattainable femininity, of course; but these women likewise must be viewed as more than just torments for eternally incarcerated males as they reveal themselves also capable of transforming the prisoners’ lives, however briefly, by bringing beauty and inspiration to men in danger of becoming “institutionalized.”

2. Heroic Protagonist:

Most filmgoers tend to perceive The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile as aberrations in the Hollywood film canon of work produced from Stephen King’s fiction. I am beyond being surprised whenever strangers, upon hearing me link these films with King’s name, comment in shocked disbelief, “Stephen King wrote those stories?” Such confusion is understandable, as David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone is more a tragic love story than it is a tale of terror, while Shawshank and The Green Mile, both directed by Frank Darabont, are essentially prison narratives. None of these films can be said to be typical of the horror genre, although all certainly contain sufficient elements of terror and graphic violence. And while The Dead Zone and The Green Mile rely heavily on supernatural occurrences, which are totally absent in Shawshank, their inclusion bear a greater affinity with religious, mystical, and folkloric phenomena than with the abject monsters of horror.

All this notwithstanding, each of these films revolves around similar protagonists who occupy the respective centers of each narrative and serve to hold the plots together. Moreover, the unassuming central characters in these films—a schoolteacher, a former banker wrongly convicted of murder, and a prison guard—are immediately recognizable as prototypical Stephen King heroes. They speak to us of struggle and anguish, of isolation and human suffering. Yet the emphasis of each film is less on fear and despair than on the shared will and capacity to survive. In spite of tragic loss, these narratives are also reminders of what is good and noble and deathless in the human spirit. And this last point is a major reason why people who typically do not consider themselves as fans of Stephen King so often appreciate these three movies.

In this way, then, John Smith shares much in common with the falsely convicted felon, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in Shawshank. Both are modest men, in possession of above-average intelligences, who find themselves in situations that continually test their independence and powers of endurance. Andy and John experience severe disruptions in their lives, so severe that neither man is the same afterward. Yet each of these men is somehow protected from the madness and cruelty that surrounds them by a kind of inner shield. They are both survivors forced to adjust to radical change, and they have done so without succumbing either to cynicism or despair. Although neither man can be said to be a “loner,” each exists at the perimeters of society, as both are isolated from mainstream life. More important, unlike most of the other characters that engage them, Johnny Smith and Andy Dufresne possess the ability to see themselves clearly and without illusions. There is a moral centeredness to both these characters that sustains them in the face of fate’s vicissitudes.

Red Redding (Morgan Freeman) recognizes Andy’s uniqueness; even before he has the opportunity to befriend him, Red notes that Andy “had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here …..like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place [prison].

Speaking in a voice-over early in the film, Red, who is the narrator of a large portion of the movie, posits that the “fresh fish” inmates who arrive at Shawshank are “close to madness the first night. Somebody always breaks down crying.” But Andy disappoints Red’s bet that he will succumb to the brutality of his new environment. In fact, as I have already alluded, there is an “invisible coat” or a self-imposed “wall” surrounding Andy that is as impermeable as the stone walls of Shawshank prison itself.

Andy possesses an existential quality of self-knowledge, a sense of himself and the fact of his innocence that makes his time in prison less desperate than it might have been for a weaker man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her illicit lover. Red initially misinterprets Andy’s self-confidence for snobbery—“rumor has it that you’re a real cold fish, think your shit smells sweeter than most”—for Andy is a man, like John Smith, who is self-possessed and who understands that the world will strip such a man of his essence if he is not vigilant and self-protective. Injustice follows Andy inside the prison; his intelligence and good looks are exploited by convicts and prison authorities alike when he is subjected both to sexual assault and the rape of his financial acumen by Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) and his guards. But Andy is never relegated to victim status: He uses his financial knowledge as a former bank vice president to obtain special favors from the prison authorities and, most of all, to gain survival time to tunnel his way out of Shawshank. After his brilliant escape, in which he also manages to steal back the illegal monies he has invested for the warden, Dufresne leaves behind his best friend, Red. Eventually, the two are reunited in Mexico, when Red joins him after obtaining a long-awaited parole from his life-term sentence.

3. Detailed Symbolism

In an interview with Tony Magistrale several years ago, Stephen King acknowledged that he often chooses a character’s name for a purpose. The surname Dufresne is a French derivation of the word “mineralogist.” Accordingly, throughout The Shawshank Redemption, Andy is associated with rocks and geology. He refers to himself as a “rock hound,” made love and asked his wife to marry him at the base of a long rock wall in a Buxton, Maine, meadow, risks severe punishment at the hands of prison authorities in commissioning Red to procure a rock hammer, creates beautiful chess pieces from rocks that are brought to him by the other inmates, and escapes from Shawshank by tunneling for twenty years under its walls and depositing the debris each day in the prison’s exercise yard.

Not only is Andy an amateur geologist, as an inmate he lives a life literally enclosed in rock, as every perimeter wall of Shawshank prison is composed of imposing pieces of blue-gray granite assembled to resemble a medieval castle. In short, it is Andy’s appreciation of rocks and geological processes that helps to make his stay at Shawshank psychologically bearable. But Andy’s love of geology extends beyond mere hobby to become a dominant feature of his personality and, by extension, the film itself.

Just as he appreciates the geodynamic processes that, through the constant imposition of pressure and time, break down the earth into individual rock fragments, Andy also intuits this action as a metaphor for life. In the cells surrounding him at Shawshank are examples of men who have acted on impulse—committing stupid and impetuous acts of violence with consequences that they now regret. Their long punishment in Shawshank—a kind of symbolic burial in stone—stands in stark contrast to the impetuosity of such youthful testosterone-driven behavior. To survive the interminable chronological sentence of prison life, these men must learn to adjust to what Red calls “all the time in the world,” to assume a patience and self-restraint that was sorely absent in their decision to commit the crimes that put them in Shawshank in the first place.

Through Andy’s character, this film asks whether it is possible to make the necessary adjustments that come with the imposed time and pressures of prison life without also allowing one’s spirit to calcify. We learn in the course of this film that Andy is simultaneously the representative of change and liberation as well as a symbol of rock-hard determination and endurance.

Shawshank is a narrative that begins in stone (Dufresne stares up at a granite wall that looms in front of him the first time he passes through the prison’s front gate) only to end in water (on the edge of the Mexican Pacific). Throughout the film, water is a transformative agent, symbolizing rebirth and purification, as when Andy emerges triumphantly from the bowels of the prison sewer system in the middle of a thunderous rainstorm, or when Red greets his friend at the limitless edge of sky and ocean at the end of the film.

Since so much of Shawshank is set in the confinement of stone, often emphasized by tight camera angles set in restricted spaces, it is highly significant that the movie ends with open-ended vistas in terms of both physical space (the Mexican beach) and in the fact that Andy is shown restoring a boat (bringing it back to life). Indeed, even the sandy beach on which Andy and Red embrace subtly underscores the ultimate breakdown of rock and stone to its final particulates.

4. Friendship crossing racial and class lines

Friendships in King’s fiction transcend age, class, gender, and racial barriers as often as they cross legal and ethical lines of conduct. The Shawshank Redemption discusses another subversive friendship in King’s movies—this one crossing racial and class lines—that is equally as instrumental in the survival of the film’s respective characters.

Andy and Red gain strength from subverting traditional gender affiliations and aligning themselves with various constructions of femininity—cinematic, musical, and marital—that exist at the margins of the film’s central action and stand in opposition to the masculine oppression that dominates life in Shawshank prison. One need not be incarcerated inside an actual prison, however, to experience life as a prisoner. So argues Mary Findley in her chapter, that interprets Misery as a prison film. Positing that Misery is best understood as the first part of a prison trilogy that includes Shawshank and The Green Mile, Findley establishes points of comparison that illuminate the interrelationships among these three movies.

For the Love of Shawshank | Vanity Fair

5. The metaphor of Institutionalization

The narratives of Stephen King are not merely excursions into a world that never was and never could be, but also a serious social fiction. Heroic characters exist all through King’s universe, so the examples I discuss here merely illustrate a consistent narrative pattern that has held true throughout the writer’s career. The prototype for the King hero is arguably Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption. Although Andy is probably better educated and employed than the majority of King’s blue-collar heroes and heroines, he still shares much in common with them.

Andy stands out from the other prisoners around him, asserting his humanity while others succumb to institutionalization, at the same time that he undermines the corrupt authorities that run the prison. As the typical King hero, Andy is unassuming, humble, smart, and patient. Most of all, however, he is best defined in terms of his indomitable spirit. After decades of doing time for crimes he did not commit, Andy gives up neither his desire for freedom nor his personal humanity. Andy’s subversive acts force him to spend more time “in the hole” enduring solitary confinement longer than any other prisoner at Shawshank.

And while he has every reason to become cynical and embittered because the system so terribly failed him, instead of turning inward toward self- pity and despair, he channels his anger and prodigious energies outward, electing to help others instead. Several men receive their high school equivalency diplomas because of his dedicated tutelage; he builds the Shawshank library and saves Red from capitulating to institutionalization.

In spite of the close bonds he maintains with the prisoners he helps, Andy is clearly distinguished from the rest of the prison population. Maybe it is his level of intellectualism, surrounded as he is with high school dropouts, evinced in his personal preferences for chess over checkers, wall posters of Einstein over Betty Boop, fiercely independent film starlets over sports legends. In the end, Andy’s distinctiveness, his individuality, never results in an air of elite superiority —except when he calls Bogs an “ignorant fuck” and Warden Norton “obtuse” —and both these men deserve their putdowns.

He fights fiercely against the pressures of institutionalization in order to remain honest, brave and forthright, and in the end his values triumph over and bring down the systemic corruption at the prison. What gives Andy the ability to endure and remain positively focused, in contrast to other long-term prisoners, notably Red and Brooks, who are overwhelmed by the pressures of institutionalization? Perhaps the most important asset that Andy Dufresne possesses is the power of hope. He refuses to sacrifice his individuality or the individualities of other prisoners in the face of a penal system that demeans and dehumanizes the incarcerated, turning them into numbers who must “ask permission before taking a piss.”

Red’s institutionalization is likewise the product of years of “walled-in” oppression, isolation, and the steady erosion that “hope is a dangerous thing.” Andy, in contrast, never loses hope; this is the “shield” that Red first noted while watching Andy walk through the prison yard.

Get busy living, or get busy dying.

Andy Dufresne

6. Achieving Redemption is the central theme

All three of King’s prison films—The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Misery—share an important theme: personal redemption. All three characters must redeem or win back their freedom and come to terms with their definition of truth. Andy must find a way to manipulate the very system and people that put him in prison in order to free himself, both physically and spiritually. John Coffey must find a way, jailed and sitting on Death Row, to free himself from the constant torment, pain, and responsibility that comes with his gift to heal others, a gift that causes him great anguish because he feels and experiences the pain of others. Paul Sheldon must find a way to use his writing, the very thing that ultimately attracted Annie and caused her to imprison him, in order to free himself both physically and spiritually.

It is this theme of redemption, of freeing oneself both physically and spiritually despite the mounting odds, that links these three films together as cinematic siblings.

It is all about Andy’s redemption which passed to Red and emerged stronger than the circumstances that once imprisoned them. In The Shawshank Redemption the audience rejoices with Andy’s freedom and Red’s ability to join him for a blissful future at the ocean’s edge. The sunny beach, the blue water, the ocean breeze all wash over the audience and cleanse any residual feelings of angst leftover from Dufresne’s prison days.

In the end, Andy’s redemption is more about recognizing and transforming the limitations of his former self that contributed to the destruction of his marriage than it is about escaping the stone of Shawshank for the sand of Zihuatanejo. He endures incarceration at Shawshank to learn this about his marriage and his wife:

“I didn’t pull the trigger, but I drove her away. And that’s why she died, because of me, the way I am.”

In the film’s opening scene, Andy reveals something of the way he was, pictured brooding inside an automobile “entrapped” in a stereotypical masculinity that isolates him in a state of clench-fisted despair. His response to his wife’s infidelity appears about to verge into violence, he resorts to heavy drinking alone as a consequence of her sexual betrayal, and his only means of expression is limited to a loaded gun. This portrait of a humiliated man enduring a private hell contrasts with the highly developed social and communicative role Andy takes on while at Shawshank.

Like Dostoevski’s personal transformation as a result of his years spent in a Siberian gulag, Dufresne’s own suffering—the loss of his marriage and his freedom, and the various punishments he endures as a convict at Shawshank—has opened him more profoundly to the sufferings of others.

During his long prison term, the masculine stoniness he brought to his marriage and the stereotypical male-gendered response we see him exhibit in the film’s opening montage undergo a kind of geological breakdown. Andy comes to empathize with his wife’s marital situation and, through his identification with her and the film’s other self-empowered representations of the feminine, becomes a better man.

Ironically, the film comes full circle when Andy Dufresne follows the seditious example set by his own wife: He abandons an unsatisfying relationship in an oppressive institution to “get busy living” on the shores of Zihuatanejo, “the place of women.”

The magic of The Shawshank Redemption is that this shield is transferable – it passes from Andy to Red (and then to the reader/ viewer) —and it is the most persuasive representation of what the word “redemption” means in the title.

References:

  1. “The Films of Stephen King – From Carrie to Secret Window” by Tony Magistrale.
  2. “Hollywood’s Stephen King” by Tony Magistrale.
  3. “Writing Horror and The Body – The fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice” by Linda badley.
  4. “Stephen King – America’s Storyteller” by Tony Magistrale.

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