The Case of The Shawshank Redemption

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, we spent last week talking about the 2003 classic family film, Holes. This week, we’re continuing our theme with one of the most beloved films of all time. 

There’s no doubt that Stephen King is a master of horror. In fact, when you suggest one of his books to someone who isn’t a horror fan, they might give you a funny look. But the truth is, King has contributed to several genres, and it’s quite possible that his source material is responsible for one of your favorite films as well. For example, popular movies like Stand By Me and The Green Mile were both based on his work. However, of all of the films adapted from King’s writing, one of the most lauded is The Shawshank Redemption. 

Based on a novella by King, this 1994 film was a slow-burning success. Although it didn’t catch the attention of audiences immediately, it soon made up for it with several Oscar nominations. Today, it’s achieved cult classic status, and currently holds the number one rated film on IMDB. 

So come join us as we learn all about this low-budget box office flop and how it crawled its way to cinematic glory!

SUMMARY

  • After being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences back to back at Shawshank Prison. Andy makes friends with Red, another prisoner and the man with connections to the outside. For nearly two decades they navigate the violent and psychological horrors of Shawshank together, while holding onto the hope that one day they will be free men again.

IT STARTED WITH A STORY

  • The Shawshank Redemption is based on a Stephen King novella called, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, published in a collection of stories in 1982. The collection is called Different Seasons and has three other stories, including The Body, which was made into another fan-favorite film, Stand By Me.
  • Only eight years earlier had King launched his writing career with his breakout horror novel, Carrie. Since then, he had penned classics like The Shining and The Stand. But, Different Seasons focused more on dramatic stories, and strayed from the horror fiction that fans expected. 
  • In 1983 Frank Darabont made his first Stephen King adaptation. At the time he was in his early twenties. Buying the rights to an author’s story can vary in price but Stephen King has a program that has given many young filmmakers a unique opportunity. It’s called the “Dollar Baby” program, and he offers certain titles to be bought for the low price of $1. The short film Darabont created was The Woman in the Room(1984). You can find it here in this link.
    • King still has this program open to young filmmakers looking to adapt works! The link of selected works that you can request for contract can be here: https://stephenking.com/dollar-baby/ 
  • Darabont felt he needed a little more experience under his belt before he approached Stephen King for the story he truly had his eyes on. After 1987, and his first screenplay credit under A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, he felt he was ready to request Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. He signed a check to the amount of $5000 to Stephen King. 
    • The story was written from the perspective of a prisoner serving a life sentence. Much of the text was a stream of consciousness, and King himself was unsure how the story could be made into a movie. But, since he enjoyed Darabont’s take on The Woman in the Room, he gave his blessing.  Though Darabont got the rights, it took him 5 years before he sat down to begin the screenplay. Once he did, it took a mere eight weeks. He wanted to keep the spirit and core of the source material, lifting lines directly from the story. Because the character Red’s voice is present throughout the story, Darabont decided that this character would also narrate the film. 
  • After directing the 1986 film Stand By Me, Rob Reiner co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, named for the fictional town in which Stand By Me takes place. After Darabont completed the script, it ended up in the hands of Liz Glotzer, who became so enthralled with the story that she didn’t even want to finish the script before seeing the movie. Glotzer fought hard for Shawshank, even threatening to quit if the company didn’t produce the film. When Rob Reiner heard about the project, he reportedly offered Darabont a “shitload” of money to direct the film, AND Castle Rock would finance any other film Darabont would want to direct. But, Darabont stuck to his guns. If he hadn’t, this would have been a different movie. 
    • Reiner later joked to Liz Glotzer that, “‘[Different Seasons] is on my desk for years. You would have thought we’d have read the next story! But we didn’t.”
  • Darabont added his own flair to the story, creating storylines that drove the message home and adding some violence. 
    • In the book, the two main characters Andy and Red look very different. Andy is described as short with small clever hands and gold-rimmed glasses. Red is a white Irish man, which they joke about in the movie.
    • Brooks is a major character within the movie and a key emotional storyline. Within the book, however, he dies uneventfully in a home for the elderly.
    • Tommy, who has information that could free Andy, was dealt with in a different way in the book versus the movie. In the movie, he is shot to death but in the book he trades his silence on the matter to be switched to a lower security prison. 
    • Darabont also condenses the part of three wardens into that of the one Warden Norton. 
    • The ending of the movie is different because Liz Glotzer fought for us to be able to see the two friends reunite in Mexico. Darabont had wanted the film to end as the book does, with Red on his way to Andy but with no payoff. Glotzer was adamant that if the intention was for the two to get together, then the audience should have the satisfaction of seeing it. 

MAKING OF

  • Director Frank Darabont and the rest of the cast and crew started filming The Shawshank Redemption in the summer of 1993. The film had a budget of $25 million dollars, which isn’t very high. In comparison, The Flintstones, which also came out in 1994, had a budget of $46 million. 
  • While Darabont and Production Designer Terence Marsh were location scouting for the film, they found the Ohio State Reformatory, a prison on the brink of demolition in Mansfield, OH. The buildings of the reformatory had been abandoned for several years, with piles of paint chips in almost every room.
    • The production was set up in Mansfield, and the crew would use other Ohio locations for the rest of the film. Many of the guards used in the movie were actually residents of Mansfield that were guards at the prison when it was in operation. 
  • The opening scene of the movie shows us two scenes at once. We see our main character Andy Dufresne sitting in his car while his wife has an affair inside. This was shot at Malabar Farms in Ohio. The other scene takes place in a courtroom in Upper Sandusky! 
    • According to Darabont, the two scenes were written separately but had to be cut together because they could only shoot at the farms for one night. The scene works very well cut together, as we see Andy pull out his gun, cut together with a prosecutor laying out the crime that had been committed. 
  • When Shawshank is first introduced in the film, we see a beautiful aerial shot of the building and 500 extras in the yard. Marsh also had the idea for that shot as well! 
    • This shot was pretty tricky to get. It had been raining off and on all day, and because of budget issues, production had to let go of most of their extras by the end of the day. This meant they only had a small window of time to get it right, coordinating the extras as the helicopter pilot glided over the prison yard.
  • Terence Marsh had the difficult task of taking the interior of the prison and making it look like it was still in operation. Locations like the offices, the mess hall, and the courtyard were all at the reformatory. But, the cell block itself was an elaborate hand-built set.
    • On the upper level of the cell blocks, it got to be almost 100 degrees during an Ohio summer, especially with all the production lights. 
    • Production had to build their own sets because the actual cells were only 6ft by 9ft, making them impossible to light. They were also meant for two men to share, creating a virtually unlivable situation. 
    • Andy Dufresne’s cell is covered in magazines and newspaper clippings that had been brought in by the production designers and hand-selected by Tim Robbins to make the set feel more like his space. 
  • When it came time to cast the film, it became quite clear that the film could not be called: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The original title seemed to be confusing, leading people to believe that the film was a biopic. Agents were calling Darabont and his team, saying that their clients would be perfect to play Rita Hayworth. 
    • To help work Rita Hayworth into the story, there’s a scene where the prisoners are watching one of her movies in the reformatory theater. In the original story, they are watching a different movie that would have been too expensive for the studio to use. So, Darabont found one of Rita Hayworth’s films on a list of movies that Castle Rock already had the rights to and they were able to use that. 
  • The cast is one of the many reasons why this film works so well. The two main actors don’t match the descriptions of their book counterparts, but they still fit their roles perfectly. 
    • When Rob Reiner tried to direct the film, he actually had Tom Cruise in mind to play Andy Dufresne. According to Morgan Freeman, he was the one that suggested Tim Robbins for the role. Despite the fact that Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner were both offered the role, it went to Robbins. Robbins delivered a stoic performance that perfectly captured the soul of an innocent man who has landed in an impossible situation. Robbins went on to win an Oscar ten years later for Mystic River
      • When Tim Robbins was asked why he thought the film has continued to resonate with audiences he said, “One is that there are very, very few films that are about the relationship, the friendship between two men that doesn’t involve car chases or being charming with the ladies and those kinds of buddy movies. This one is about a true, deep friendship that lasts. And part of me thinks that people want or need that kind of story to be told.”
    • Morgan Freeman embodied the character of Ellis Boyd (Red) Redding so well, it’s impossible to imagine the character being played by anyone else. Because the book counterpart is a white Irishman, Freeman wasn’t even initially considered for the role. 
      • After looking at several names like Harrison Ford and Gene Hackman, Liz Glotzer stepped in once again with a movie-saving suggestion. She advocated for throwing out the look of the character in the book and going with Morgan Freeman, an actor that Darabont did like for the part. 
        • Freeman was shocked when he was offered the part of Red, the character that sets the tone of the entire film with his voice. 
      • Usually, voiceover narration is completed after a production wraps, but because the pace of the film was so reliant on Morgan Freeman’s delivery, Darabont had Freeman record the narration first. Then, they played the narration on set while acting out certain scenes so that they could time action and dialogue with his words. 
        • However, there was a problem with the original recording’s audio, meaning that it would have to be completely re-recorded. Freeman completed the first version in only 45 minutes. The re-record, however, took three weeks. 
      • In the audio commentary, Frank Darabont praised Morgan Freeman for his patience throughout filming. In one scene, the actor is playing catch while talking to Andy (Tim Robbins). The shot took 9 hours to get, meaning Freeman had to throw the ball for that entire period of time. According to Darabont, he never complained. 
    • One storyline that added depth to the film was the story of a fellow inmate named Brooks. Possibly one of the most loved characters in the movie, Brooks Hatlen was played by James Whitmore. 
      • While much of Shawshank focuses on the horrors that occur inside prison, Brooks’ story highlights what can happen after a longtime inmate is released. 
      • Darabont had been a fan of Whitmore for a very long time, and was absolutely thrilled to work with him. You’ll notice that he got the “and” credit during the opening of the movie. 
      • Whitmore was a veteran TV and film actor that captured Darabont’s attention in the 1954 film Them!
      • Whitmore carried a live crow around throughout filming, as his character cared for the animal. Production had a woman from the ASPCA on set to ensure that the animal was treated humanely. During one scene, Whitmore was supposed to feed a live wax worm to the crow, and the ASPCA representative objected. She told Darabont that not only could he only feed a dead worm to the crow, but it also had to be a worm that “died of natural causes.” 
    • When Frank Darabont wrote the character of Warden Samuel Norton, he was concerned that religious audiences would take offense to the character, as he’s the only overtly religious person in the film and is absolutely despicable. His intention was to call out people like the warden that hide behind doctrine to justify their horrific acts. 
      • In the audio commentary, he mentions that he’s gotten more positive feedback from religious viewers, as many of them have interpreted Shawshank to be a religious allegory. 
    • The warden is a conglomerate of several characters in the original novella. Bob Gunton brought a foreboding presence to the character and was Darabont’s first choice to play the role. However, according to a screen rant article, Gunton almost didn’t get the part because his head was shaved for another film. He wore a wig while filming until his hair grew out.  
  • The Shawshank Redemption is a perfect storm of great writing, directing, acting, music, and cinematography. Roger Deakins was the director of photography and crafted the perfect visual aesthetic to match the tone of the movie. Deakins is a veteran cinematographer that has painted the light for many major films, like 1917 (2019) and The Big Lebowski (1998). 
  • One of the most important elements of this film is the soundtrack. Thomas Newman composed a score that is both foreboding and deeply hopeful. The music as Andy crawls his way to freedom is (in our opinion) one of the most uplifting pieces of cinematic music ever written. The scene would be completely different without it. 
    • Newman has scored classics like Wall-E and Finding Nemo. 

STARRING

  • As we mentioned before, this film stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. 
  • Bob Gunton as Warden Norton
    • Bob was Dr. Walcott in “Patch Adams”
  • Clancy Brown as Captain Hadley
    • Clancy is a fantastic voice actor, you may know him as Mr. Krabs in Spongebob! 
    • There is a popular fan theory that Andy Dufresne was actually guilty of the double homicide and that Captain Hadley was not a bad guy. Evidence for this theory is seen when Hadley protects Andy from “The Sisters” and beats up Bogs.
  • Mark Rolston as Bogs Diamond
    • Bogs is the leader of “The Sisters” and is the main attacker and sexual assaulter to Andy. 
    • Darabont saw Mark in the movie Aliens and wanted him for the movie.
  • Gil Bellows as Tommy
    • Tommy’s character helps to show Andy how greedy and heartless the Warden is. The Warden has him shot by Hadley on purpose in order to keep Tommy from testifying on behalf of Andy.
    • Gil is also well known as Billy Thomas in Ally McBeal.
  • William Sadler as Heywood
    • William is known also to be in Tales of the Crypt which is what prompted Darabont to choose him for this movie.
  • James Whitmore as Brooks Hatlen

TWITTER THOUGHTS

AWARDS/RECEPTION

  • Unfortunately Shawshank was not appreciated immediately. To illustrate this, in one 1994 review by David Hiltbrand from People Magazine he says, “Shawshank runs nearly 2 1/2 hours and sometimes gives audiences the sense of doing a 20-year stretch. Ultimately the rewards aren’t commensurate with the outlay of time. The movie’s message about the triumph of the human spirit and its exhortation to “Get busy living or get busy dying” seem rather paltry payoffs.” 
  • It was nominated for 7 Oscars but sadly did not win one. 
  • It actually won “Best Foreign Film” at the Awards of the Japanese Academy.

FUN FACTS

  • You might remember that Frank Darabont paid Stephen King $5000 for the rights to the story. However, King never cashed the check. Years after the film was released, King sent back the $5000 unendorsed check to Darabont with a note that said, “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.”
  • Morgan Freeman’s son appears in the movie. He is the mugshot of young Red and also shows up as an extra in the prison yard.
  • In 2018, Hulu premiered the horror anthology show Castle Rock, a series based in the Stephen King universe.
    • The entire first season is set in Shawshank prison.
    • There are several references to the movie in the first episode, including the song that Andy Dufresne played on the record player over the speakers for the prisoners.
    • Tim Robbins plays “Pop” Merrill in season 2 of the Castle Rock Series.
    • A nod to the film may also be felt because the main title of Castle Rock and the score for the first two episodes was composed by Thomas Newman. 

CONCLUSION

The Shawshank Redemption is a cinematic journey. It’s two and a half hours of a carefully crafted tale that reminds audiences of the endurance of the human spirit. It’s a movie that takes its time but wastes none of it. Shawshank is a story about hope and friendship, set on a backdrop of a seemingly hopeless situation. 

This is a movie with a history as fascinating as the story itself. It started as a lower-budget flop, and was deemed a financial failure. But just like geology, filmmaking is the study of pressure and time. Eventually, The Shawshank Redemption lived up to its name, and this prison movie that couldn’t find an audience is now thought to be one of the greatest films ever made. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

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