Streamin’ King is grave-digging through the myriad Stephen King adaptations available on streaming. This time we’re watching The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 film based on the novella “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” in 1982’s Different Seasons collection.
THE GIST: Maine “hotshot” banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) gets two life sentences in Shawshank State Prison when wrongfully convicted of shooting his wife and her lover. He befriends the resourceful Red (Morgan Freeman), who gives the tale its backbone by narrating two decades of their friendship and general goings-on behind bars, oppressed by a sociopathic warden and his vicious captain. Legendary twist ending.
PEDIGREE: Written and directed by Frank Darabont, who got his King start in ’84 with a short based on Night Shift‘s “The Woman in the Room,” called in a Vanity Fair retrospective on Shawshank “one of the few amateur short films based on his work that the author enjoyed.” Became an ordained titan of SK flicks in ’99 by impeccably porting The Green Mile to the screen; 2007’s faithful, bleak The Mist was gravy. Shawshank‘s stars both possess two Golden Globes and an Oscar (five Academy nods total for Freeman, two for Robbins). The most Oscar-nominated King adaptation with seven, though a staggering zero wins—including Best Picture (facing Pulp Fiction and victor Forrest Gump), Best Actor (Freeman lost to Hanks), Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score—with four total losses to the shrimp restaurant movie.
Cinematography by Roger Deakins (Green Mile, Hulu’s Castle Rock, a dozen Coen Bros. pics), nabbing his first of 13 Oscar nods (finally won two with Blade Runner 2049 and 1917). Score by Thomas Newman (1917, the last couple Bonds), earning his first of 15 Oscar noms (zero wins, can we please at least FedEx this guy his flowers). Major post-theatrical success, becoming the most-rented VHS the year after its release and one of television’s most consistently aired films ever—Gunton was still making “close to six figures [annually]” in 2004, and Warner Bros. execs noted in 2014 it’s “one of the top movies that drive much of their library’s value.”
WORTH WATCHING FOR CONSTANT READERS? Without a doubt. King adaptations get busy living or get busy dying based on the creators intimately understanding his peculiar essence as a storyteller and harnessing the tricky-to-pin-down ability to translate it. Cuts must always be made; assorted lines of dialogue are unforgivable to skip. Darabont turned a tight and chatty hundred-page first-person yarn into a two-hour, 22-minute experience that emulates Uncle Stevie’s narrative flow, quiet plotting, characterizations, emotions, and idiosyncratic x-factors so capably that the two permutations have nearly fused into one. (The same can be said of Stand by Me and “The Body,” from the same book as “Shawshank.”) Faithful down to its final lines, “I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” The importance of this story to readers—one of the most readily shareable for friends who don’t do horror—is handled with proper care, a relief considering it’s touched untold numbers of viewers and introduced legions of them to the horror god’s vast range. Cool to see Norton go from an all-time King villain to an even more villainous all-time movie bad guy, and lovely to spend time with a film that cherishes books and learning.
WORTH WATCHING FOR KING NEWBIES/AGNOSTICS? 26 years later, still satisfying and attention-holding. Almost studiously formal, but the behind-the-camera magic (score and camerawork, firstly) polishes it into an astonishing gem that gives cinema history a handful of iconic scenes, among them the rooftop beers, opera break, and climax. The gallows humor, actors’ ease with each other, and tactile sensations behind those limiting walls pull you in gently and roughly at once. The feeling of genuine love and understanding between Red and Andy is still rare onscreen. “Few movie couples are as committed to each other as these two lost souls,” Variety reflected 20 years after its release. Freeman point blank in 2014: “To me it was a love affair. It was two men who really loved each other.” The rewatchability is immense—it’s shocking how many times the payoff and resolution can really nail you. By the time you’ve spent two hours with this score cradling you, even just watching Freeman walk along a rock wall becomes transcendent. Shawshank‘s also the birthplace of his profound voiceover career, spawning parodies and imitations galore, March of the Penguins, navigational assistance via Waze, a 2020 narration gig on a 21 Savage/Metro Boomin album, and these:
Less complimentary notes: a grand total of two women have blink-and-miss-em speaking roles, and the premise of a bunch of guys in a nostalgia-draped prison rife with rape and corruption can be off-putting. In actual American life in 2020 and beyond, cop shows have soured for many, and an aversion to prison fables is just as understandable—the carceral state is a society-ravaging cancer, not a heartwarming backdrop for triumph. It’s been reduced to a trivia footnote that the Ohio State Reformatory, the filming stand-in for Shawshank, had been shut down for inhumane conditions; ex-inmates shared experiences that echoed King’s story “in terms of the violence of the guards and throwing people off the top of cellblocks.”
It’s also puzzling the cast is this white in an American prison movie. In the film’s 1947-66 timeline in Maine, okay: 1950 saw 427 white prisoners enter institutions and only seven Black prisoners; in ’64 the numbers were almost identical. But nationwide, inmates hovered around 70 percent white, 30 percent Black in those years. (Data via U.S. DOJ.) Whether the relative local accuracy was intentional or a byproduct of showbusiness’s racial gatekeeping, knowing our modern prison industrial travesty was fully in place and view in the ‘90s, it feels like unnecessary, irresponsible erasure of our disproportionately Black prison population.
14 STEPHEN KING TIES, REFERENCES, AND MISCELLANY:
- Hulu’s original series Castle Rock plopped Shawshank right next to King’s famous town (abutting an actual Redemption Road) and made it a crucial season 1 setting. Terry O’Quinn plays a warden who also commits suicide…while listening to the Mozart opera from Darabont’s film, cued to the same section. He’s not even the season’s only warden to join Shawshank’s suicide club, and Gunton’s photo is actually framed in the prison.
- An abridged list of Shawshank Prison-referencing works: It, Needful Things, Under the Dome, 11/22/63, Bag of Bones, Dolores Claiborne, Dreamcatcher, “A Good Marriage,” 2020’s If It Bleeds novella “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.” Also two of its Different Seasons sibling-stories—the Nazi-in-suburban-hiding in “Apt Pupil” recalls his investments being handled by “Dufresne, his name was—I remember, because it sounds a little like mine. It seems he was not so smart at wife-killing as he was at picking growth stocks.”
- Protagonists in ‘Salem’s Lot also flee from Maine-seeded trauma to a Mexican seaside paradise.
- In 2014 King said the adaptation he likes best is Stand by Me, then noting Shawshank, Green Mile, and Misery are “really great ones.”
- Different Seasons’ jacket copy is fascinating, stating that “although [King] is by now a world-class grand master of the horrific, he resists entombment in that genre.” His bio is unusually specific, stating he and author Tabitha King “live in a Victorian house in Maine with their three children, the youngest of whom, Owen, is pictured with his father on the back of the jacket.” It flexes about four upcoming films including “Creepshow, a movie written by him in which he plays a part.”)
- SK’s author son Joe Hill didn’t just mention the penitentiary in his novel NOS4A2; his recently concluded comic Basketful of Heads brings his dad’s prison into the fold less than 10 pages in:
- Andy escapes in his 19th year, an important Dark Tower number that recurs through King’s work. Also Towerish here, Brooks’ adorable crow is named Jake, a young protagonist of TDT—which itself features a pet raven right off the bat—and Andy’s fake identity has been changed from Peter Stevens to Randall Stevens. When the first name of SK’s omnipresent villain Randall Flagg gets used, you tend to notice.
- Multi-time King actors here: Freeman did Dreamcatcher in ’03, Tim Robbins did Castle Rock season 2 in 2019, playing the unsavory Merrill family’s patriarch, Pop. Bob Gunton was in Dolores Claiborne a year after Shawshank, and Darabont’s Green Mile and Mist brought back Brian Libby, William Sadler (also led ’80s audio dramatization The Mist: In 3-D Sound), and Jeffrey DeMunn (also in Storm of the Century and the narrator of two SK audiobooks). John Horton, the judge, played another judge a couple years later in Thinner. Clancy Brown (Hadley) did the King spinoff Pet Sematary II, and Gil Bellows (Tommy) appeared in Hulu’s 11.22.63.
- Lots of big actors were considered for the lead roles; Tom Hanks was up for Andy but wouldn’t enter the Kingverse until Green Mile; also considered was Charlie Sheen, whose father Martin and brother Emilio Estevez had three King movies under the family’s belt at that point (Firestarter, The Dead Zone, Maximum Overdrive).
- In addition to producing, Rob Reiner wanted to direct Darabont’s script so badly he offered around $3 million to buy it for himself. He was definitely high off King after nailing ’86’s Stand by Me (which spurred him to form Castle Rock Entertainment, its very name an homage) and ’90’s Misery, and went on to produce Green Mile, Dolores Claiborne, Dreamcatcher, and more. In ’04 Reiner reflected, “I find it interesting that two of the most talked-about film adaptations of Stephen King’s work [Stand by Me and Shawshank] came from the same collection of novellas and don’t rely on classic horror or supernatural elements of storytelling. In an odd way, they unmask Stephen King as a writer of exquisitely observed characters and brilliant dialog.”
- Darabont was connected to a long-gestating adaptation of King’s Richard Bachman classic The Long Walk, which would’ve made him four-for-four on SK movies starting with The. Instead it’s being made by André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark).
- Red’s cell number is 237—notably Kubrick’s version of the famous room in The Shining, vs. King’s 217.
- A Shawshank theatrical adaptation debuted in London in 1999, walking to the stage in the footsteps of Carrie and Misery. The Guardian closed its one-star pan by saying that “lacking the movie’s excursions into the outside world and any sense of moral equivocation, the play, in the end, is The Shawshank Reduction.”
- The hosts of the exceptional Kingcast recently asserted Shawshank is the movie “that legitimized King in a way,” telling EW many people “still don’t know that Stephen King had anything to do with Stand by Me,” but “people know that [he] was the guy that wrote Shawshank.” (They also note it’s “a tremendous loss that Frank Darabont is not actively making more Stephen King movies right now,” which is very true. Thanks, endless AMC court battle.)
CRITICAL CONSENSUS: Notably the No. 1-rated movie on IMDb with a 9.2 average from a staggering 2.3 million user votes, sitting above the first two Godfathers and The Dark Knight. (Darabont’s Green Mile is No. 28 with an 8.5.) Holds a 90 on the Tomatometer but became critic-proof long ago, as anecdotally but decisively proven in 2014 by Freeman (“About everywhere you go, people say, ‘The Shawshank Redemption—greatest movie I ever saw.’ Just comes out of them”) and Robbins (“I swear to God, all over the world—all over the world—wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life.’ … When I met [Nelson Mandela], he talked about loving Shawshank”).
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL CONTEXT FOR “RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION” (1982): Opens Different Seasons, a four-novella collection whose format he duplicated three times, most recently with 2020’s If It Bleeds. Written “immediately after” completing the ’79-published Dead Zone, with SK saying in Seasons’ afterword “it’s as if I’ve always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella.” Arrived in the middle of a superhumanly productive streak of just over two and a half years that yielded Pet Sematary, Cujo, Christine, Cycle of the Werewolf, Bachman books Roadwork and The Running Man, and his first forays in screenwriting (Creepshow), nonfiction (Danse Macabre), and The Dark Tower (The Gunslinger).
Zach Dionne is a writer and editor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who has hope.
Where to watch The Shawshank Redemption