It is a matter of common knowledge that the author of this blog is (just a tad) obsessed with The Shawshank Redemption. Some assorted thoughts:
Shawshank is not a prison movie. Nor is it a modern-day-poor-man’s religious parable. It is certainly “all things to all people,” and for that, it must be commended.
Mark Kermode in his monograph on Shawshank states his theory that The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps most appealing because it is a tribute to how movies provide a means of escape from a bleak reality – that is certainly one way of looking at it, but it is sanctimonious to presume that this one idea holds the key to the entire movie. He bases this theory on two scenes – one, where the prisoners are excitedly watching a showing of Gilda and the various faces contain different expressions of peace, delight, excitement and happiness but all of them equally absorbed, and two, how the escape tunnel Andy Dufresne bores through his cell wall is hidden by a poster of a movie star (Racquel Welch in the movie, and Linda Ronstadt in the novella).
Certainly these scenes are allusions to the generally accepted idea that movies offer a sort of escape from reality, and it is certainly no more true elsewhere than here in India, where the more realistic the movie, the less enthusiastic the reception. However, there are other scenes in the movie that go against this categorical statement that has been assigned as Shawshank’s purpose.
1. The movie begins with Andy Dufresne drowning his sorrows in Bourbon, and steeling himself for his “showdown” with his wife and her golf-pro lover. Alcohol is, unfortunately, a very popular means of escapism.
2. Andy’s rock hounding – “A man will do almost anything” to kill time and take his mind off his situation.
3. “Duettino Sull’Aria” from Le Nozze Di Figaro, played over the prison’s loudspeakers, and the enraptured faces of the men.
4. Andy’s Library project and his washing of the warden’s dirty laundry.
None of those point to Hollywood as the sole means of escapism; in fact, the entire movie is about various things a man can do to take his mind off the inescapable realities he is faced with.
Moving on: The movie appeals to many people in my situation because of it’s message of Hope. Hope springs eternal – that was the subtitle in Stephen King’s Different Seasons in which Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was one of four stories.
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
Simple words, but they mean a lot to one who’s gone through something traumatizing recently, or someone who feels their reality is more of a prison than the physical presence of the walls of a narrow cell. Even to someone who is happy in their circumstances, the movie celebrates life, and all the good things in it: friendship, music, good food/drink, engrossing work, literature, faith, everything that adds flesh to our bones. The movie is, ultimately, a celebration of the triumph of man over seemingly insurmountable circumstances.
One last point: the movie sends across the right message of Hope, even though the story is of an anti-social cast. Andy realizes that, although he is a man of high moral standing, he will not find absolution through our legal system (of which the only available arm to Andy was a corrupted and self-serving one in the form of warden Norton and his thug Hadley), and that while he risked nearly every principle he held dear, it would be the greatest injustice to continue existing as he was when he had paid for all his wrongs and then some. It tells us that sometimes the only way to conquer our circumstances is to transform our frame of reference and embrace some new idea that seemed repugnant earlier (although that doesn’t include breaking the law, in our case). Truly, an inspiration. And an inspired performance from both the cast and the crew, every last one of them.
(Ironically, the movie’s experience itself shows that sometimes justice may not be meted out in the ways we’d expect it to – Shawshank was a box office flop, recovering only $18 million of its $35 million budget; it has risen to the top instead much later, through repeated television broadcasts and distribution through rentals. To quote the movie, “All it takes is pressure, and time.”)