One of the few good things about television and the home video business is that, on occasion, a box-office "flop" that is simply a good movie that didn't find a receptive audience in theatrical release can still make a comeback thanks to repeated airings on cable networks such as TNT and through sales and rentals of videocassettes (remember those?), DVDs, and Blu-ray discs.
Such is the case of Frank Darabont's first major feature film, 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, which he adapted from a Stephen King novella (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) which had been published in a mid-1980s anthology, Different Seasons.
Though it was given good reviews in its initial release back in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption tanked at the box office...badly. Viewers, perhaps puzzled by its strange title or by its less-than-appealing setting (a brooding, fortress-like state prison), stayed away in droves, with only a handful of fans singing its praises.
That's almost hard to believe now, considering that the film does pretty well in the ratings when TNT - which bought the rights to broadcast it for a song, as the saying goes - airs it. It is a DVD rental-and-sales favorite as well, and now, almost 15 years after it flopped, The Shawshank Redemption is hailed by many as an American cinematic classic.
Starring Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, and James Whitmore (among others), The Shawshank Redemption takes place over a 21-year span of time, starting in 1946 when a banker named Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of his wife and her golf-pro lover.
Of course, since Darabont and King were both inspired by some of the "innocent man in prison" films made in the 1930s and '40s, we all know that Andy isn't guilty, but his "cold fish" demeanor and some circumstantial "evidence" helps convince a jury that he is, so he is sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences in Shawshank State Prison.
When the film's narrator Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Freeman) first sees Andy arrive, he dismisses the tall-but-quiet ex-banker as a guy who won't last long. Indeed, he wagers some of his cigarettes - a precious commodity in a 1940s-era prison - that Andy won't even make it through his first night at Shawshank.
Red loses the bet, but as he gets to know Andy, he begins to respect the quiet yet resilient guy who keeps to himself, bravely resists a gang of prisoners known as the sisters, and asks him to acquire seemingly harmless things to help make his prison time a bit bearable - a Rita Hayworth poster and a rock hammer here, a bunch of sculptable rocks there. Eventually, the two become friends and help each other survive the long interminable stretches of incarceration.
This being a Stephen King tale, there is a monster in The Shawshank Redemption, but it is not a "typical" mythical creature like the vampire from 'Salem's Lot or the haunted car from Christine. In the guise of the outwardly devout but inwardly corrupt Warden Samuel Norton (Gunton), the dark nature of humanity is revealed when he uses his authority to keep Andy in prison because the former banker knows too much about Norton's various "private enterprises" - kickbacks and other illegal dealings that the state government knows nothing about.
There's a whole lot more of plot and many characters whose lives are affected by Andy's stay in Shawshank, but if you haven't seen the film yet (hardly likely, but it's possible), I'll leave it for you to discover on your own.
What makes this movie work when by all rights it shouldn't? Well, to begin with, the screenplay is remarkably good, keeping most of the flavor of King's writing and storytelling techniques intact while jiggering with some of the details to make Shawshank more cinematic. As all adapters do, Darabont adds a few touches and plot points of his own. yet stays essentially true to King's themes and characterizations.
Then, of course, there's the acting. As the narrator and one of the two leads, Morgan Freeman gives viewers a bravura performance that erases all traces of his character's literary origins as a white, red-haired Irish con/scrounger.
Co-starring as the always-quiet, sometimes mysterious Andy Dufresne, Tim Robbins also acquits himself in a very impressive manner. I like the way that Robbins shows that the guy is always observing things and never gives in to despair even in the least hopefull of places.
The rest of the cast includes Gil Bellows, James Whitmore, William Sadler (who, along with Jeffrey DeMunn, appears in Stephen King's The Mist and The Green Mile), Clancy Brown, Mark Rolston, and Jude Cicolella (of 24 fame). Some of these appear only briefly, but others have significant roles. Regardless, they all fit seamlessly into their respective roles and pull you into this story of friendship, survival, and, yes, redemption.
Of course, not everyone will fall deeply in love with Darabont's sometimes too-stately-for-its-own good adaptation of King's novella. Like all page-to-screen adapters, the writer-director changes things around some. For instance, Darabont expands one character's role from a mere one line reference to a whole new sequence that Darabont thought was relevant; this adds some emotional heft to the film, but it also stretches the running time a bit.
This doesn't bother me much, but it might bother others, which is why I'm mentioning it here.
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