Is The Shawshank Redemption Timeless?
“These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized.”
– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding, The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Perhaps the greatest prison drama of all-time, The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, is based on Stephen King’s short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” With protagonists Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding battling life sentences for murder (played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman respectively), they first handedly witness and experience the corruption and manipulation of Warden Norton’s (Bob Gunton) prison system and culture of the inmates at the Shawshank State Penitentiary from 1947 until 1966. Throughout Andy’s time in prison viewers are revealed that the essence of his story is about his refusal to become institutionalized despite the injustices and ploys thrown in his way. Andy’s unwavering sense of hope, integrity, and freedom is as commendable as it is timeless.
The setting of this film primarily takes place within the fortified walls of the Shawshank prison. This is very important because the visual location of punishment and discipline is in retreat (Fiddler, 2007). Thus, the tradition carnivalesque criminal punishments such as public hangings and decapitations, is concealed from the public behind iron bars, barbed wire fences, and impenetrable walls. In The Shawshank Redemption, the social barbarity contemporary audiences may consider grotesquely carnivalesque is the police brutality and savage, base nature of the inmates, which includes bets, fights, and rape. This violent spectacle that was once a public display of power in various human civilizations is concealed in the Shawshank prison, and therefore the public is ignorant of the injustices committed on and by both the prison officers and inmates. The dominance of the prison setting in The Shawshank Redemption directly influences all the other elements of films: acting, makeup, costumes, lighting, sounds, and music.
The Shawshank Redemption may be so intriguing for audiences because the story adopts the perspective of the inmates who reveal and highlight many problems within the prison system that the majority of the public is disclosed to. For instance, the protagonists of the film, Andy and Red debunk the popular stereotype that all inmates are savage, cruel beasts. Furthermore, the antagonists of the film, Warden Norton and Chief Guard Byron Hadley flip the popular notion that the cops are the good guys. This characterization is abnormal in comparison with classic crime and mystery films in which the police serve justice and the inmates are evil lawbreakers. Even so, these characterizations inside the prison are hidden from the public because Warden Norton is essentially the membrane that filters what happens inside the jail from what is happening outside in society. Furthermore, he works particularly hard to create a positive yet distorted image of the Shawshank prison to the public. The characterization of The Shawshank Redemption is a highly effective trait of the film. So much so that it would not have been nearly as successful as it has proven to be if it was not for the inversion of classical cops and criminals stereotypes.
Naturally, these characters’ personalities or situations are also emphasized through lighting. Again, this element of the film depends heavily on the setting of the particular scenes shown. For instance, there is a lot of natural lighting in the scenes that take place outside the jail cells in the recreation areas. Inside the prison structure whether the scene takes place in the factories, mailroom, theater, or holding cells, the lighting is quite low-key and hard. Other times, such as after an inmate is released from ‘the hole’ the lighting is high-key and very hard to mimic the sensitivity of high light levels that stimulate the eyes after being in the dark for an extended period of time, and to illuminate the crude facial features of the rugged inmates (Heeger, 2006). The lighting was appropriate for the film and effective at creating the dank and dark setting of such a toxic environment as a prison.
While the makeup used during this film was limited to a few bumps and bruises on Andy’s face after he got pummeled by a group of enemy inmates, the costumes played a much larger and significant role. During the beginning of the film, when Andy was serving time in the 40’s and 50’s, the inmates wore blue jeans, diem jackets, and very light shaded wool shirts that displayed their prison identification numbers. A select few would also wear taxi cab hats. However, as the movie progresses, and Andy’s overall time spent in jail accrues over a decade, a subtle yet nevertheless powerful change occurs in the inmates uniforms. They change from their light shaded wool shirts to blue wool shirts that display their ID numbers, and baseball caps replaced the cab hats. Other than these subtle changes in uniform, shades of gray began to shine through Andy’s and Red’s hair. This unfortunately was the only way of indicating that Andy had spent nearly two decades in Shawshank prison.
This slow crawling change of the inmates’ uniforms is starkly contrasted with the posters of the popular actresses Andy pinned to his cell wall. It began with the lovely 40’s actress Rita Heyworth where was once considered quite revealing clothing, but it is nothing more than a satin full-length night gown—it was quite conservative according to contemporary standards. The second poster of Marylyn Monroe depicts a slightly more risqué and revealing outfit that embodies the popular fashion style of the 50’s—this is the famous billowy skirt shot from 7 Year Itch. The last poster of Raquel Welch is the most revealing and reflective of the 60’s counter-culture movement as Welch stands on a mountain wearing animal skin loin clothes and wildly frayed hair that frames her dolled up face—this is from the film One Million B.C. Ultimately, these posters are symbolic the massive changes happening in society, and how inside Shawshank’s walls the ripples are hardly felt. Thus, while the public is safe from the violent carnival of traditional punishment, so too are the inmates isolated from the social carnivalesque developments that took place overtime in society. This difficult technique was well executed quite effective because it highlighted and reminded viewers of the rapidly changing world as time crawled by routinely and without change inside the prison over two decades.
Despite the impasse between mainstream society and the inmates held within the confines of Shawshank, Andy remarkably holds on to his sense of universal virtue. He dispels the common psychological idea that people are products of their environments; that good people become bad people when they are immersed in a toxic environment. Aside from Andy’s inspirational and wise quotes he rambles off throughout the film, his unwaveringly sense of hope, integrity, and freedom is best characterized during the scene when he locks himself within the Warden’s office and plays beautiful opera music over the loud speakers. According to Hoffman (2007), as Andy sat in the Warden’s chair and every inmate and officer stared in awe at the PA system, Andy was reinstated in his former social state, and enjoyed a carpie diem moment, or realization that he still had a will to fight and chance to succeed in the face of two lifetime sentences. Ultimately, the beautiful Italian voices had the ability to remove Andy and his fellow inmates from behind the walls of the prison, even perhaps transcend the external world, and freeing them for a few moments from their harsh reality (Hoffman, 2007).
This is idea of the power of music to help one transcend beyond their condition is further exemplified in Red’s short narration during the scene, which is as follows:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
Red’s narration during such a powerful musical scene was very effective because it transcended the story, Andy and Red’s situation, the walls, the guards, and most importantly, the theater’s screen and speaker system; it appealed to timeless human emotion and experience that could impact a person in any age from any culture.
Overall, The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps one of the greatest films of all-time and merits at least a 4.5 star rating out of 5 stars. The plot and characters are incredibly powerful and charismatic; viewers find themselves rooting for Andy and Red from the beginning of the film. Furthermore, the cinematography including the lighting, costumes, posters, and music support the mood and tone of the film. The awareness of a slowing crawling existence in jail contrasted to the rapidly changing outside society is remarkable and apparent in the stark contrast in developments in the inmates’ uniforms and the actresses in Andy’s posters. Lastly, the film is gripping and exciting. Viewers are drawn in and grabbed into the action, thrown into Shawshank with Andy and always wondering what will happen next—always on the edge of their seats. Furthermore, the film has a feel good ending, which is atypical of Stephen King stories and other classical crime or mystery dramas. This change is surprising and a huge relief because it gives the audience a sense of hope in the face of adversity or trying times. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those films that everybody must watch at least once in their lives; it’s that powerful!
Heeger, D. (2006). Perception lecture notes: light/dark adaptations. Retrieved from http://www.cns.nyu.edu/~david/courses/perception/lecturenotes/light-adapt/light-adapt.html
Hoffman, T. (2007). Divine apparitions: The female-operatic voice in film. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/docview/304817101
Fiddler, M. (2007). Projecting the prison: The depiction of the uncanny in the shawshank redemption. Retrieved from http://cmc.sagepub.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/content/3/2/192.full.pdf+html