The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Dir. Frank Darabont. Starring Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Bob Gunton

The first piece of writing about writing which I can recall reading is Orson Scott Card’s introduction to his own novel, Ender’s Game. (This is before Card made that hard right turn that so many of the novelists who are influential to young adults seem to make.) There’s a passage in there that I’ve thought about a lot since then: as a high schooler taking English courses and reading canonical work, through my own undergrad degree in English, and to some extent as a teacher of English in high schools. Card turns his nose up at the firmament here:

The attacks on the novel—and on me—were astonishing. Some of it I expected—I have a master’s degree in literature, and in writing Ender’s Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make “fine” writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism—but if you don’t care to play that game, that’s fine with me. I designed Ender’s Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn’t have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its purest, simplest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my little novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.

There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. (My personal favorite is Card’s anxiety about having made a lot of money and thus not being treated as a serious writer leading him to take potshots which would fit right in on a slow weeknight for Tucker Carlson. Professors of literature field “get a real job” much more often than professors of economics, for some reason.) Yet the thing that stood out to me most as a young person, and the thing that still sticks out to me now, is this idea that Card has written this novel as clearly as possible as a sort of populist thrust. He’s right that Ender’s Game leaves little to the imagination; the headspaces of the characters are delineated in enormous detail, which is part of the reason the novel is so entertaining. A reader who wades into the world of Ender Wiggin and his family and friends will find them explained to the hilt, will find their predictions and suppositions likewise.

Later on in that introduction, Card revels (not unwisely or without warrant!) in the way that his novel has been picked up and interpreted through different lenses. It must be enormously gratifying to find that so many different people could plug themselves into his story, and he emphasizes that in many cases the novel is taught as opposed to merely read. What Card values most—which letters from fans he excerpts or reprints in toto—are the ones about people seeing themselves in the story. It’s not such a bad thing to read in the hopes of seeing oneself, especially if one is as isolated or lonesome as the people whose letters he shares, but it is a fundamentally limited way to read. If the goal is to see yourself reflected, then it is awfully difficult, perhaps even unpleasant, to see someone else in that image. And what of the idea that it is more satisfying to work for something and earn it, rather than have it given to you? If it were a teenager’s first car, then we would praise that high school junior for working at some fast food joint to earn money to buy a jalopy; we would not praise the child for having been given some hot rod as a birthday present. Yet when it’s a novel, it seems good for the novel to be a gift from novelist to reader, rather than requiring some effort and purchase from the reader of the text. I’ve flipped burgers and I’ve read good books, and I can tell you which one of them was the more engaging work for me, and which one I felt prouder of at the end.

This is what annoys me about The Shawshank Redemption, a movie which I’ve always liked and still do. The movie is a gift from studio to viewer. It requires little more than to plug in and enjoy the feelings which we are supposed to feel. The movie is narrated by Morgan Freeman’s Red, a convict at Shawshank who has given many decades of his life to the place and who has acceded to a position as big man on campus; . Red’s narration is to Shawshank what Card’s explanation of his characters’ thought processes is to Ender’s Game. From a certain point of view I think it might be the whole ball game. And from another, it’s the thing which makes sure that you cannot possibly be left out of the story. Multiple times throughout Shawshank, you’ll get this unusual moment in which we get another piece of Andy (Robbins). The part with Mozart is the one that I think sticks out more, and not coincidentally it’s a sore thumb. That sequence where Andy negotiates beer for his “coworkers” out of chief guard/sadist Hadley (Clancy Brown) and refuses one for himself, too dazedly happy to have felt independent once more to need the beer, has such merit. No sun has ever looked as warm and tender at 10 a.m. as Roger Deakins has it. Robbins finds a facial expression that might be singular in the movie. There’s a good set of contented looks and vibes from the supporting cast, who are so essential to what makes this movie popular. Heywood (William Sadler), something of an arrested development case, at least knows enough about gratitude to personally tote a bottle over to Andy, who, coming from his whitebread background, knows how to say no like a gentleman. Unfortunately, the voiceover has been intruding from the beginning of the scene, and it intrudes all the way up to, and then beyond, that acknowledgement of friendship between Heywood and Andy:

Red: And that’s how it came to pass that on the second to last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of ’49 wound up sitting in a row at 10:00 in the morning drinking icy cold Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison…We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy, he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer.

That voiceover is nails on a chalkboard. There is a single interesting fact in there that I don’t know where we would have gotten elsewhere, and it’s the time of day. Otherwise, it’s establishing the scene—which Deakins is doing more than adequately with his camera, and which we figure out elsewise through the props and the actors—or it’s saying what we should already be able to figure out. You can see from the looks on their faces how good they feel. As forced as the line of dialogue is, Andy has already told Hadley that a man feels freer if he’s working “with a bottle of suds” maybe a minute of screen time earlier. This is buttercream icing on a perfectly good cake which already has a layer of icing on it. Unless you really need that line about “the lords of creation,” which is writerly flourish rather than a cinematic choice, I don’t know what that could possibly be adding. This is subtraction by addition, violating a tenet of storytelling that is a little too elemental and frequently repeated to be merely some literary game or gimmick: “Show, don’t tell.” You might suggest that the film is both showing and telling here, and that’s indisputable, but the telling is so obnoxious, so obstreperous, so in-your-face that the showing is diminished. That scene where Andy drops The Marriage of Figaro on an unsuspecting prison compound gets an even more ridiculous dollop of frosting:

Red: 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.

“Some things are best left unsaid” ? As if!

If there’s a place where the voiceover in this movie is actually more effective than the images are, it has to do with Brooks (James Whitmore). In a movie which runs on vignettes, I’m not sure there’s one which would be easier to cut than Brooks’ brief time on the outside, and yet it would be a shame to lose Whitmore’s effort. His letter to the boys at Shawshank—written in the slightly somber tone of a boy writing to his buddies at summer camp, or to the people at the senior care facility whose children won’t take them into their own homes—is spoken in his gravelly voice and backed by some shots of him fitting badly into a world he has no familiarity with. He almost gets hit by a car, struggles to bag groceries quickly enough, etches a “Brooks was here” above the spot where hangs himself. The words and the voice in which he speaks them are more moving than watching him suffer or struggle. “It’s hard work,” he says of the job at the Foodway, “and I try to keep up, but my hands hurt most of the time.” Of his habit of going to the park and feeding the birds, he says, “I keep thinking Jake might just show up and say hello, but he never does.” It’s a heartbreaking line of dialogue, although I’ll admit a certain weakness for people missing their pets, and yet Shawshank has no image strong enough to meet the power of those words; Brooks sitting alone on a park bench is already too much like Brooks alone on the bus, Brooks alone on a street corner, Brooks alone in the store, Brooks alone in the halfway house.

The film is, I think, fairly concerned with what it means for a convict to become institutionalized, like a baby animal who is taken in by humans and never learns how to become wild. Yet showing Brooks do all these things, letting us see what the people he’d mean most to cannot possibly witness, and most of all leaving a “Brooks was here” for Red to find years later, is maudlin. It’s the kind of sappy stuff you show if you’re more worried about punching someone in the gut than you are in making a movie. There’s no doubt that that sequence would be more meaningful, as lovely as Whitmore’s reading is, if it were done entirely from the perspective of the men in prison. After we see Brooks’ dangling body, we see that Andy’s reading the letter to the rest of the men, who are gathered around during rec time to hear it. It would be less dramatic to just watch Andy read it straight, albeit with inserts of Red or Heywood or whoever else reacting, but it seems that it would be all the more effective. It’s not really about Brooks at that moment; it’s about these institutionalized men who must wonder if, as much as they dream of freedom, they’re better off in prison where they know who they are and what the expectation is. No one who’s reading that letter has any way of knowing what Brooks looks like when he does those things; that scene is just about trying to make us sad as opposed to engaging further with the characters in the film, and I dunno, I tend to bristle a little at manipulation that cynical.

It’s hard for me to say what the movie expects us to think about Andy’s innocence or guilt from the beginning, given that everyone in the world knows that Andy Dufresne didn’t kill his wife just as everyone in the world knows that Edmond Dantès was no Bonapartist. Once we get some proof that Andy didn’t kill his wife—proof that I actually think makes the movie a little bit less interesting—the film unlocks Warden Norton (Gunton), who has seemed calm enough if a little imperious throughout the movie. Imperiousness, you’d imagine, comes with the job, although the quippy little addenda sort of undercut it for the sake of those writerly flourishes again. (“Put your trust in the Lord, your ass belongs to me, welcome to Shawshank” is a groaner below the level of “What do you call a cow with all its legs cut off?”) What follows after this is the creation of a comic book or sci-fi villain, and while the film gamely follows this track of silliness from Red’s final parole hearing to the end of the film (are there like fifteen total haystacks in Buxton or something), I don’t think turning Norton into a fascist dictator ends up meaning all that much, let alone one whose singleminded interest in crushing Andy’s spirit has all the hilarious ani-subtlety of Eric Bana yelling I WANT SPOCK DEAD NOW fifteen years later in another morally simple picture. Obviously, it would be better if Andy were to become a free man able to return to his life without having to sneak through five hundred yards of sewage, but clearly he was almost tunneled through his wall and we are definitely not supposed to expect that the feds catch up to “Randall Stephens” and his nest egg in Zihuatenejo. The film undercuts the drama of Norton going out of his way to do an injustice to Andy by making Andy’s escape the next thing that happens, and by making Norton’s comeuppance so swift. One way or another, Andy was going to get free, and the option the film chooses—the one where he’s labored like a teenager saving up for a Lambo via McDonald’s—is all the more satisfying without the presence of a Disney villain teleported in for the last couple reels.

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