Does The Shawshank Redemption depict life in a real prison? It’s a common question from readers of These Stone Walls. How a prison film became a cable TV classic.
I learned long ago in prison not to face Labor Day weekend without something to read. Long holiday weekends are a blessing in the free world, but a curse in this one. For the most part, prisoners are stuck inside for three long days that sometimes stretch into four or five. So on These Stone Walls I developed the “Stuck Inside Literary Award” to bestow upon an author who gets me through another Labor Day weekend. I’ll list previous recipients at the end of this post, but this year, I’ve chosen an American author for the first time along with a really great film.
My friend, Timmy, has a new MP3 player which prisoners here can purchase for a modest price. Music for it is downloaded at a kiosk out in the prison yard for $1.99 per song. Tim showed me his MP3 last week after adding a song to his collection. It was “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. He let me listen to it, and ever since then the alluring, mesmerizing tune has replayed over and over in my mind. I don’t just remember it so much as I actually hear it, day after day. The last time this happened, Johnny Cash was singing “Ring of Fire” nonstop for three days. I have no idea where that one came from. Not all music does this to me, but “Unchained Melody” just lingers on.
I once wrote about that song in a July 2012 post entitled, “Unchained Melody: Tunes from an 8-Track in an iPod World.” Many TSW readers were surprised to learn that this haunting ode to love made famous by The Righteous Brothers, and then again by the 1980s film, “Ghost,” was actually first composed for the score of a 1955 film about a soul languishing away in prison. That film was entitled, “Unchained,” hence the song’s title, “Unchained Melody” which earned a Best Musical Score Oscar for the 1955 film.
Hollywood seems enamored of the story of men sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s a scary story about which most of the rest of America remains in a state of anxious denial. I wonder if what really makes a good film great is when it depicts something that deep down inside we know is happening, but need to believe it only happens somewhere else, to someone else.
No one lives happily ever after when they have been in prison innocent of a crime. Movies about the wrongly convicted abound, but good ones are rare. Two great ones appeared in theatres at just about the time I went to prison. I wrote of one such unforgettable film in “Thy Brother’s Keeper: Why Wrongful Convictions Should Matter to You.” That film was “The Fugitive” (1993) starring Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimball, with Tommy Lee Jones in dogged pursuit in his Oscar winning role as Deputy U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard. In that post, I wrote:
“Who could forget Richard Kimball cornered by Sam Gerard at the precipice of that immense dam outside Chicago? Before jumping a hundred feet into its turbulent falls, Dr. Kimball desperately pleaded, ‘I didn’t kill my wife!’ to which Sam Gerard responded with exasperation, ‘I don’t care!’ “
STEPHEN KING ON WHAT REALLY SCARES US
While “The Fugitive” was winning Academy Awards in 1994, Andy Dufresne commenced a life sentence as prisoner number 81433 at Shawshank State Prison set in Maine, but filmed in an abandoned prison in Mansfield, Ohio. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Tim Robbins masterfully portrayed quiet, introverted banker, Andy Dufresne, who, like Harrison Ford’s Richard Kimball, was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife.
Based on the Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” published in the 1982 King anthology, Different Seasons, the 1994 film is set in the Maine State Prison in the early 1950s. The story is narrated by co-star Morgan Freeman who portrays “Red,” an older prisoner who defies the prison ethos to become Andy Dufresne’s trusted friend and confidant, something that prisons everywhere militate against.
There is a difference between solitude and isolation that I did not delineate very well in my own prison short story, “Dostoevsky in Prison and the Perils of Odysseus.” Solitude, which is entirely absent in prison, is an opportunity to reflect, to be alone with one’s self. Isolation, which is an epidemic disease in prison, is the forced emotional aloneness that thrives in any place where trust becomes the most risky investment one can make.
“The Shawshank Redemption” captured this distinction perfectly, and with chilling effect. That’s why Stephen King wrote it as a horror story. There are no creepy clowns. The story is scary enough without them. The creepy people in this story are the ones in charge. They’re scary as hell!
But unlike most of Stephen Kings’ horror stories, “The Shawshank Redemption” has a soul. Its plot is not its setting, but its bond of redemption found in human friendship in spite of the most oppressive of barriers: the physical, emotional, and spiritual brutality of prison isolation. To be a person who really doesn’t belong there – to not quite fit in – turns a scary prison into a nightmare.
“The Shawshank Redemption” depicts with masterful strokes a place in which hate and distrust are the most watered and nurtured plants – and that is as true of prison today as it was at Shawshank in the 1950s – but the soul empowering force of real friendship still pokes through the prison’s asphalt and steel in defiance of all odds – in defiance of prison itself.
WHY I SAW IT WITHOUT POPCORN
“The Shawshank Redemption” was released in September of 1994, but I was never able to see it in a theatre. In the same week it was released, I was placed aboard a prison-bound van to begin a life sentence as prisoner number 67546 at the New Hampshire State Prison, adjacent to Andy Dufresne’s prison in Maine. I remember hearing about the film, and wondering why Hollywood was suddenly so enamored of prisons while most of the world seems resolved to keep the real thing out of sight and out of mind.
Stephen King sold the rights to the story to Hollywood writer-director Frank Darabont who made his directorial debut with this film. That fact caught my attention as Frank Darabont is best known today for writing, producing, and directing the AMC Cable Network’s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic series “The Walking Dead.” That’s a future TSW post. There’s a reason I am compelled to watch “The Walking Dead.”
Frank Darabont offered Stephen King a mere $5,000 for the film rights to “The Shawshank Redemption” which had an “unremarkable” performance at the box office. It grossed $28 million in 1994 compared to $330 million for “Forest Gump” released that same year. “The Shawshank Redemption” was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but won none of them. Yet today it is widely acclaimed as one of Hollywood’s “great second acts” (i.e. films that become great hits on television) and has been characterized as one the finest films in movie history. Stephen King himself wrote of the film version:
“It now commonly appears on lists of the best loved movies of all time. Do I love it, too? Yes. The story had heart; the movie has more…The story is hard when it has to be, full of sentiment without being sentimental. This is as good as films get on the subject of how men love each other, and how they survive.” (Stephen King Goes to the Movies, Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 436)
Today’s media would make something perverse of that, but it simply isn’t there. The film conveys something extraordinary in the most unlikely place, and it clearly struck a post-production nerve in our culture about something that has gone missing in the world of men. In the age of sound bites, e-mails and tweets, human bonds are eroding. The deep bond of friendship and trust between Andy Dufresne and Red, and their fidelity to that bond to the very end, reminds us of something we are surrendering as a culture to our spiritual and emotional peril.
Without the cultivation of true friendship, men forget how to be men, and never learn how to be fathers, and that is, in part at least, why our prisons are bursting at the seams, and why those same prisons churn out men who are sometimes more corrupt when they leave prison than they were on the day they arrived.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, (“The Shawshank Residuals,” May 23, 2014) Russell Adams penned a fascinating two-page analysis not so much about the film itself, but about how it has struck a cultural nerve. A top film website, www.IMDb.com lists it as the number one movie of all time. The American Film Institute describes it as one of the 100 best American movies ever made. The closed prison in Mansfield, Ohio where it was filmed draws 80,000 visitors a year as a stop along “The Shawshank Trail” which includes “the courthouse and oak tree where Andy leaves money for Red,” according to Russell Adams.
INNOCENT IN PRISON
Our trusted friend, Pornchai Moontri has a few threads of connection with this story. Three years after Stephen King wrote “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” Pornchai became his paperboy at age 12, delivering the Bangor Daily News to King’s home. “Max” spoke little English then, and recalls being a bit spooked by Mr. King’s gargoyles.
Seven years later in 1994, “The Shawshank Redemption” opened in theatres. That very week I boarded a prison-bound van in chains in Keene, New Hampshire. At that same time, Pornchai was in his second year in solitary confinement at Thomaston prison, the very prison in Maine that Shawshank was supposed to represent.
In many ways, things haven’t changed much in prison since Andy Dufresne and Red emerged in the mind of Stephen King. In the story, Red bemoaned the fact that prison labor paid but 25-cents per hour in 1950, and it was hard to live on so he had to supplement it by being “the guy who gets things.” Well, cost of living raises have not yet reached into prisons. Sixty-four years later in 2014, prisoners here are still paid 25-cents per hour for prison labor to start, with a maximum earning of 50-cents per hour for most. It buys a lot less than it did in 1950.
The fact that Morgan Freeman’s “Red” is guilty of his crime -which occurred 40 years before the film’s opening scenes when Red was 20 – while Tim Robbins’ “Andy Dufresne” is innocent and wrongly imprisoned is lost on some viewers. Or perhaps guilt or innocence simply do not matter to most visitors to Shawshank. After viewing the film for the first time last month, a TSW reader asked in a letter, “Which feels worse: to be in prison guilty of a crime or to be in prison innocent of the crime?” I actually answered that question a few years ago in my post, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused: The High Cost of Innocence.”
A lot of people wrongly believe that men like Andy Dufresne and Red are simply thrown into prison while the warden throws away the key, and then year after year of routine boredom sets in. Shawshank’s Warden Norton – portrayed with style by the great Bob Gunton – doesn’t seem to have any idea that Andy Dufresne claims to be innocent, nor would he care one way or another. That much, at least, has changed a lot. It is one of the great lies of American justice that many guilty prisoners claim to be innocent. In the twenty years I have spent in prison, I have found just the opposite to be true, and though “The Shawshank Redemption” does not overtly address this fact, it permeates the film throughout.
Andy Dufresne never trumpets the fact that he is innocent and should not even be at Shawshank. In fact, no one except his friend, Red, seems even aware of his innocence. Despite the “they all claim to be innocent” mantra used by prosecutors whenever a prisoner appeals, most innocent men in prison learn very early on to keep their innocence to themselves.
I was sent to prison just as moviegoers first heard of Andy Dufresne in 1994. After a few months in solitary confinement, I was assigned to a grossly overcrowded unit with eight men per cell. Those cells had been built to house four, then their number increased to six. On the day I arrived, the number increased again to eight, and I had to carry the parts of my own steel bunk up four flights of stairs because all the four-man cells were now to house eight. The resentment of those men to see the extra bunks coming into their space was no secret.
It was, for most, considered to be temporary housing – four to six months until a bunk opened up in a better place. I spent almost seven years there, however, while others came and went because word had spread that I maintain my innocence of the crimes that sent me here. During that seven years, I was moved seventeen times. Every time I adjusted to the denizens of one eight-man cell, I was sent to start over in another. The crime of innocence can be costly in prison. And when the fact became somehow known that I could have pled guilty and left prison in just two or three years, I was treated as not only a criminal, but criminally insane. Then finally, after seven years, I was moved to a saner place with but two prisoners per cell. The previous seven years in my own Stephen King scary story slowly evaporated.
Then in April of 2005, Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote “A Priest’s Story” in The Wall Street Journal, a two-part expose of the truth, and it supported my claim of innocence. Weeks later, I was suddenly moved without cause back to the eight-man cells I had escaped four years earlier. I spent another six months there for having the audacity to be innocent in prison.
These Stone Walls Fourth Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award goes to Stephen King and Frank Darabont for a story with heart and a movie with more. Andy Dufresne and I embarked upon this prison odyssey together twenty years ago this month. Like Andy, I have never been able to ascend in prison to the relative comfort and peace of the truly guilty. Like Andy, I remain in a class of conscientious objectors, the innocent in prison that prisons everywhere openly disdain.
Also like Andy Dufresne, I work in the prison library. We both learned to lift our spirits through books, and we both found mirrors to our souls in trusted friends – something that prison, by its very nature, would deny us, but our indomitable hearts have conquered prison.
Most important of all to our survival, Andy Dufresne and I both had hope, that one necessary thing that Andy bestowed upon his friend, Red, at Shawshank: “Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It is with this that Red ends the story of “The Shawshank Redemption” with a glimpse of freedom on the Western horizon:
“I am so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
Previous recipients of the Stuck Inside Literary Award:
Labor Day 2011: “At Sea with Patrick O’Brian”
Labor Day 2012: “J.R. R. Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings”
Labor Day 2013: “Graham Greene for The Power and the Glory, and the great film,‘No Greater Glory’ ”
Editors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!