The Shawshank Redemption was a motion picture destined for failure. A period piece prison drama centred around the slow development of friendship between two convicts from a first-time filmmaker and with a cast lacking in box office potential, the movie was a considerable risk for its distributor Columbia Pictures and despite critical praise from the likes of Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin of the New York Times the film was a box office failure when it was released to little fanfare in the latter months of 1994. Yet it would be on home video over the next few years that it would eventually find its audience and in the quarter of century since its underwhelming debut it has since become one of the highest rated features of all time.
Based on a short story from acclaimed horror author Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption had followed almost a decade of Darabont’s struggles in the industry as a screenwriter-for-hire, having penned a host of genre pictures that ranged from the slasher sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors to the FX-driven remake of The Blob, yet the director’s passion for King had first been expressed in the early eighties with a short film adaptation of The Woman in the Room, a tale that had originally been published in the 1978 omnibus Night Shift alongside other stories that would serve as the inspiration for such horror and science fiction classics as Children of the Corn and The Lawnmower Man.
As legend would have it Darabont would purchase the rights to the story from King for one dollar and a decade later, having proven himself within the horror genre, decided to make his directorial debut with a loose adaptation of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, itself originally published in 1982’s Different Seasons. The tale of a banker in the late forties who is accused and ultimately convicted of the murder of his wife and lover and sent to the eponymous State Penitentiary, the story would follow its protagonist Andy Dufresne’s attempts to survive life in incarceration while forming a close friendship with a long-serving prisoner known as Red. After almost three decades in the institution, during which he has watched over the books of the corrupt warden, Dufresne escapes from his cell one night and returns to the world that has all but forgotten about him.
‘It’s interesting seeing it at this point because it’s really so long ago now that, in a sense, it happened to somebody else,’ explains Darabont to Deadline regarding his experience making the movie twenty-five years ago. ‘It feels like something from a different life or a different lifetime. So now I can watch the movie and just appreciate it as, I think as just an audience member now and it’s not like every shot brings a rush of memories back, I actually have to dig for those memories if I’m so inclined. But every time I watch it I do think, ‘That’s a pretty good movie.’ And I do have an appreciation for that but at the same time it really doesn’t feel like my movie anymore. And, indeed, it’s not my movie, in truth it now belongs to everybody who likes it. It belongs to whoever has an open heart for it. It really belongs to the audience now.’
The movie could have been a bleak and nihilistic exploration of prison brutality
While both of its stars had already gained considerable acclaim by that point in their careers, with Tim Robbins having recently won a Golden Globe for his performance in Robert Altman’s The Player and Morgan Freeman receiving his second Academy Award nomination for 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, their roles on The Shawshank Redemption would ultimately transform them both into superstars as the movie began to gain momentum during the mid-nineties. The movie could have been a bleak and nihilistic exploration of prison brutality and injustice, much in the same way as Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, what would prove to resonate most with audiences would be how Dufresne fights for small victories throughout his sentence, whether it is awarding his fellow inmates beers from the officers or locking himself in an office so that he can play music from the prison’s P.A. system, thus keeping up the spirits of both himself and those around him, much to the annoyance of the authorities.
‘I’m just exceptionally gratified by all of it. Grateful that the movie has hung in the way it has but also grateful for the fact that it keeps finding a new generation of viewers because the older generation wants to share it with their younger generation,’ the director continues. ‘It just kind of keeps hanging in there and that’s remarkably gratifying, you know? The fact that it’s still even noticed on IMDb is amazing, let alone the fact that it’s listed number one. It’s surreal to me. It’s mind-blowing. But it’s a testament to the power of a good story that speaks to people. It speaks those people who are willing to open their hearts to a story that wears its own heart on its sleeve. ‘If those things line up, then you’ve got something that might stick around awhile. I would take a moment to shift the focus back to Stephen King for having written this fantastic story in the first place and how grateful am I that I was able to co-opt his story and turn it into this movie that everybody loves so much.’
Released in late summer 1994, the same season that had seen such heavyweights as Forrest Gump, True Lies and The Mask dominating the box office, The Shawshank Redemption was a character-driven drama that would chart the evolution of a friendship over the course of almost thirty years, confined to the oppressive environment of a prison yard that would see its hero raped off-screen, several convicts murdered by guards and all manner of institutionalised abuse. It was hardly the perfect recipe for a summer movie and yet despite all expectations it would be through VHS and television broadcasts that The Shawshank Redemption would finally find its audience, thus allowing Darabond to return to the world of Stephen King and prisons for his sophomore feature The Green Mile five years later.
‘I think with Shawshank I knew it was a very open-hearted story and something that was, you know, this fine line between honest sentiment and being overly sentimental,’ claims Darabont. ‘I knew that there was always that fine line and you don’t cross the line where it becomes corny sentiment. Certainly, having Tim and Morgan as my key actors, helped because they always played things so honestly. But, yeah, there are little moments where you think, ‘Ooh, if I take this beat a little too far, it’s going to be cringy.’ And certainly, for some people, it’s already that. Some people don’t really care for anything that wants to try to honestly elicit your emotional response. To some people that’s just not savvy on the face of it. But, for most people, if you get that balance right, then there’s gratitude on the part of an audience. I feel that, too, when a filmmaker does that for me. It’s like, ‘Oh, you really make me care about what’s going on and care about these people.’ I just didn’t want to cross that line. I really think that was probably the key thing in my thinking going in. I wanted it delivered honestly, you know? Deliver a story with honest sentiment in it without it becoming overly sentimental. I didn’t want it to turn into a Hallmark Card version of a prison movie.’