Frank Darabont's 1994 American drama film 'The Shawshank Redemption' is a brilliant silver screen adaptation of Stephen King's novella 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' which he wrote in 1982 as part of his short horror fiction collection called 'Different Seasons'. This is a genre of story writing for which King is justly famous due to his vivid descriptions and subtle character development however Darabont's cinema expertise in the portrayal of this narrative really bring this tale to life, especially due to the filming techniques used and the insightful portrayal of the usual prison stereotype characters. In fact many are of the opinion that this film failed to be an even bigger box office hit than it was and that it failed to win any of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for simply because it was overshadowed by Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' and Robert Zemeckis' 'Forrest Gump'. These two films were 1994's highest grossing films worldwide and were released simultaneously with The 'Shawshank Redemption' but notwithstanding this misfortune in timing Frank Darabont still received acclaim from film critics worldwide including Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman who stated that the "moss-dark, saturated images have a redolent sensuality that makes the film very realistic."
These images can be seen in the film immediately after successful banker Andy Dufresne's life is suddenly shattered in 1947 when, after being convicted based solely on shaky circumstantial evidence of murdering his wife and her golf pro lover, he is given two concurrent life sentences which he has to serve at the infamously harsh Shawshank State Prison. However even before this happens, in the courtroom which is portrayed as being light and airy, the trial is still presented chillingly to the viewers through a filming technique known as the 'talking head'. This is more often used in documentaries rather than films however in this case it is used to great effect by Darabon especially in the facial expressions and the eyes of the main characters in this scene.
Stereotypes already start appearing here; the jury are mundane, 'average joes' which greatly contrasts with the pomp of the judge and the self-assured arrogance of the prosecutor, whose demeanor can be judged from the close-ups of their faces which again contrast with the gaunt face and haunted look of Andy. Facial expressions are also important in the cut scenes where the fateful night is reconstructed. Here a technique known as chiaroscuro is used whereby the scene is mostly in the dark with light falling only upon Andy's haggard face and on the those of ecstatic lovers.
After this we have a blackout to the sound of the judge slamming his gavel with a sense of finality as though the bars of prison are slamming home. This is further reinforced when the scene cuts to a shot depicting prison bars and we are introduced to Red and some of the helplessness and hopelessness of the prisoners who seem to know beforehand that their parole applications will be rejected. Red himself is stereotypical. he is what is known in army slang as a 'fixer', literally "the guy who can get it for ya" and as he himself admits, there's "probably a con like me in every prison".
In this scene we are also introduced to the general ambience of the prison yard. Grey seems to be a prevailing colour here, present in the concrete walls and ground and also in the prisoners' shirts. Here Darbon emphasizes the prison atmosphere by giving the viewers a bird's eye view of the prison, with its high walls dwarfing the inmates surrounded by guards in towers and chain-link fencing making them look like scurrying ants marshaled by the system. Another emphasis on the walls is seen through the steep camera angle of the shot when Andy looks up at the prison walls as he is being led into the prisons for the first time.
After this scene the introductions continue. The first impression that we get of Warden Norton is that he is a fair man with a mission when he says "I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you'll receive both." when he immediately becomes the more typical prison warden, a sort of god in his own domain by quantifying this statement with "Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank" and by showing what a brutal regime he runs in his prison by glancing at Captain Hadely, the Captain of the Guard who understands without being spoken to that he has to beat up the prisoner simply for asking about mealtimes.
During the first night the chief guard's savage character continues to develop when he beats a newly arrived inmate because of his crying and seems to enjoy showing that he can do his own thing independently of the warden by blaspheming in direct contravention of his orders. Meanwhile Andy remained steadfast and composed in spite of Red's bet against others that Andy would be the one to break down first and is the only one to try and humanize the dead beaten up prisoner by asking what his name was. Also significant in this part of the film is the de-lousing which the prisoners have to go through "naked as the day you [the prisoner] were born" and "half blinded by the stuff they throw at you." The emphasis here is not upon the de-lousing as much as the de-humanizing aspect of it reflected in the tone of contempt in Red's voice and the mechanical voice of the guard giving the instructions.
Another typical feature of prisons is usually the violent, homosexual gang and the institutionalized old timer who usually has a pet and both these can be found in 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Over the first two years of his incarceration, which Red describes as probably being the hardest for him, Andy spends them working in the prison laundry where he attracts the attention of the violent group of prisoners known as 'The Sisters' who sexually assault other prisoners. Though he persistently resists and fights them, their leader Boggs has taken a special fancy to Andy so he is beaten and raped on a regular basis. These scenes are very artistically presented where much of the action is implied rather then being explicitly shown however their impact is all the more effective due to this.
The last important character to be introduced properly in the film is ageing inmate Brooks Hatlen who takes care of the prison library and also of a baby crow that he has rescued from the yard. Brooks is the perfect antithesis of Andy. As Red observes, Andy "had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place" On the other hand Brooks is hopelessly institutionalized, having spent 50 years in prison and now does not want to leave and attempts to murder another prisoner in order for him to stay in Shawshank.
The fact that it is not only walls which keeps the pensioners captive but they are also prisoners within themselves is also a recurrent theme in this film. Red is also a victim of this mental imprisonment. In a quasi-sermon he gives to Andy after coming out of segregation, he lectures him sternly about the dangers of hoping. ââ‚¬Å“Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insaneââ‚¬Â he preaches, but as we have seen, Andy is apart from this and this is shown in various ways however before discussing these ways one must mention how the lack of hope in the prisoners is reinforced by the Darbon. For example, upon his umpteenth rejection by the parole board Rd is presented with a harmonica from Andy who advises him to play it to "set himself free" in the same way that Andy set himself free when he played classical music over the prison's PA system and "for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free" In spite of this experience the director presents us with a dejected Red sitting on his bunk and blowing only one note before stopping and losing hope again.
Another climactic build up is the series of events that lead to Brook's suicide. This is presented to us through the form of a letter which he sends to the other prisoners where he states that he cannot cope with the outside world at the halfway house and he was taking the only course left open to him, that of taking his own life. The slow methodical preparations of this old man, who was respected in prison but outside was nothing more than "Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands." This gets across the message that even though one may be out of prison, that does not mean that he is not mentally enslaved any more.
Andy's difference from the other prisoners starts being highlighted when Red uses his influence to get Andy and their clique of mutual friends on a work detail tarring the roof of one of the prison's buildings. It is during this job that Andy overhears Hadley complaining about having to pay taxes for an upcoming inheritance and using his expertise as a banker lets Hadley know how he could shelter his money from the IRS. He said he'd assist in exchange for some cold beers for his fellow inmates while on the tarring job and even though he at first threatens to throw Andy off the roof, Hadley, the most brutal guard in the prison finally agrees and ends up providing the men with cold beer before the job is finished. Red remarks that Andy may have engineered the privilege to build favour with the prison guards as much as with his fellow inmates, but Red also thinks Andy did it simply to "feel free."
Andy's hope and resilience can also be seen when sees an opportunity to expand the prison library, starting with asking the Maine state senate for funds. After six years of writing letters, Andy receives $200 from the state for the library, along with a collection of old books and records. Though the state Senate thinks this will be enough to get Andy to halt his letter-writing campaign, however, he is undaunted and doubles his efforts. With the enlarged library and more materials, Andy begins to teach those inmates who want to receive their high school diplomas. Afterwards Andy is able to secure a steady stream of funding from various sources, the library is further renovated and named for Brooks and he did all this despite the fact that the warden told him that it was hopeless.
To balance all these positive aspects the director includes a dialogue whereby one day Andy talks to Red, about how although he didn't kill his wife, his personality drove her away, which led to her infidelity and and eventual death. This shows the viewers that Andy could have been a typical prisoner in his mind, even though he is innocent but instead is determined to go to his place in the sun next to the ocean that does not remember.
After Andy's escape, Red's next parole hearing in 1967 he talks to the parole board about how 'rehabilitated' was a made-up word, and how he regretted his actions of the past. His parole is granted this time and he goes to work at a grocery store and stays at the same halfway house room Brooks had stayed in. Here we see the struggle he goes through to be like Andy and not like Brooks. This struggle is symbolized when he frequently walks by a pawn shop which had several guns and compasses in the window and at times he would contemplate trying to get back into prison but he remembered the promise he had made to Andy and symbolically ends up buying a compass from the pawn shop and not a gun and he followed Andy's instructions. Just like Andy said, there was a large black stone. Under it was a small box containing a large sum of cash and instructions to find him. He said he needed somebody "who could get things" for a "project" of his. Red violates parole and leaves the halfway house, unconcerned since no one would really do an extensive manhunt for "an old crook like me [Red]." He takes a bus to Fort Hancock, where he crosses into Mexico. The two friends are finally reunited on the beach of Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast. Here we see a contrast with one of the first scenes in the film. The camera shot is still from above but it is not focusing into a walled prison but rather panning outwards to show the vast endless ocean and beach which is the scene for the old friends' reunion.
Apart from all this one cannot conclude without at least a token reference to the impact that the musical score of the film has upon the audience. This was left in the hands of Thomas Newman, and the majority of the score consists of dark piano music which plays along the main character's role at Shawshank and apart from complementing the "moss-dark setting" also reflects not only the dreariness of the actual prison but also the melancholy dreariness found within the prisoners themselves due to the fact that, as Red aptly states, "They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway." in his measured American lilt. The quiet narration by Red, calm and seemingly all-knowing in his role as an omniscient narrator in the role of the hardened con recounting the story of the newer 'fish' is also an effective technique used. He gives the viewer the impression that he knows the whole story about his 'friend' and thus it is incongruously discordant that he didn't know about the escape.