I was a bit nervous about watching The Shawshank Redemption for the first time a couple of years ago. It’s been number 1 on IMDB’s Top 250 Movies since 2008 (which is kind of funny since it was a bit of a slow burner at the box office upon release), and I was going to be watching it with a group of friends who kept reassuring me how brilliant it was. Frankly, it made me nervous. How could it possibly live up to the hype? I also failed to realise when I watched it the first time round that it was based on a Stephen King short story (although at a hundred pages ‘novella’ may be a more apt medium), Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, published in his collection Different Seasons. When this was brought to my attention I decided that I would read the short story before I watched the film again, but this also made me a tad nervous. As far as I was aware, I hadn’t had any experience of Stephen King works before, but I knew all about Carrie and The Shining and suspected that his writing was probably a bit too scary for the wimpy likes of me. I discovered in the meantime that I’d already seen film adaptations of some of his work, the rather sinister film Secret Window and Rose Red, which absolutely terrified me at a friend’s sleepover when I was about 12. Again, it didn’t bode well. I was a bit concerned that the story of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption would be a lot darker and more sinister than the film version made out.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. What surprised me most after reading and watching Shawshank in the same day was how faithful to the short story the film was. Obviously there were a few little niggles here and there, but on the whole it was an extremely accurate rendition. I’m sure even the dialogue was word-for-word at times. Like the film, the story is also narrated by the character of Red, and so I read the whole book in the lovely voice of Morgan Freeman in my head.
It’s a wonderful story. I don’t want to spoil the ending for the five people who haven’t seen it, but it’s about Andy Dufresne, an innocent man serving two life sentences for the murder of his wife and her lover, the friendships he makes in prison (particularly with the prison fixer, Red), and how he never gives up hope for his freedom, despite spending nearly thirty years in prison. Neither the story or the film shy away from the darker side of prison life; there are beatings and rapes, corruption and murders, with a lot of these crimes being carried out by the prison guards themselves, the very people who are meant to be restoring order and helping to reform the characters of the prisoners. It’s a grim story, and yet at the same time it’s filled with the decency and gentleness of the prisoners themselves – Andy takes over the running of the library and petitions for more books so he can help other prisoners gain their high school diplomas, giving them a better chance of living without reoffending once they leave, and Brooks raises and cares for an abandoned baby bird. Actually the saddest part of the whole film was Brooks’ suicide letter, where he talks about his bird Jake and how he misses him and keeps looking out for him now that he’s left prison. (This didn’t actually happen in Stephen King’s writing. Jake was a pigeon, not a crow, and Brooks didn’t kill himself after leaving prison. Jake is found dead in the prison yard not long after Brooks’ departure though, having been unable to fend for himself perhaps).
There were a few minor discrepancies between Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Shawshank Redemption. The most obvious is the character of Red. His surname is Redding, but in the book it’s shortened to Red because he has red hair. Morgan Freeman obviously does not have red hair, but they do make a joke of this in the film and claim the name Red is due to his Irish descent. Andy Dufresne’s court room scene is a lot more powerful in the book, due to the cool and collected nature of his character and the way he describes the court room practicalities and acknowledges the coincidences which are being used as evidence against him. The issue of whether he had the gun or not at the time of his wife’s murder is also slightly different. I was always rather distressed by the death of Tommy in the film. He was a young father arrested for burglary, but after making Andy aware that an old cellmate of his had confessed to killing a couple that sounded suspiciously like Andy’s wife and her lover, he was shot dead by prison guards who framed an escape attempt. I always found this rather upsetting, as he was only young and was keen to go home to his wife and children soon, plus he had been studying hard for his college diploma. Luckily in the book this does not happen, which is a great reassurance to me. He wasn’t killed, but was transferred to another prison and (we assume) was able to return home to his family, and hopefully not reoffend. I think the overall ending of the film was slightly different too. Andy didn’t need to access Norton’s laundered money because he already had his own fake identity set up before entering prison, complete with provisions for him to access the profits of various stocks and shares.
It’s a great film, with a lovely, emotional ending. I especially liked Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Red, so much so that I find it very hard to disassociate him when reading the book character. Although Tim Robbins’ performance was slightly criticised for not making the audience connect with him, that was also very accurate to the character of Andy as written by Stephen King. He’s meant to be a very detached, unemotional and cool character, which is one of the traits which played against him at his trial. The fact that he seemed relatively calm and unemotional convinced the jury that he was a cold-hearted murderer. Anyone who’s familiar with the story will recognise that Tim Robbins played Andy Dufresne exactly as he should have been played. In fact I don’t think there was a single character portrayal or casting which I didn’t agree with, or didn’t think fitted. The character of Brooks was the most emotive for me, and I think his final scenes are ones that have lasted with me the most. It really is a powerful film, and the ending is especially stirring. I don’t know that I would rank it as The Number One film, but then how on earth do you possibly decide which film is the best anyway? I probably wouldn’t have chosen The Shawshank Redemption to fill that spot, but as I don’t have the faintest idea what I would have chosen to put there instead, I shan’t dispute the fact that it’s there. My anxieties about watching such a well-loved and much-hyped film turned out to be a bit nonsensical in the end, and I’m glad I watched it, even if it did take me several years to get there.
I do think everyone should read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption though. For a start, at around one hundred pages it’s quicker to read it than it is to watch the film, and if you haven’t already seen the film it will give you a bit of preparation for the emotional commitment you’re going to have to make. It’s very easy to read. Stephen King has a very straightforward narrative style, and the voice you get of Red as a narrator is so clear and so well-defined, you get such a strong sense of character as he tells the story that in many ways it is like watching a film. I could picture all the scenes rolling out before me so clearly that at times I forgot I was reading words on a page and could wholeheartedly believe that I was sitting in front of a television screen. It’s a very clever technique to have because Stephen King’s not a massively descriptive writer, and yet it was all so vivid. Perhaps this is because I had seen the film before, and it would be interesting to speak to someone who read the story without watching the film to see if they felt the same effect. As my first conscious foray into the world of Stephen King’s writing, I did really enjoy Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, but I’m still not sure I’m brave enough to venture into the realms of Carrie and co yet!
See also My Culture Mission, or read previous Book vs Film Review featuring Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.