Monday, February 23, 2015


When it was released, no one really cared about everyone's favourite movie. The Shawshank Redemption was a box office flop. In 1994, top movies included Dumb and Dumber, Ace Venture: Pet Detective, and The Mask. Maybe if Jim Carrey had starred as Andy Dufresne – breaking out of prison by turning into a human tornado, leaving a cartoon silhouette in the brick, or proclaiming "Get busy living or get busy dying" through his assShawshank would have been a smash hit. It was only when it wound up on VHS and on TV that Frank Darabont's movie based on Stephen King's story became what's now considered a classic.

It's hard to say why movies don't stick right away. Pulp Fiction was one of the other huge films of 1994, as violent as it was cool, and one of the few movies of the American indie renaissance that made good on its author's early promise. For all its affectations, though, Tarantino's sophomore film made for one of the most narratively innovative experiences most mainstream audiences had by then encountered. But of course the biggest film of that year was the time-trotting, saccharine Forrest Gump, as famous for its camera tricks as it was for its folksy wisdom. Narratively interesting and with triumph of the human heart written all over it, it is a wonder why Shawshank wasn't better received.

Browsing the popular movies of the year, it occurs to me that, while all very fine flicks in and of themselves (isn't Bill Pullman pissing himself in True Lies one of the all-time classic movie moments?) the biggies are generically clear. You've got uncomplicated action, uncomplicated comedy, all streamlined for their audiences. But Shawshank stands out for it's mix of depressing and uplifting. While it's no Hunger, it is primarily about incarceration, and as much as it is about the success of the human spirit, it's also about the destruction of said will to live. It's a nice buddy story, but it also has its share of beatings, and rape, and suicide.

The movie's fidelity to Stephen King's original story might have a lot to do with its slow motion success. We could sit here until the killer clowns come home arguing about King's literary merit, but the fact is that the guy's probably one of the most stalwart post-war storytellers in North America. He's got an undeniable knack for the yarn. As a horror writer, he's most distinguished for placing his characters in a pot of water and bringing it to a slow boil. In his less talked about monster-less writing, King cooks the water the same. In "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," incarceration, false or otherwise, is the creeping ghoul. Without the danger being clear and present in the adaptation (Clear and Present Danger did better than Shawshank in 1994, too), I can't help but wonder if the movie was as immediately compelling for audience being offered more defined, blatant – which is not to say not good – fare.

King's novella reads like a corked, classic narrative. The movie has this classic feeling, too. Which might go a ways to explain why The Shawshank Redemption found its audience on home video. Even watching it for the first time, you can't help but feel like you've seen it before, like it's been around forever. It's just my opinion, but the top movies I've mentioned feel so tightly tethered to 1994, whereas Shawshank lives freely on that beach in Zihuatanejo.

- Andrew

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