The Shawshank Redemption: 10th Anniversary Special Edition Review

” Prison is no fairytale world”

Everyone knows the history of The Shawshank Redemption. Fittingly for a film in which hope triumphs over despair, the film rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of negligible box office takings to take its current position at number two on the Internet Movie Database’s All Time Greatest Films Poll. When it was first released in 1994, to muted critical success, the theatres stayed empty, audiences preferring the feel-good saccharine of Forrest Gump to what they perceived was going to be a gloomy, depressing prison drama. The Academy felt likewise, awarding Tom Hank’s simpleton a ton of Oscars while sending home the Stephen King adaptation with not a single gong, despite its seven nominations. That said, we shouldn’t be completely down on the Academy – despite their grave misjudgement in not giving the film a single accolade, simply by nominating it the votes had done the picture a favour. People, intrigued as to what exactly was worth seven nominations, began to check the film out, even despite its odd title. Word of mouth began to spread rapidly, ensuring that Shawshank became the most rented video of 1995. And that was it, the spark that set off the wildfire of adoration that has yet to die down. The little film that could, rather like its central character, finally crawled through the crap that surrounded it to emerge, unscathed, as arguably the nineties’ most beloved film.

Ultimately its success comes down to two people, director Frank Darabont and horror supremo Stephen King, who wrote the novella on which Darabont based his screenplay. Although not widely known, it wasn’t with Shawshank that Darabont’s association with the author began. About a decade earlier, King had begun a scheme in which he sold his short story rights to up and coming young film makers looking for a break, his way of encouraging new talent to come forward. One of those who benefited from this was a twenty four year old Darabont who made King’s short story ”The Woman in the Room” into a thirty minute short. Although it didn’t make Darabont’s name as a director – it would be another seven years before he got behind the camera again, and then only for a TV Movie called Buried Alive - it certainly impressed King, who called it the best adaptation of his work that he’d seen. The writer was therefore more than amenable when Darabont asked him, ten years later, if he would mind if he took his novella Rita Heyworth and Shawshank Redemption and adapted it for the big screen.

The novella comes from the collection Different Seasons, a rich seam for film makers that had already spawned Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and would subsequently produce Bryan Singer’s underrated Apt Pupil. Despite being nearly a hundred pages in length, Darabont made some changes in adapting the story for this screenplay. The most notable is that in the book, the character Red is a burly red-haired Irishman, but various other characters were either expanded – Brooks in the story appears in just one paragraph – or contracted – there are three villainous Wardens in the book. But the essence of the story remains the same. Darabont took the raw ingredients of the book, and more essentially its hopeful theme, and
spun it into cinematic gold.

But what is it about the film that touches so many people? From the synopsis it’s not hard to see why so many people avoided it during its theatrical run – an innocent man is sent to a grim prison, is raped regularly, only to slowly but surely begin to buck the system. It’s hardly the stuff of movie matinees. And, although audiences were not particularly averse to ultra-violence – this was the year of Pulp Fiction after all – prison movies in general are considered to be more realistic, and therefore harder to stomach, than films with a more comic-book approach. Add to this the fact it’s a period film, doesn’t feature any women at all, and doesn’t have any truly huge movie actors in, and, for those who just look at the description of the film, it must be a puzzlement why people go cock-a-hoop over it. Why exactly do they?

The easiest explanation is to say the ending. Think back to the first time you saw it, the first time you saw the Warden’s despairing face looking down that hole and realised in a flash just what had happened. The sheer jolt of adrenaline that moment brings, the sudden overwhelming feeling of what Andy’s done and how the ending is going to be considerably different to how you expected, is one that comes along but rarely in movies. Other films have twists in their tales – the example that comes immediately to mind is the following year’s The Usual Suspects - but very few have a twist that simultaneously makes you shake your head in wonder and want to jump up and punch the air triumphantly. It is an exhilarating, incredible moment and one that I, certainly, have never experienced in any other movie EVER. It is, simply, one of the most cathartic movie experiences you will ever have, and it’s a shame that you can only experience it once. Like a drug, the first time is always the best. (Not least because, in subsequent viewings, you will wonder… how exactly does Andy get the poster back on the wall?)

But many films have twists, and if that was Shawshank’s only positive, it wouldn’t be regarded in the way it is now. That rush is fine the first time, but once you know the ending, there has to be a reason to keep coming back, to go through it all again. The reason people do with this film is breathtakingly simple – it is a damn good story. One of the reasons Darabont first took his script to Castle Rock was that he didn’t want it interfered with, and seeing the end result, it is easy to see why. The screenplay is a move executive’s nightmare. It doesn’t follow a standard formula, it doesn’t fill out the requisite check boxes that studio heads want ticked, it doesn’t conform to type. Instead, it is a throwback to the old days and ideals, a time when someone made a film simply because they wanted to tell a story that they were passionate about, a story from the heart, a story with meaning. This is what Darabont was doing with Shawkshank, his storytelling so pure, so unaffected by extraneous considerations. It’s a grown up movie for grown up people, a buddy movie where the buddies don’t bond over exchanges of banal witticisms, helped along by blowing away the bad guys with a semi-automatic. Instead, it’s a story about friendship, real friendship, a friendship that develops slowly and naturally over a long period of time, a friendship formed on mutual understanding and admiration, a friendship welded together by living together through incredibly tough times. You know, like the sort you actually have in real life. Many people have described Andy and Red’s relationship as a love story, and it is so true – by the end of the film, they are inseparable, two figures that have bonded to such a degree that their lives would never be complete without each other again. Such maturity in showing a relationship is very rare nowadays.

There is a simplicity about Andy and Red’s characters that many could mistake for shallowness. Andy is a classic example of the Mythic Hero, a character who comes into a land and changes it for the better before leaving it again, never to return. It’s very easy to begin to sound pretentious when discussing the symbolism in the film but the story is so saturated with it that it’s hard not to – it is not overstating it to say that Andy is Shawshank Prison’s Messiah. A man without sin comes to live with sinners, changing their lives with his works and pronouncements, all the time encouraging them to do more, showing by example that suffering with humility is the best way to go. The Warden is the classic hypocrite Pharisee, extolling the value of scripture in public while in private living a very different sort of life while Red, the one man who confesses to what he has done (“I’m the only guilty man in Shawshank” he tells Andy), is the first man truly redeemed by Andy’s actions. Even the place they live, their world, has a gothic architecture and quality about it that is not unlike some stern, condemning Catholic Cathedral, frowning down on those tainted with Original Sin, reminding them constantly of their crime, but still offering an ultimate escape. It could be said that this is all so blatant and obvious as to be overbearing, and even worse banal, but the film is also so touched with humanity that there is never the slightest danger of it becoming a dry Sunday School lecture.

Working on this level, the film is another retelling of a classic story, not just the Christian story, but one that the Greeks were telling hundreds of years beforehand – it is one of the cornerstones of literature. And, just as in the plays of ancient Athens, the characters are all symbols of one aspect of mankind, whether it be Andy as hope or Red as narrator, or the storyteller. Indeed, it is the fact that it is Red who is telling the story that excuses the perhaps slightly thin characterisation of some of the secondary characters. Some people have been known to complain that the treatment of the bad guys, the Warden and Hadley in particular, is one-dimensional, but that is missing the point. The story is told through Red’s eyes, he is the narrator, and for him there was only one dimension to these people, nothing beyond the brutality and hypocrisy these men had. This isn’t to say he’s an example of the Unreliable Narrator – it’s hard to imagine, knowing what they did, that these characters did have much more to their lives. But it is perhaps a narrative Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, if you prefer to focus on the story as a straightforward one, as opposed to one with layers of meaning.

You can’t completely escape it entirely, though, as the old-fashioned storytelling ethic is extended to its structure, which is almost Dickensian in its episodic approach. Examined closely, the film is made up of a series of chapters, each one made up of a number of years, each with its own small subplots that both push the characters forward and fill in the backdrop of the film. We have Andy’s trial and arrival, then his persecution with the Sisters, then his building of the library, then the period with Tommy, before finally the coldest, darkest days before the end. Each one is a section unto itself, but each one also advances and adds to the plot – without the Sisters would Andy have ended up on that rooftop tarring, which in turn leads to his friendship to Red starting properly? Without the library, we wouldn’t have perhaps the Warden’s most terrible threat to Andy, to take it all away – you can do what you like to the man, but to brick up his achievements, made for the good of others, that surely would be far worse than anything physical he's had to endure in there. And, just like Dickens, there is also time for small set pieces (I cringe to use the term but that’s what they are) along the way – the tragedy of Brooks, the scene of Andy playing the music to the inmates, Red’s three parole hearings – all beautiful, wonderful moments that add to and enrich the whole invaluably. Every single scene or line of dialogue is meaningful, all adding up to the complete picture we have of Andy and Red’s life, all lulling us into the complete world Darabont creates. On a more banal level, this method also makes audiences prepared for dialogue heavy scenes they might otherwise have grown tired with – what other film can you think of that has a seven minute scene of two men just sitting against a wall talking?

But even this is not, I think, what ultimately capture’s people’s hearts. I think it’s the fact that it also works on a symbolic level, that people can project their own lives and problems onto the screen, taking back from it the hope that one day, like Andy, they will be able to get themselves out. Everyone lives in their prison to some extent, whether it be just their life in general or a more specific one – a poor job, unhappy home life, serious illness, or whatever – and the film’s moral, that there is hope and that you can tunnel you way out, given enough time, is one that is very appealing. It’s not even so much a case of “Well, if Andy can do it, so can I”, it runs deeper than that – people literally see themselves as Dufresne, and truly do take hope from his life. For the brief time they watch the film, they see their own lives, turning out in a way they could hardly dare hope before but somehow, having seen the film, seemingly a more realistic goal than before. It’s that projection of themselves that ultimately gives this film its power, and contributes to its success.

Darabont’s naturalism as a storyteller is extended to the way he directs, in particular his use of the camera as another narrator. Whether it be the famous helicopter shot of the prison when Andy first arrives or the moment when we see the Warden’s crestfallen face staring down the tunnel, the camera works as almost the visual equivalent of Red. The scene when Andy plays the music over the loudspeakers is a good example: the camera soars up to the heavens just as the cons’ hearts must soar when they hear the beauty of the piece playing. Never flashy or showy, Darabont’s direction is just another way the film comes together. Equally, Roger Deakin’s cinematography is first rate, taking full advantage of the prison exteriors and interiors. Outside the sun shines down on the prisoners, reminding them of the world they are no longer part of, while inside only rarely does natural light, or indeed any light, manage to penetrate the dark heart of the prison. The interior sets, while not perhaps managing to provide the unsettling atmosphere that the real prison reportedly had, do manage to convince in the way that this feels like a real, functional prison – the workshops feel worked in, the dining hall feels like its seen a thousand and one meal times, the prison cells themselves are small and cramped and dispiriting. If there is one criticism to be had, it’s that the whole place is cleaner than you might expect – although an institution with as severe a task master as the Warden would have a strict cleanliness policy, the nooks and crannies equally don’t appear to have any concealed layers of dirt. This doesn’t cut down on the authenticity of the sets one bit, however, and when the only criticism for a set you can find is that the squalor could be slightly more, you know you’re onto a winner.

Darabont cast Morgan Freeman first, not at all an apparent choice given Red’s description in the novella, but absolutely a right one. Freeman’s performance is nuanced, balancing the surface level twinkle in his eye befitting a man “who has been known to procure certain items from time to time” with the turmoil going on beneath, the intense regret over the mistake he made as a youngster that has condemned him to his life inside. He tries to keep it hidden away, out of sight of his fellow inmates, but every so often it breaks through, notably in the scene in the dining hall when he tells Andy that hope is a dangerous thing before running away, a moment Freeman plays perfectly. His final speech to the parole board, when he tells the suits in front of him that “not a day goes by when I don’t regret it” and that he wishes he could go back in time and change things, is beautifully done – compare this emotional vulnerability with his first parole hearing, twenty years beforehand in the story, in which his insouciance and insincerity still shine through. His journey from one point to the other, made through Andy, is Freeman’s triumph in the film. (On a more trivial point, it is also a sheer joy to hear his rich mellifluous tones during his narration, sounding like a born storyteller).

His chemistry with Tim Robbins is also just perfect. Robbins is one of the finest actors (and, indeed, people) working in Hollywood today, and here he gives one of his best performances, one that is, if possible, even more subtle than Freeman’s. Although Andy is a very private man (Red explains that he kept himself to himself the first few months he was there), through his actions he wears his heart on his sleeve. Robbins has that tricky job of expressing both joy and horror through very small signs, such as the simple smile he gives when the first lot of books are delivered, but not once does his performance stumble. Not a man to express himself though physical emotion (he tells Red that his wife found him “a hard man to know”) he does so instead through words, like the moment when he tells the Warden he is being “obtuse.” As the film wears on Robbins allows Andy small moments of expression, but there is no outright burst of emotion – Andy never laughs or cries once while inside – until that joyous moment when he emerges from the pipe and raises his hands to heaven. It is almost worth getting through the entire film just for the final moments when we see Andy, for the first time, really smiling. It was a deceptively difficult role for an actor, a taciturn role that nevertheless exudes both real sympathy and warmth, but Robbins handles it magnificently. (It is perhaps unnecessary to add that the chemistry between himself and Freeman is spot on, the scenes when they are together, whether it be the simple moment when Andy gives Red the harmonica or the last scene of the two of them talking before the climax, quietly electric).

Everyone is good in the film, although special praise should also be extended to Bob Gunton in his role as the fantastically evil Warden (the most chilling line from him not being anything he says to Andy while the latter is in the hold but afterwards when he says “It’s good to have you back, Andy,”) and James Whitmore, whose moving performance of Brooks is both simple and heart wrenching. There are no weak links here, no false steps. You lose yourself in these people, and forget that you are watching actors – it is incredibly easy to believe they really have been in this prison (both inmates and guards) their entire life. The deadening of their souls and the general level of gloom is accentuated by Thomas Newman’s musical score, a deeply moving theme that ratchets up the emotional scenes even further – Brooks’ story, in particular, becomes almost unbearable to watch with the sad, mellow piano playing in the background.

Although it’s only ten years old, it already feels as though The Shawshank Redemption has been with us much longer. It has a timeless quality to it, as well as an innate moral goodness, that ensures that it enters the steeliest of hearts and doesn't let go. There are those who find it derivative or manipulative, saying that it takes moments from other prison movies and slings them together, but even if certain moments are inspired from other films, so what? It's a trick that's been used for years - a certain Mr Shakespeare was known to lift a plot or two from tales or yore, and he didn't do too badly. Ultimately I believe that Darabont's tale is a very personal one to him, a story he felt he had to tell, and that is the most important thing - the film is much more than the sum of its parts. It is, instead, just a beautiful, wonderful piece of filmmaking, one of those fleeting moments where everything comes together to make a piece of cinematic magic. Whether you take it as a modern take on ancient tales, a modern fable with a message for everyone, or simply a story about two guys in prison for a long time, there is something for everyone to enjoy, and it’s hard to imagine anyone not being moved by it. As essential a movie experience as you could possibly wish for.

The Disk
Region 2 gets a three disk set for the tenth anniversary. The menu for the first disk comes with an audio description track, one that describes both the menus and the film itself. This is an excellent feature to be heartily commended, although sadly the regard for people with disabilities is not extended to disks two and three, which have NO SUBTITLES at all.

A vast improvement on the earlier R2 issue, but still not quite perfect. While skin tones have been improved and grain all but eliminated, the disk does not handle the more shadowy scenes as well as would be desired - there is a lack of definition at times which, while not hindering the viewing experience, is a little disappointing considering the high quality of the rest of the transfer.

Three options, ranging from the good - the standard stereo mix - through to the very good - the 5.1 track - through to the outstanding - the DTS option. This is not a film that will test your sound system to its utmost, but never has it sounded so good - particularly strong moments include the storm with its powerful thunder reverberating around your living room and, aptly, the sonata from The Marriage of Figaro, which sounds as good as if you'd heard it live.


Although Darabont admits at the beginning that this is his first DVD commentary he does a good job and gives a highly listenable account of his movie. For the main part he prefers to talk about his role as director as opposed to screenwriter, and while it would have been nice to hear a little more about his writing process (it doesn't get much beyond his seeming incredulity that he wrote the script in eight weeks) he makes an amiable companion to watch the film with.

Text-based summaries of Darabont and his seven principal cast members' careers. Okay for a brief read.

A page with fifteen quotes from the film which can be heard if clicked on. I guess if you wanted to make sound files for your PC this would be useful but other than that this is a bit superfluous.

Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back At Shawshank Redemption
Half hour retrospective with contributions from all the key players, both in front and behind the camera (including Stephen King). Touches on many elements of the movie, from important moments to reminiscences on set, the task of adapting the script, the themes of the movie and some debate on why it has become so popular. A very nice tribute to the film which, while you probably won’t return to it but is well worth a watch.

Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature
A documentary by Mark Kermode originally made by Channel Four to coincide with a screening of the movie. More of a piece about the making of the film than about what it all means, it tells the complete story, from the publication of the initial novella by Stephen King right through to its gradual popular revival and ascendancy to its current standing at number two on the Internet Movie database. Made at the reformatory where the film itself was shot, this features such disparate elements as former real life inmates and guards telling what being in the real prison was like, through to a Bible Belt group debating the film’s religious connotations. There are no great insights here, but as a complete history of the film’s journey it couldn’t be bettered.

The Charlie Rose Show
An informal interview around a table with Darabont, Robbins and Freeman. Charlie Rose is an awkward interviewer, liable to put his foot in it – near the beginning he states that the film won the seven Oscars it was nominated for – and with a penchant for asking leading questions, but the sheer pleasure in hearing the three main stars of the movie discussing it in depth more than compensates for his poor technique. All three are very personable – Darabont comes across as a man just utterly happy his film has touched so many people, Freeman is humourous and appreciative of the work they did and Robbins has some excellent insights into the picture – and the forty minutes in their company goes quickly. Very enjoyable.

Stills Gallery
There are five galleries (Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Supporting Cast, Tim and Morgan and Behind the Scenes), all of which self play accompanied by the film’s score (which cuts out rather abruptly at the end of each). Ranging in time from thirty seconds to nearly two minutes, there are plenty of images that would be useful for people looking for iconic stills from the film, but there’s nothing illuminating here for a casual viewer.

Shawshank Storyboards
A look at Darabont’s storyboards for two sequences. The first is the scene of Andy’s arrival at the prison, complete with the famous helicopter shot over the prison – the storyboards show how meticulously this was planned. The second features an extended version of the scene when Bogs is beaten by the guards which was cut due to time. It’s actually not a bad thing this scene ended up much simpler than the version shown here – while it features some nice ideas and camera shots, it’s also a little melodramatic, whereas in the film itself the simplicity of the scene matches the idea it’s putting across. Overall, this is a very nice feature, well presented, and I could have done with seeing some more of these, or with a contrast to the finished product.

Extended Interviews
These are much fuller versions of the interviews that were taken for Kermode’s documentary. Of the five here, Robbins and Freeman’s don’t add too much that we haven’t heard before on disk 2 on one or other of the various documentaries, but Bob Gunton’s is rather good. He has many insightful things to say about the film and it’s a shame more of him wasn’t seen on the main documentary. The same can’t be said of William Sadler who, while a nice guy, simply blathers for half an hour, not saying anything very useful at all. These four interviews all come in at around half an hour, but the final one, with Clancy Brown, lasts just half that time, which is also a shame, as he seems more interesting than Sadler.

Behind the Scenes
The first five minutes of this are a typically lightweight featurette “Making of” made at the time, which has nothing to recommend it above the hundreds of others you’ve seen other than the quality of the picture it’s advertising. The second four minutes consist of raw footage showing scenes being shot, which is always nice to have.

There are two different trailers to be found, one for the film's original theatrical release and one for its tenth anniversary reissue. Regarding the former, it’s easy to see why people would be put off the film – parts of it look very grim indeed, and pretty much like a typical prison picture. Regarding this particular transfer, the trailer is presented in pan and scan, which is a bit annoying.

The reissue is a more confident piece of work, hailing that "the masterpiece if returning to theatres."

As a film, this should be in every DVD collection. The set you will get, however, is a bit mixed. The film itself gets a first rate presentation, particularly with its soundtracks, and with the "audio description" feature the first disk is as good as you could wish for. The supplementary disks, however, are more of a mixed bag. This is a three disk set that could easily have been whittled down to two, the third disk largely given over to extended interviews from Kermode's documentary that, in the main, benefitted from pruning. The two documentaries are very good, but there is a slight overlap of material and there is a sense at times that the makers were padding the disk out. Sadly, we don't get the Shark Tank Redemption Spoof that Region 1 gets, but more curiously neither region gets any deleted scenes - this is frustrating given that Darabont says his initial cut of the film ran to well over three hours. Where are they now? The complete lack of subtitles on the extras is also unacceptable, and lose the disk a mark - in this day and age, there is no excuse for this. Having said that, it's still an essential set to get, it's just a shame elements of it are less than they should be.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:38:54

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