Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption

Stephen King loves to tell the story of how a woman once approached him and admonished him for writing such disgusting horror stories, and how he should really write something nice, like The Shawshank Redemption. When he explained to her that he did in fact write that one, she didn’t believe him. I certainly don’t remember King’s name ever being mentioned in promotional materials for the film, so it’s logical for people to make that mistake. I can also understand why Hollywood chose to avoid it, as the moment the general public sees King’s name stamped on something, they are automatically thinking horror. It is a shame though, because this story is a perfect example of how he is just as capable of non-horror fiction as well.

The story is set in Shawshank prison, and follows the lives of two men in particular, Red, our narrator, and Andy Dufresne, a wrongly convicted man serving two life sentences for double homicide. Andy is strongly determined to get out of Shawshank, and it’s his never-ending hope to do so that inspires Red and many of the other men who knew Andy.

When your narrator is a man who has spent most of his life in prison, you could certainly run the risk of having an unlikable narrator. Red’s biggest offense in the novella is throwing around the n word a couple times. He uses it as a term for all prisoners regardless of race, and he’s not being insulting as much as he’s trying to explain how they are seen by everyone else, but I can certainly see how someone could get turned off by it. Beyond that though, he’s a fairly pleasant old man, hardened by his time in prison but remorseful enough for his crimes that you believe him. Of course in the film he is portrayed by Morgan Freeman, which makes him about fifty times more likable right off the bat.

When I was young, I remember being bothered by the fact that Red was described as an Irishman with red hair in the book and yet they cast a black man. Of course, I was also bothered that they decided to shorten the title, dropping off the mention of Rita Hayworth. In truth, neither of these changes is truly relevant to the story at all. Red is the guy in prison who can get things for you and his race is irrelevant. The poster of Rita and the other ladies Andy requests are still in the story, and that’s all that really matters.

The novella is pretty short, definitely closer to short story size than to novel length. So I was pretty shocked when I went to revisit the film and realized it was two hours and twenty minutes long. The added length is there primarily by expanding on things that Red only briefly mentions in the story – parole hearings, Andy helping out the warden and prison guards with money, and what happens to Brooks once he leaves prison. There’s one completely fabricated event, where Andy plays the classical music over the speakers which leads to them also adding the idea that Red used to play the harmonica. It’s not a bad addition, but I can’t help but feel that some of this could have been cut. It’s a good film, but I’m not sure there is enough happening here to really justify the long running time.

There are very few differences from the story itself. While Andy asks for three cold beers a piece for his crewmates working on the roof, in the story they only get one warm beer each. That seems far more realistic to me than Hadley actually giving them exactly what Andy asked for. And as Red mentions in the story, they are grateful for even that. Warm beer is better than no beer at all when you’ve been locked up as long as these men have. The death of young Tommy is also an addition to the film, perhaps to show just how hard and cruel Warden Norton is. In the story, he’s simply transferred to a lower security prison where he’ll get to see his wife and child more frequently.

Speaking of the warden, there are a few different ones that come and go in the novella, but it makes sense that they combined them into one for simplicity’s sake. They also made it so that Andy sets up his fake identity in prison rather than having a friend on the outside help him out. It makes it a little easier to explain, and the fact that Norton commits suicide at the end helps to guarantee that no one will know enough to trace the new identity to Andy.

One more change that had to be a joke for anyone familiar with the story. In the novella, Red states that he always hears sirens go off in films when there is a prison break, but he never heard one once in all his time at Shawshank despite many breakout attempts in the past. In the film, once they realize Andy is gone, a siren goes off.

Despite its bloated length, this is a fantastic film with strong performances from the entire cast, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. If you have seen the film, I recommend tracking down Different Seasons to read the original novella along with a few other great non-horror stories from Stephen King.

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