When it premiered on September 23, 1994, “The Shawshank Redemption” barely registered at the box office. The prison drama opened at No. 9, below the odious sex comedy “Exit to Eden” and just above Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show,” already in its fifth week. Though nominated for seven Academy Awards, the film failed to connect with audiences and vanished from theaters with little fanfare. And then, slowly but surely, its fortunes began to change. On its 20th anniversary, here’s how “The Shawshank Redemption” beat the odds and became a beloved classic.
Prior to 1982, most readers thought of King as an author who wrote only horror, but the publication of “Different Seasons” changed all that. A critically acclaimed bestseller, this beautifully crafted collection of four dramatic novellas introduced King to an even broader audience. The book’s first story, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” remains one of his most deeply humane and hopeful works of fiction.
In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Frank Darabont praised King as “a very old-fashioned storyteller, in the best sense of being old-fashioned,” and the same can be said about “The Shawshank Redemption.” Darabont, who also adapted the Oscar nominated screenplay, imbued the film with a timeless quality that recalls the classic cinema of Capra and Sturges. As such, it’s a movie that generously rewards repeated viewings.
Drawn heavily, and often verbatim, from the novella’s first-person prose, Morgan Freeman’s nuanced narration does far more than just advance the plot. The actor’s mellifluous voice provides a strong moral center to the film, while casting a fable-like atmosphere that hooks the audience from his first word to his last. Freeman’s eloquent storytelling helped earn him a third Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
When a film embraces unabashed emotion with the verve and sincerity of “The Shawshank Redemption,” it runs the risk of overplaying its hand, musically speaking. Impressively, composer Thomas Newman’s powerful score enhances rather than eclipses the onscreen drama. His work was so memorable, it not only earned Newman the first of 12 Academy Award nominations, but was recycled in dozens of award-caliber movie trailers for years to come.
A moving meditation on male friendship, the relationship that gradually develops between prisoners Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Ellis ‘Red’ Redding (Freeman) forms the tender heart of the film. Their circumstantial bond, born of harsh confinement and few options, eventually grows beyond mutual respect into a beautifully realized expression of platonic love. Few movie couples are as committed to each other as these two lost souls.
Worried that the film could be mistaken for a Rita Hayworth biopic, Darabont trimmed the first three words of the novella’s title, but audiences were still confused by it. Freeman himself blamed the unusual moniker for the movie’s poor box office reception. Yet later, as its reputation grew, the unique name gave the film an identity all its own. Today, the word “Shawshank” instantly conjures up haunting images of gray stone walls and iron-barred windows.