I Hope: A Short Analysis of Shawshank Redemption

Shawshank Redemption currently stands as the highest rated movie on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).  This story about a wrongfully convicted man, Andy Dufresne, who spent nineteen of the prime years of his life behind bars, yet escaped, has clearly resonated with the broader public, outranking such traditionally highly rated films, such as Citizen Kane, the Godfather, and Vertigo.  The reason may be the idea that the human spirit cannot be fully destroyed, even in the worst of circumstances, but it is redeemed.  This spirit is, however, redeemed through hope.

Shawshank Redemption is a 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, “Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which, in turn, is a loose reworking of Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.  Like Dumas’s story, everyone at Shawshank claims to be innocent – though in Dumas’s story, they all are.  In both stories a wrongfully convicted man, with the help of an older inmate to navigate the prison, eventually escapes after several years by tunneling his way out and comes out “clean” on the other side – and significantly wealthier.  The movie even nods to its source material when Andy receives a large donation of library books, and Haywood humorously mispronounces the author’s name as “dumbass.”  Andy explains the plot of the book, and Red wittily suggests they file it under “educational.”  In the heart of the movie, the film, therefore, signals to the reader the outcome.

This outcome of Andy Dufresne’s eventual escape is, therefore, hidden in plain sight, just like when he wears the warden’s shoes at the end and no one notices, but there was, indeed, a lot of editorial sleight of hand to keep the audience guessing about the outcome.  The story of the film progresses in a very straightforward manner, except in three significant places.  At the beginning of the film, the film intercuts between Andy Dufresne drinking in his car and loading his gun, and his trial.  The audience never actually sees if Dufresne is telling the truth about his innocence.  We never see him shoot or walk away.  The second case is when Tommy tells the story of the man who actually killed Andy’s wife and the golf pro, creating a flashback so we see and hear it from the killer himself; this finally establishes for the audience Andy’s innocence – in the film’s time, 19 years after he had been put in prison.  Finally, the end of the film shows us how ingenious and not-so-straightforward the editing of this film actually was.  In the seemingly straightforward unwinding of the film, we expect Andy to have committed suicide, but we learn the film has not been as forthcoming in its information as we had thought.  The film flashbacks several times to show what Andy had really been doing all those 19 years.  In an early scene in the film, for example, we see Andy begin to carve his name.  The film then cuts to him asking Red for Rita Heyworth – by which he means a poster of her.  We think he just wants to look at a woman in an all-male environment.  In fact, we are shown images of Andy staring at his poster throughout the film.  But at the end of the film, we get a longer clip of the same scene: as he carves his name, a huge chunk falls out of the wall.  He contemplates the chunk of wall.  In this new sequence, we learn that he has used the poster to conceal his activities of digging a hole through his wall for 19 years.

His rock hammer, hidden in his Bible, which, in retrospect, creates a more disturbing moment when the warden is holding it during a surprise inspection – and almost walks off with it, saying, “salvation lies within” –  provides Andy hope for a life outside the walls.  He spreads that hope to his fellow inmates in several way.  He gets them beer from the cruelest guard imaginable.  He plays a portion of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro over the loudspeakers.  For both occasions, Red – in the film’s very distinctive use of voiceover – says it made everyone feel like free men, even if only for a moment.  And he implants hope into Red by making him promise to find something buried if he ever gets out.  And that hope signals the difference between Brooks, a character whose purpose in the film is to provide a double for Red, and Red.  Both “institutional men,” their post-parole experiences nearly perfectly mirror one another, except for the outcome, and difference in that outcome is hope.


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