‘The Shawshank Redemption’ at 20: How It Went From Bomb to Beloved

Shawshank Redemption 20th Anniversary

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.

Stephen King

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.

The Shawshank Redemption 20th anniversary Frank Darabont(Frank Darabont on set with Morgan Freeman)

Frank Darabont

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bjqmg_7J53s
The Voice-Over

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.

The Score

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.

The Shawshank Redemption 20th anniversary Tim Robbins Morgan Freeman(Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption”)

The Bromance

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.

The Title

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.

Home Video

In what was seen as a risky move at the time, Warner Brothers shipped 320,000 VHS copies of the film, an absurdly high number for a major box office disappointment, and hoped for the best. Their gamble paid off handsomely and the movie finally found the audience it was waiting for. As word of mouth spread, the onetime failure became the most rented video of 1995, and remains a perennial bestseller on DVD and Blu-ray to this day.

Turner Network Television

While the VHS market was crucial in rehabilitating its commercial image, it wasn’t until “The Shawshank Redemption” debuted on Ted Turner’s TNT cable channel that it became a bona fide phenomenon. The network purchased the film’s broadcast rights in 1997 and quickly made it a staple of the New Classics series, where it’s played in near-perpetuity ever since. An annual Father’s Day favorite, it currently ranks among the most re-run movies in television history.

The Shawshank Redemption 20th anniversary imdb

IMDb

For years, “The Shawshank Redemption” has reigned in the coveted No. 1 spot on the IMDb’s Top 250 highest rated movies list, as voted on by users. Sporting well over 1 million votes, the rating ranks it above such masterpieces as “The Godfather,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The Ending

During the course of its 142 minutes, “The Shawshank Redemption” rarely shies away from depicting the violence, savagery and inhuman degradation that accompanies long-term incarceration. And yet the film’s message is ultimately one of hope. This is most obvious in the emotionally devastating climax that depicts two old friends on a sun-drenched beach far from the horrors of prison. In those final moments, the meaning of redemption is made crystal clear.

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  1. Margaret says:

    My husband and I watch it every time it is on TV, plus rent it from Netflix, now that our VCR is broken…. an all time favorite!

  2. You are rewriting history.

    It was never a bomb. It was released on 33 screens the first weekend. Being #9 from just 33 screens is not a bomb.

    Failed to connect with audiences is b.s. too. The word of mouth on it was huge… I never saw an ad for it – was just told by multiple people that it was great.

    • Douglas O'Hara says:

      I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. The special edition Blu-ray of the film contains a 48 minute documentary on it titled “Shawshank: The Redeeming,” which is about the fact that the movie fizzled at cinemas when it first came out, but then became a surprise hit on video and TV. It backs up everything I read in this story.

      Guess you don’t own that disk, huh?

    • Tom Ranwell says:

      What are you talking about? It’s standard common knowledge that the film was a serious financial disappointment during its initial theatrical run. The director himself has discussed it repeatedly. Morgan Freeman has talked about it many times. This isn’t something Variety just made up. It’s basic movie history.

      Yes, it opened on 33 screens on its first week. But that’s NOT when it reached #9. It went into WIDE release a couple of weeks later and finished as the NUMBER 9 FOR THE WEEKEND. By then it was on lots of screens.

      At the end of the year it was the 51st most successful movie of the year. Look at that number again. 51. That means it was considered a box office failure.

      Yes, the word of mouth from people who saw it was huge. Unfortunately almost no one saw it. People didn’t know what the hell the title meant. There weren’t any big stars in it. It was considered a box office dud.

      End of story.

  3. Chef says:

    A movie that makes you love movies. I have watched it countless times, but recently I watched it on Blue Ray and I didn’t recognize the beginning which made me realize that I had seen the movie so many times on TNT as I would stop while channel surfing that I forgot the beginning. Refreshing to watch from beginning to end. 20 years and it never has gotten old.

  4. Clayton Petersen says:

    Loved and will always love the movie. I watch it at least once a year.

  5. Michael Muldowney says:

    I saw this movie on its opening day in 1994 – there were 3 other people in the theatre. But the film made back its budget in North America and took over $50 million worldwide – so the use of the term “bomb” is insulting.

  6. Wonderful article regarding “Shawshank” and every word 100% true.

  7. cadavra says:

    One of the funnier lines of this past year was Jebediah Atkinson’s assessment on “Saturday Night Live”–“Even in theatres it had the TNT logo in the corner.”

  8. nyrunner10 says:

    I like this movie but the best ever? Hardly.

  9. Barbara Fox says:

    I love “Shawshank” deeply, but the ‘hope’ of the ending (made even brighter by the fact that, unlike in the novel, we actually see the friends reunite in freedom) is given darker shadings by the knowledge that Andy Dufresne spent too many decades in prison for something he didn’t do. How long will he get to enjoy his hard-won freedom?

    Nevertheless, a near-perfect adaptation of a wonderful novella.

  10. Shawshank opened behind Exit to Eden – a comedy no one remembers, featuring Rosie O’Donnell in S&M garb…try to hold back your vomit at the thought of the latter, and your disgust that Shawshank took so long to find an audience of cerebral film goers

  11. Paula goodwin says:

    Why must every twit in Hollywood second guess? The critics and the studio fucked up.

  12. Heidi says:

    Love this movie, but I still wish that the final shot hadn’t pulled back from Andy and Red’s reunion before we see Red actually reach him.

    • nothanksimdriving123 says:

      Heidi, I totally agree. I wanted to see these two survivors greet each other, hug, or at least shake hands, see the joy in their faces for a few seconds, and then maybe pull back. After over 2 hours of torment, I felt I’d earned that. It’s why I give this film “only” a 9 and not a 10. (If imdb allowed fractions, I’d probably give it a 9.8 or so.)

    • I always felt that the camera pulls back for two reasons: The first is to give us the sense of the immensity of the Pacific itself from when Andy talked about how it had no memory. It’s supposed to invoke the feeling that Andy’s life before had been forgotten completely. It no longer exists. The second reason is that we spent the entire film watching Red and Andy’s friendship as flies on the wall in the prison, and now that they were both free and reunited, the point of view was giving them that moment to themselves. It was as if we were leaving them now that they were free. Almost like saying goodbye to them; the ending of a dream.

      • Good read into the ending, Josh. I too enjoyed the pull back. Let Red and Andy breath in the fullness of the moment. They had made it and sometimes you just take a breath and continue living, not just surviving. Their world was now open. No need to force the viewer into a forced, over edited “celebration”.

  13. D says:

    BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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