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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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.