The Shawshank Redemption must be one of the worst titles for a movie ever. It sounds like a tongue twister – you know one of those verses which are fun because you have to make such an effort to manage to say them correctly. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” My tongue goes on strike.
Since it’s so hard to pronounce or to figure out what it possibly could refer to, it’s also difficult to remember. This makes its number one position on the imdb ranking list even more impressive. People love this movie so much that they’re prepared to learn a name they don’t understand or know how to say.
I’m quite new in the circle of film nerds, but from what I’ve seen so far, they generally don’t approve of this ranking. While very few think it’s a bad movie, they roll their eyes a little at the idea that Shawshank Redemption would be the best movie ever.
Why so popular?
But let’s go with the majority. What is it in this movie that makes it so immensely popular? What is it that we love so much?
The other day I watched the movie for the first time and I liked it so much that I also had a look at some of the extra material included in this edition. Among other things there was a very well made documentary with no less than my favorite critic Mark Kermode as a host, gathering opinions from various people about why The Shawshank Redemption has become the phenomena it is. I thought Tim Robbins, who plays the leading role, put it well in his explanation:
“A lot of people are in prisons of relationships, of jobs that they hate, of lives unfulfilled and have given up hope. What this movie is saying to them was: it might take a while, it might take some time, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and if you have the patience and the belief you can make it there. […] It allows people to see that they can get out of the prisons they’ve created for themselves.”
Yeah. I think so too. While film buffs tend to like movies with tragic or at least vague, open endings, most people shockingly enough prefer movies that make them feel a little bit better when their own life is miserable. They’d rather get hope and inspiration to endure and improve what can be improved than to see someone confirm to them what they already knew: that life is a bitch and we’re all bound to die anyway, so why bother?
Self help guru
There are moments when Andy Dufresne – falsely accused for murder, serving a life long sentence in a prison under hellish circumstances, in case you’ve forgotten – sounds like a self help guru, cracking lines that someone most likely has printed as a poster with a sunset background.
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong about the line; as a matter of fact I like it. I like it a lot. And there are many self help gurus out there who actually inspire me and give me insights that help me to get along better with life. There are quite a few charlatans as well, obviously, but the teachings of Andy are solid. Like when he risking a severe punishment plays classical music in the speakers so all prisoners can hear it and the following dialogue takes place:
Andy Dufresne: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
Andy Dufresne: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.
Red: What’re you talking about?
Andy Dufresne: Hope.
I like this, even if I also see the risk for scenes like this to get too much of love for their own benefit. If it’s repeated enough many times, those lines will eventually become feel worn out and shallow as “Carpe Diem” became after the mega success of Dead Poets Society.
The Shawshank Redemption will not become my number 1 movie. It was a little bit too Hollywood cheesy at times, and slightly too predictable at moments, to beat every other movie I’ve watched. However – I loved it a lot – I guess I’m quite unsophisticated in my taste for movies – and next time I look over my top 100 list, it will definitely be somewhere on it. Because it’s incredibly well crafted in every aspect from screenwriting to score and because it’s wonderful to see someone who goes for the big style storytelling. Screw special effects and 3D! You can tell that this movie is made by a guy who takes his inspiration from good old movie makers such as Frank Capra.
I’ll give you a final quote from the movie, for no other particular reason than that I thought it was beautiful. It hit me like poetry.
Andy Dufresne: You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?
Andy Dufresne: They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.
And now I’ll go practicing on the title. Shankred Shawdemption. No, wait… Shawshemtion Redshank… No, no, no… Shenkshank Ration….
Crap. I guess I’ll stick to the Swedish in this case. In Sweden the distributors gave up about the original title altogether and made a new one: Nyckeln till frihet (The key to freedom). It’s generic and a little bit forgettable, but at least I can pronounce it.
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, US, 1994) My rating: 5/5