Release Year: 1994
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director: Frank Darabont
Writer: Frank Darabont, Stephen King (short story)
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins
Everyone loves a good redemption story:
Whether it's the triumph of the good guys over the bad, or of an individual triumphing over agonizing personal circumstances, you can't go wrong.
So add to that list The Shawshank Redemption...which has a little bit of both.
A period drama set in 1940s New England, The Shawshank Redemption puts us in the (sometimes shiny) shoes of one of our two protagonists, convicted of a murder he didn't commit and sentenced to life in prison at Shawshank. We suffer as he suffers; we struggle as he struggles; until at long last his efforts to right the wrongs committed against him bear some seriously satisfying fruit.
Spoiler alert: it's a happy ending.
Based on a 1982 novella by the insanely prolific novelist Stephen King (Carrie, Cujo, The Stand, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Christine, and about a zillion other novels and short stories), the film was released in 1994.
And it bombed.
At the box office, at least. It was a critical success, scooping up seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. (Forrest Gump won that year.) Shawshank lived on in VHS, DVD, and endless showings on cable (Thanks, Ted Turner!), so much so that, five years after its release, it was a phenomenon, eventually ending up as #1—yep, that's first place—on the IMDb charts of best-loved films of all time. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a "certified fresh" rating of 91%, calling it "an uplifting, deeply satisfying prison drama with sensitive direction and fine performances.
By "deeply satisfying," we're guessing they mean that the bad guys get it in the end, big time.
The late legendary film critic Roger Ebert thought that part of the film's appeal was that it made the viewer feel like part of a family, that desperate community of the men in Shawshank Prison. Any film that can make you feel sympathy for a bunch of murderers is at least doing something interesting, right?
There may not be another movie that is, at the same time, as universally beloved and highly critically regarded as The Shawshank Redemption. Many consider The Godfatheror Citizen Kanea better film; most would admit that something like Raiders of the Lost Arkor Star Warstakes the cake in the entertainment department. However, there's something pure, poetic, and beautiful about TSR that touches us deeply, and on a level that, for a great many viewers, is unmatched by any other flick. For a prison movie, it manages to be subtle, restrained, even spiritual. You hear the word "poetic" a lot when people talk about this movie.
Film critics may have their reservations or stubborn opinions, but ask someone off the street (preferably someone over the age of 30) for their Top 10 films and Shawshank will make the grade more often than not. It speaks to that part of us that wonders how a person maintains hope in a hopeless situation? The part that longs to break free from whatever is holding us back, as well as the part that wants to wreak vengeance on all the jerks who've gotten in our way over the years. Schmaltzy sentiments, maybe, but handled in the movie in a definitely non-schmaltzy way.
Like most films that have widespread appeal and stand the test of time, it's got a little sumpin' sumpin' for everybody. Drama? Oh, yeah. Comedy? Sure, plenty of lol moments. Friendship? Betrayal? Sentimentality? Brutality/violence? Unexpected plot twists? Baddies getting their just deserts? A happy ending? You can go ahead and check all those boxes. Not that the movie necessarily set out to please everyone…it just somehow did.
Many people have seen this film dozens, even scores of times. Sure, it's on TNT or AMC almost constantly, but a person can change the channel. Somehow, each time we watch it, we're still a little anxious to make sure Andy manages to (spoiler alert!) make his escape and get his revenge on the warden. Until the very end, we're still a little on edge.
That's the genius of the story, and it's worth figuring out how the screenwriter/director and cinematographer make this happen. Sure, they benefitted from a great story from Stephen King, but they created a film structure that translated the novella perfectly to the silver screen.
Hope you're taking notes, Forrest Gump.
As an English teacher, I am always looking for new ways to engage students in the writing process. I am continually trying to find and create interesting writing prompts that engage and challenge my students. Two years ago when I was asked to teach a film elective, I was provided with a wonderful opportunity to develop a course that would encourage students to write in new and exciting ways.
Since most teens love going to the movies, the engagement part of the course was easy. In fact, attendance in my film class was almost always 100 percent. Squeals of protest rose up each time I pushed the STOP button on the DVD player because the bell was going to ring. I actually had to make a rule that students could not go online when they got home to watch the rest of a movie we were watching in class.
While the course does address elements of film discourse including color, framing, lighting, motion, transitions, acting, and sound, my main purpose in designing this class was to provide students with compelling and interesting topics to write about. I wanted students to be able to describe, argue, persuade, compare, contrast, explain, and analyze what they were viewing on the screen. And it worked. The film course has become extremely popular, and I truly believe that the students have become better writers as a result of being part of it.
In designing the curriculum for the course, I wanted to be sure to focus on the great film classics. The class begins, of course, with the movie that set the bar for all films, Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is a tough movie for most high school students. It was made many years ago, and it is filmed in black and white. A deeper examination of the film can open up a great deal of discussion on topics ranging from blatant materialism, political downfall, and privacy rights. In fact, students quickly see that Kane's own ambition mirrors that of several literary characters and real life public figures, including Macbeth and Bill Clinton. It wasn't hard to come up with thought-provoking essays for the film, and the resulting writing was some of the best I've seen in over sixteen years of teaching. Other classics such as Casablanca, The Graduate, Schindler's List, The Shawshank Redemption, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestwere all great springboards to refreshing writing. Stephen King's Different Seasons short story collection includes both "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (The Shawshank Redemption) and "The Body" (Stand by Me), and comparing and contrasting the literature with the films can be an excellent exercise.
Some of the most exhilarating essays from this class, however, resulted from viewing movies that may not have made most film critics' top ten lists. My favorite section of the film course focused on coming-of-age movies, including Breaking Away, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Stand by Me. For Breaking Away, the essay focused on examining each boy's journey from teen to adult. The Breakfast Club's essay asked, "How representative of high school students are the teens in the movie? Do those representations hold up today? What new teen characterizations would be added (or subtracted) to fit today's world?" For Sixteen Candles, students could choose from the following essays:
1. John Hughes was applauded for going against the way most filmmakers were portraying teens (as vapid, horny, pimply caricatures) and portraying the teenage experience with pain, seriousness, and melodrama. How accurate is this assessment? Give evidence from the movie to support your claim.
2. John Hughes was accused of portraying damaging ethnic stereotypes (with the character Long Duk Dong specifically) in his movie Sixteen Candles. In an essay, discuss whether you agree or disagree with this view.
3. This movie was made in the '80s. How has teenage life changed since this time? What new forces are at work, and what older ones have disappeared?
Students usually have difficulty in settling on one of these essays because they want to discuss each and every one of them, and after writing, we do. Even a supposedly lightweight movie like Dirty Dancing, which my students had never seen and absolutely ADORED (both boys and girls) prompted exciting discourse and forceful writing. For that movie, students were asked whether a movie that is a huge commercial success is necessarily a good movie. Further, I asked students to evaluate the remarks critics made about the movie. For example, Roger Ebert said of Dirty Dancing:
The movie makes some kind of a half-hearted attempt to rip off West Side Story by making the girl Jewish and the boy Italian — or Irish, I forget. It doesn't matter since the movie itself never uses the word "Jewish" or says out loud what obviously is the main point of the plot: the family's opposition to a Gentile boyfriend of low social status. I guess people who care about such things are supposed to be able to read between the lines, and the great unwashed masses of American moviegoers are condemned to think the old man doesn't like Swayze's dirty dancing.
This prompt also provoked extremely well thought-out and insightful essays, as did the one for Pretty Woman that examined how women's clothing is so instrumental to their transformations â both cinematic and real-life.
A movie like Sling Blade, loved by some students and hated by others, was the perfect vehicle for teaching students the process of writing a movie review. The classic '70s movie The Warriors allowed students to explore what makes a cult classic and why a movie endures and becomes part of the pop culture lexicon.
Since skills related to media (both the critical analysis and production of media) are integrated throughout the Common Core Standards, I know that the film curriculum is in alignment with the competencies that today's students need. Using films to provide students with a variety of writing experiences is a great way to engage students in curriculum that is both engaging and effective.
For other films to use in the classroom, check out American Films by Paul Willetts Kramer.