Friday, June 18, 2010

Adaptation and Adapted: Shawshank

| by Justin Thomas |

This post is decidedly PG-13 for language; it’s necessary to write about Shawshank the way I want to write about Shawshank.

A recent viewing of The Shawshank Redemption left me bothered. It left me concerned about how I’ve assumed so much of it into how I talk, react to situations, use its scenes, sequences and themes to try to illustrate what’s happening in my life and the lives of others and how much I question whether I’ve had an original thought since 1996. A lot of times I spout a bunch of bullshit about the meaning of life and a large part of that bullshit can be traced back to The Shawshank Redemption.

The movie led to another trap in which I found myself for years. “Shawshank is the best movie of all time.” That’s a bunch of bullshit, too. I haven’t seen every movie ever made so how can I possibly say, let alone think, such nonsense? It’s not even the best movie I’ve ever seen so it has no business being at the top of any list to which I’d contribute a vote.

For years I didn’t know how to discuss it free from hyperbole and free from my lack of ability to think for myself, and few tried to keep me honest because while Shawshank might not be universally loved, it’s pretty close. That and I tend to be stubborn so good luck getting me to change an opinion.

So how should I go about it?

I read Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, crossed it against the movie and discovered the hook upon which I could hang my hat to explain how Shawshank is worthy of note free from my personal baggage. How does the adaptation written by Frank Darabont compare with the source material written by Stephen King? Darabont’s script provides focus and clarity to the source material’s story and winds up telling the same story.

Red narrates both the adaptation and the source material, but in the source material Red claims his story is really about him and not Andy Dufresne. He falls into the trap of telling, not showing, and it’s too large a leap to make without more connections made how Andy and the Andy legend affected his life. Darabont picked up on this and wrote the script to show it, not tell it, rather than ask the viewer to make the same leap King asked of readers. Everything that happens in the film determines whether Red will maintain hope or become institutionalized, and it certainly includes everything that happens to Andy. If Andy can maintain hope even with everything that happened to him – with the figurative and literal rivers of shit through which Andy must crawl – then Red can, too.

The great departure from the source to the film is Brooks. Readers know of Brooks because of his bird and almost nothing else. The film’s Brooks is the second-most-important character to Red’s story. He defines institutionalized. It means learning to deal with the walls before coming to need them. It means being nothing on the outside. It means being frightened and doing what’s necessary to remain where things make sense. Without the example of Brooks, Red might not see precisely what surrendering hope could do to him. None of it is adding for the sake of adding, and it fits perfectly as a counterpoint to Andy and his refusal to surrender to the walls.

Structurally the film centers on Red. We meet him at his first parole hearing when he tackles it half-assed. He tells them precisely what they want to hear without any sincerity at all then can’t even feign surprise when he’s denied parole. In his second parole hearing he gives precisely the same answers but in a completely different way: it’s sincere, but it’s a sincere surrender. He’s given up, and at that moment in the film he’s as close to being a casualty of Shawshank as any other point in the movie. The third parole hearing, the one that dances with an “oh, that’s a movie moment” moment, is when he tells off the parole board. But it illustrates he’s learned Andy’s lesson of hope, and he has it but knows chances are he won’t be released so he demands they stop wasting his time. Those three parole hearings, those three story mile markers, came from Darabont, not King, and it solidifies Shawshank as being Red’s story.

Darabont cuts away characters to keep the film focused and moving forward. There were multiple wardens and multiple head guards in the novella, but the film maintains the same characters throughout to keep from needing to learn more information. Andy’s imprisonment lasted much longer in the source. Tommy chooses to not help Andy in the novella but has the choice made for him in the film. The changes keep the film going, affect Red or affect Andy, which ultimately affects Red. All of it is Darabont dialed in precisely as to how the source can yield the best movie possible.

The finished film illustrates how well Darabont wrote the script because the events of the movie dovetail too well for it to be an accident. He couldn’t have counted on the performances, the set design, the cinematography or the music when he wrote it, and while they have a lot to do with how well the film works, none of it works without that bedrock. An entire screenwriting course could be built to discuss the finer points of this particular adaptation and how understanding the source as well as Darabont understood his gives a better chance at a good movie.

Did I check the hyperbole there? I hope so. My personal pledge, one with which I’ll struggle, is to leave it to the person with whom I’m talking to determine where Shawshank falls for them, and it’s time to stop using Shawshank to illustrate points and find a different source. Maybe it’s time for the one slightly above my shoulders to get used from time to time.

And I apologize for the river of shit everything above became. See? I couldn’t keep my promise for a single paragraph.

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