It's hard to find a place to start writing about The Shawshank
Redemption, because the film is so perfectly balanced and
beautifully composed that it's a lot easier just to admire it than to
take it apart and see how it works. You could say that The
Shawshank Redemption is a film about hope and perseverance, but
that doesn't quite capture how those qualities are expressed in such
an honest and unsentimental way. You could remark that The
Shawshank Redemption is a prison-break movie, and although that
would give a well-deserved nod to some elements of the film's plot,
it would miss the main point of the story. You could approach it by
saying that it's a film about a couple of very distinctive
characters, and their friendship; that's probably the closest you'll
come to being able to sum up The Shawshank Redemption in just
The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim
Robbins), a Maine banker who's sentenced to life imprisonment for the
murder of his wife and her lover. But even though his life has been
turned upside down, Andy refuses to shed the dignity and self-respect
he had as a free man... and although he's seen as a cold fish by many
of his fellow inmates,he's befriended by long-timer "Red"
(Morgan Freeman). The film chronicles Andy's experiences in prison as
year piles on year behind bars, and we see how Andy struggles through
the horrors of his first few years and, little by little, makes a
place for himself in the peculiar society of the prison. As Red is
all too aware, Andy is walking a tightrope between the madness of
unwarranted hope on the one side, and the defeating experience of
becoming "institutionalized" on the other. Red himself has
accepted the fate of being an "institutional man," one who
wouldn't know how to live outside of Shawshank... although after
getting to know Andy Dufresne, his life at Shawshank could never be
Developing a film from Stephen King's novella "Rita Hayworth and
the Shawshank Redemption" was a felicitous idea on two fronts:
one, because novellas or short novels seem to be better suited for
the screen than either short stories or full-length novels; and two,
because Stephen King is really at his best in the medium-length
format. Despite his success with longer novels, I'd argue that King's
shorter works, like "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank
Redemption," "The Langoliers," "The Long Walk,"
Dolores Claiborne, and Misery, are where we see his
storytelling skills at their most polished and powerful. Director
Frank Darabont's decision to adapt King's novella was the first of
many sound creative decisions on the project.
The Shawshank Redemption is one of those rare instances in
which a film adapts a story that was already very good to begin with
and then improves on it. The film retains the characters and
essential incidents of the story faithfully – in fact, it's
amazing how well Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman "fit" their
respective characters from the novella, even though physically
they're almost nothing like their written counterparts – but
freely edits, compresses, and elaborates as needed to weave a story
that works even better than its source material.
Most notably, the ending is significantly different (don't worry, I'm
not going to reveal any spoilers). Andy's plan is more complex and
more devilishly clever, and the final events surrounding the Warden
are completely new to the film. The final image of the film, shown as
Morgan Freeman provides the final voiceover, is likewise not present
in the original novella. The result is an ending that packs an
emotional punch; it takes the original satisfying ending of the
novella and deepens it, giving it that extra kick that it needs to
really be outstanding.
The Shawshank Redemption is brought to life by a stellar cast:
not just Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, though they of course are
the two actors who really make the movie work, but also an excellent
supporting cast. Bob Gunton and Clancy Brown turn in chilling
performances as Warden Norton and Captain Hadley, respectively;
they're terrible people but also completely believable. James
Whitmore is excellent as the elderly prison librarian, Brooks, and
even the tertiary characters like Red's friend Haywood (William
Sadler) are well-realized. It's a testament to the craftsmanship of
the film that despite the moderately large cast, there's never any
sense that you have to "keep track" of the characters: we
get to know them exactly as much as the story calls for, and each
character is woven tightly into the story.
The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy
Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), and Best
Writing, though inexplicably it won none; it was edged out in several
categories by the juggernaut of Forrest Gump, although in my
view The Shawshank Redemption is the better film. But none of
that really matters: what matters is that it's a great film, and ten
years after its original release, it has solidly established its
reputation as a modern classic.
The Shawshank Redemption: Special Edition is a two-disc set,
packaged in a slim single-wide plastic keepcase.
The Shawshank Redemption appears in a lovely widescreen
anamorphic transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image
is crisp and almost totally clean: there's no noise at all in the
picture, even in challenging shots like a full blue sky, and the
print is in excellent condition with only a few minor flecks
appearing here and there. While the contrast is a bit heavier than it
should be in the very darkest scenes, in every other situation the
contrast is handled perfectly. Colors look natural, whether it's in
the drab color palette of the prison cells or the more vibrant
palette of the world outside. I could see almost no edge enhancement
in the image, and the result is a nicely detailed and sharp picture.
I did a side-by-side comparison of the SE
and the earlier release, and as far as I can tell, the transfer is
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack for The Shawshank Redemption provides
a clean and crisp audio experience. Every detail of the sound is
clear and well balanced with the other elements of the soundtrack,
and the overall sound is always natural. However, for all practical
purposes, this might as well be a very good 2.0 track, because the
rear surround channels are barely touched. During most of the film,
the back channels are completely silent; they're only used to present
the theme music and a few background sound effects, like the water in
the prison showers. As a result, many scenes that could have sounded
very impressive, like the convicts shouting at the "new fish"
as they enter the prison, aren't presented to their full advantage.
Even so, the track is surprisingly full-sounding and pleasing to the
The SE's 5.1 soundtrack is, as far as I can tell, identical to that
presented on the earlier DVD release.
Since the audio and video transfer of the film is identical to the
earlier, non-SE release, the make-or-break buying decision for the
Special Edition will have to be based on the special features.
There's a substantial amount of material here, so fans of the film
will likely be pleased with the new release on that account.
On the first disc, the main attraction is a full-length audio
commentary from screenwriter/director Frank Darabont, who is quite
articulate and offers some interesting thoughts about his film. We
also get a theatrical trailer for the film on this disc.
The second disc holds the bulk of the special features. First off is
a 31-minute featurette called "Hope Springs Eternal: A Look Back
at The Shawshank Redemption." It's a nicely done piece
that brings together present-day interviews with Frank Darabont,
Stephen King, Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, and others involved with
the film. It's basically a retrospective, with the various
interviewees reflecting on what Shawshank meant to them, the process
of making the film, and its audience reception.
Next is a longer piece, "Shawshank: The Redeeming
Feature." This 48-minute featurette appears to have been made as
a separate mini-film, and even appears in anamorphic widescreen. It
attempts to answer the question of "what makes The Shawshank
Redemption so good?" by interviewing various cast and crew
members. One interesting aspect of this piece is its on-site look at
Mansfield Prison, where Shawshank was filmed; we get to hear
from a former warden and a former inmate of that prison for some
insights to the reality of prison life in the "real Shawshank."
There's also some consideration of the production process, from
casting to filming and test screenings.
The third main special feature on Disc 2 is a 42-minute episode of
"The Charlie Rose Show," with Frank Darabont, Morgan
Freeman, and Tim Robbins discussing the film and its impact as
considered from the point of view of its 10th anniversary. There's
some interesting material here, though after the first two
featurettes it's starting to get a bit repetitive.
"The Sharktank Redemption" is a 24-minute spoof of the
film, transplanting the story into the setting of a Hollywood talent
agency, with Red (played by Morgan Freeman's son Alfonso Freeman) and
Andy "doing time" as office assistants. It's mildly
Lastly, we get a stills gallery, storyboards, and a brief slideshow
of 10th-anniversary poster artwork.
Shawshank Redemption has one of the most astounding
come-from-behind success stories in film: after barely making a
splash in theaters and receiving none of the seven Academy Awards it
was nominated for, the film slowly but surely built up a following
when it was released into the home video market. It's a powerful film
that gets everything right, from casting to pacing, and from script
to structure. This was the third time I'd seen the film, and even
knowing the film inside-out I still wound up with a lump in my throat
at the ending.
Special Edition has exactly the same transfer as the earlier release,
so viewers can make the decision to upgrade or not based on how much
they want to see the special features. In either release, though,
it's a fantastic film, and I'm happy to give a DVDTalk Collector
Series rating to the Special Edition disc.