How (and why?) can a Steven King short story become the foundation for the highest rated movie on IMDB?
Think of all the movies that have been made with millions (billions?) of dollars in special effects and perfect looking actors and actresses and none of them even come close to the ratings this movie puts out.
How can this humble movie, set in a depressing setting with not much more than dialog entrance so many people? Are they all crazy? There is no sex (besides inferred creepy sex), some violence but not like most prison movies, no women at all besides the cheating wife and posters. One could even say that the ‘community’ in the prison was ‘conservative’ by many of today’s standards.
But, somehow, it is one movie that I (and seemingly many others) can find myself watching over and over again and not be bored with it. I seem to see some new nugget of meaning every time I watch it.
What just goes to show you that ‘content is king’, in this case Stephen King.
This little anthology, in my opinion is the closest King has come to literature. I have read enough of his other books to know that he can delve deep into his imagination to explore the horrors that can be created there (Pet Sematary freaked me out) but in these stories he explores in his effortless style the existentialism of humanity.
In ‘The Body’ he explores the existential crises that arises when children fully realize that death is a part of life. Echoes of ‘Nature’s first green is gold’ and the dying of the innocence of ignorance in childhood can be seen. I will never forget the moment my own kids started to understand that there are evil things and death.
In ‘Apt Pupil’ he explores the wickedness that is in every one of us, as an inescapable property of humanities existence, and how we all have to take responsibility as humans for what humans can and have done. ‘Every single one of us has the devil inside’ or ‘When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you’.
But back to ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ what makes it so appealing? When I learned that he had based the story on a Tolstoy short story ‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits’ it started to make more sense why this work carried such psychological and philosophical appeal.
The Tolstoy short story has many of the same plot points, a man wrongly imprisoned, grows old and suffers but in the Tolstoy story the man dies in the end after the person who actually committed the crime confesses to it. Kind of depressing, I know. It seems the Steven King twist is more uplifting and that is one of the main reasons people love this story so much – the feeling of hope in it.
But why, what is the hope; that you can escape prison and go and hide out in Mexico? There is something resonating in this ‘hope’ that is not merely just hope of a better life outside of prison it seems to have a touch of magic to it.
I think the key to this appeal is looking at the story as a metaphor of not just a bunch of guys in prison but rather of all human existence. If you think about it, life on earth is like life in a prison a certain way. The reality of our existence is that we are prisoners to its rules of physics and time (no one escapes the prison of death) and King, like Dostoevsky, lets the characters in this story live out their philosophies as we watch how their beliefs lead to their logical conclusions.
What is life in prison or existence in general if there is no hope that the suffering and injustice down here (or in there) has any meaning. Why put up with the suffering? What is the use?
You see the characters try to solve this existential dilemma in various ways:
The warden and guards are representative of the authorities on earth, the governments, the religious institutions that keep humanity from descending into chaos, sometimes by brutality and injustice.
You see the character of Brooks unable to find any existential hope and rather falls into the abyss of nihilism causing him to find no meaning in life any more, so he ‘gets busy dying’ and commits suicide.
You see the dark underbelly of humanity that gives its existence over completely to its own selfish and lustful inclinations in ‘the Sisters’ and especially ‘Bogs’ who could have been Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov’s brother.
And then you have Andy, the Christ figure, the suffering hero. He is in prison but is innocent (like Christ). He is more of a Nietzschen version of Christ, though. You see him filled with existential hope as he gives his famous line “Get busy living or get busy dying.” which is essentially quoting Camus’, ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide’
To finish it off you have Red, who is the narrator and essentially is you. Are you going to choose to follow Andy with your freedom and find paradise?
So, whether you picked up on it or not, like the short story it was derived from, Shawshank is a metaphor of the Passion of Christ. Or at the very least, the suffering hero metaphor or archetype, who through their suffering allows others to find their own repentance and then ultimate paradise. Just watch Red’s last speech to the parole board if you want an example of what true repentance is. Red comes to terms with who he is and what he has done. He finally is honest and that is the very key to the board releasing him and his freedom.
Now King tries to make it very clear that the real answer to humanities existential dilemma is not Christ and the Bible and he essentially guts the Bible metaphorically and literally, removing the words inside of it to make way for his hammer signifying the perseverant will of man. The humanistic idea that no matter how bad it can get if you chip chip chip away at life you ultimately will break through and find meaning (and paradise) in life. ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’
But really, what does that hole in the wall signify? Seems a little tomb-like to me.
And to complete the ‘suffering hero who dies and comes back to life’ metaphor we see Andy entering the ‘tomb’ during a storm (chaos), making his way through the waste of humanity (hell), essentially dying only to come out on the other side to be reborn, baptised by the rain, transformed, a new man, truly free. The old man is gone, a new man has been reborn. This new man is very powerful and rich now. ‘Unless a seed of wheat fall in the ground and die it remains alone but if it dies it brings forth much fruit’. Dostoevsky could not have put it better.
If you think I am reaching, look at the title, specifically the word ‘redemption’ in it. At first, I thought it was a peculiar word for King to use. Why didn’t he use something like the ‘Great Escape’ or anything along those lines? Why redemption, which really is a Christian word? This idea that humanity is somehow stuck with a debt to pay (a sentence) that has to be paid is the meaning of the word redemption. The Christian version of the story goes that Christ died to pay for the worlds sins and in so doing ‘redeemed’ humanity if people, like Red followed Andy to paradise, follow Christ. He went first to ‘make a way’ but like Red had to go to a specific field and find a very specific tree and yada yada every person has to follow Christ (the narrow way) only if you want that same hope and path to paradise. Like the Biblical version, in the end, the wicked are punished and the righteous meek find paradise with Christ.
So, really most people don’t know it but the reason they are attracted to the story is because it has been ‘wrapped’ very expertly in language and concepts that are agreeable and that they accept to hide it, but it is a very subtle trick. King has ‘hijacked’ the metaphor. The only reason it works is because King does not deviate too far from the metaphor and he keeps the protagonist as the hero (Christ figure).
To prove the point, if you take away the humanistic and anti-religion elements in Shawshank; if you make the warden just mean and not religious and the book the hammer is hid in ‘War and Peace’ instead of the Bible the story still has the same power. Those added elements do not make or break the story. The only reason you might think you need them is because now they are there. This novella and movie would still be as popular without them.
It is a brilliant story derived from another brilliant story derived from another brilliant story.
The real question people who love the book and the movie have to ask themselves is ‘why does this particular story resonate with me and give so much hope?’