Prison fascinates us. Why else would “Shawshank Redemption” be the highest rated movie of all time, by a million verified movie reviewers on the Internet Movie Database? Around 2008 it knocked “Godfather” off the champ’s podium. “Citizen Kane,” the “greatest” movie of ages past, ranks 64th.
Shawshank is a good film, well acted. It’s not revolutionary, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, nor tries to be. Films as different as “Seven Samurai” (ranked 20th), “Clockwork Orange” (74th), and “Raging Bull” (112nd) advanced the medium’s creative potential, their every shot a statement, every movement essential. It’s not fair to hold Shawshank to such high standards, except it’s forced there by popular demand.
Most favorite great movies pack their stunning content in vehicles that blow back sight and sound. Compared to such audience dream machines, Shawshank is built like a truck. Instead of snappy dialogue and cuts, action and eye candy, Shawshank weaves a solid story on a remarkable plot. Hollywood’s script paradigm insists on three acts and character arcs. Shawshank builds out different themes that converge as a long, glorious catharsis. It’s this emotional release that enraptures viewers.
King of Plots
Shawshank’s hypnotic effect has an unworldly quality, as if it could play on another planet’s screens. Its popularity built slowly, through word of mouth, as did cult sci-fi fantasies Blade Runner, Repo Man, and Donnie Darko. But Shawshank has no super-naturalism. It rewards audiences with Stephen King’s complex plot, which generates a dramatic impact first identified 26 centuries ago. Aristotle coined a term, catharsis, which despite its highfalutin sound depends on plot more than character. King has put in his 10,000 hours of practice, honing the skills of a plot master.
He’s not responsible for the film’s aesthetic, the way its visual rhythm rolls with Morgan Freeman’s cadences. Thirty-odd Stephen King stories are adapted as films, many mediocre or dreadful. The two made by Shawshank’s director, Frank Darabont, are anything but. The Shining is also a King story, but the author claims to detest Kubrick’s vision. Either King is Darabont’s muse, or Darabont is King’s voice. Together they succeed where separately (in film) no so much. Darabont’s stately style doesn’t call attention to itself, which pairs with King’s casually esoteric subjects. Kubrick’s Shining took King’s expositions of otherworldly Americana, and wove in visuals from the nation’s collective memory. It was a brazen confection. Darabont tells stories gently. He’s a writer, first. Kubrick was a photographer.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are Shawshank’s terrific leads. Each was at a career peak. Freeman, in particular, was the 1990s go-to man for anchoring stories in trusted reality.
The movie was cinematographer Roger Deakins’ breakthrough. He blended harsh reality, castle-like fantasy, and shifting masses in denim satin tones. His three color palette – black, white, and brick red, or blue, green and sun-drenched stone – flows like water, carrying the audience into unexpected depths. Deakins got the first of eleven Academy Award nominations with the film.
Yet Shawshank’s extraordinary pull on IMDB’s voting bloc is from King. He mashes the sublime and profane, in character development, language, and plots. He draws lessons from ancients, Victorians, and moderns, to craft tall tales with unnerving impact. A self-deprecating superstar, King knows his readers find academic jargon nauseating. But he’s foxy. He’s learned from Aristotle, Nietzsche, and H.P. Lovecraft, and probably Shakespeare too. King takes a classic tragic kernel and grows it, by repeated divisions, to give audiences a long reward.
If Greek tragedian Sophocles wrote a play about the Bible’s Joseph, infused it with romanticism, injected existential anxiety, slammed it into a reversal of fortune, cracked the plot open with surrealism, stepped through in Sam Spade’s gumshoes, and delivered us to a Final Fantasy finish … you’d have a Shawshank Redemption.
How to Make Friends and Influence Audiences
Tragedy’s long arc, rather than some tragic archetype, is key to Shawshank’s emergent popularity. An overworked term, tragedy is a powerful style that keeps evolving. It began as any serious story, became those whose heroes die, then was any unhappy ending. The lines between comedy and tragedy blur in mass media, as comedians report the news and TV news clowns around. King mocks the tragedy vs. comedy distinction, but he writes about dire straits, not funny business. What matters is audience. King believes his audience thinks “tragedy” is pompous. If he leads them into reversals of fortune, in the manner of Elizabethan genius and ancient Greek invention, it’s just good storytelling. 19th century German philosophers said tragedy exploited deep, dark ethnic beliefs. If King’s plots manipulate dread that’s ingrained in American soul, it’s because horror writers should use themes that scare most people.
Shawshank Redemption’s hero is sort of noble, so we admire him without too much empathy. Aristotle claimed a dash of nobility makes the audience like the guy from a distance. We should enjoy a tragic character’s success. Andy Dufresne’s solemn confidence is likeable, but hard to fathom. Prisoners assume he’s weak, but he gains their respect, and ours. Aristotle saw how success magnifies cracks in the hero’s character. A man who almost murdered his wife, Andy’s not perfect. His achievements lead to negative impacts. He enables the warden’s illegal schemes. Guards rely on his clever tax services, and protect their interests by beating Andy’s enemy until he’s paralyzed. Most of all, a young man who tries to prove Andy’s innocence is killed for it. If a hero is merely good, his suffering “merely shocks us,” wrote Aristotle. The tragic hero is neither pure nor depraved.
Towards a tragic plot’s end, it must execute an about-face, a story splitting contradiction. This makes the audience pity the hero, then grow afraid. Fear for the hero’s survival isn’t enough. Audiences scream watching Raiders of the Lost Arc or Halloween, but neither is tragic. When we see someone who seems reasonable, who behaves like we would, who then suffers predictable misfortune, it’s unnerving. When Andy Dufresne follows this path we pity him.
Audience pity soon rebounds as survivor’s guilt, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” A flawed hero overcomes the forces arrayed against life, but loses what made it worthwhile. We know we cheered him to his doom. When a plot turns on the hero, it’s turning on us. King takes us down Shawshank’s mean streets, down a one-way alley with no way out. First we pity, then we quake, as Aristotle described. But just when the hammer comes down, King opens an escape hatch.
Modern science and technology uncovered immense, unknown vistas, that no Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche imagined. H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories took readers into the yawning vacuum between ordinary life and extraordinary science, over a tragedy-lite sequence. King recognized its potential. In Lovecraft’s vision, society has a thin border against chaos. Shadowy forces engulf what’s beyond. Cast into this hostile universe, readers tumble head over heels in panic, until Lovecraft mysteriously drops them back home. Relief is palpable. Fear, in this case terror, and pity for oneself, dissipate in the reader’s special knowledge. Something lurks behind ordinary reality. It’s like taking a wild roller coaster, getting off safely, and discovering it’s not electricity, but a monster turning the wheels. Entranced and terror free, readers walk away giddy. This isn’t Aristotle’s catharsis, but for those who buy his premise, Lovecraft’s stories shake out fear and leave one humble yet knowing.
King develops this carnival engine into an exotic hybrid. Shawshank’s plot pushes Andy down a classic tragic pathway, under a Damocles sword that hangs by a thread. As he reaches Aristotle’s resolution, where the hero finds justice and is crushed, King opens up a Lovecraft portal. Between prison cell and freedom, a symbolic and monstrous passage emerges. Submerged in this realm, Dufresne suppresses panic. When he emerges, his relief is joyous. Let the cathartic process begin.
It Feels So Good & It’s Good For You Too
Catharsis is a bountiful word. Not its dictionary definition, but in use. To get over a crisis, or the crisis itself: either can be cathartic. So are creative expressions, feeling part of nature, a good cry, the big game, a cool party, hot sex. Ancient Greeks coined katharsis for medicine, to explain why sick people eject phlegm, vomit, and bled. It purged bodies of illness. Orgasm eliminates no disease, so it wasn’t karthartic. Aristotle borrowed the word for theater, and with that it became a psychological idea. In a few sentences he established a meaning that’s still robust. Plays presented stories that made audiences pity tragic heroes. Stories delivered on their promised consequences, which audiences feared. But with a little help from friends on stage, the chorus, audiences realized fate happens. That purged their pity and fear. Catharsis left audiences civil and introspective.
Aristotle described catharsis best practices. Ancient Greece had over 1,000 serious plays. Only 31 exist today. Most do not adhere to his plot pattern. Maybe 20 have happy endings, something he believed defused catharsis. His catharsis wasn’t nuanced, its rules proved effective but had limits. He didn’t define pity and fear, which soldiers experience differently from children, mountain climbers from public speakers. If audiences fear and pity in just one way, that may not matter. That’s not what happens. Stories portray haves and have nots, war and peace, and everything in between. Audiences identify with protagonists, project themselves into a performer’s pitiable situation, their fearful event.
Audiences fear for and with a plot’s characters. A young woman attacked in a shower, and a shipwrecked sailor circled by sharks, both face death by sharp cuts. People make sense of these events, which triggers different fears. The woman’s youthful indiscretions were risky, but her death is wholly undeserved. The audience takes her perspective, and feels shock, outrage, and pure terror. The sailor knew the dangers he risked, struggled to overcome them, but is doomed. Audience fear grows, gnaws, and numbs. Audience fear can be sudden and heart-pounding or foreboding and draining.
Pity is an emotion triggered by another’s misery. It’s hard to judge another person’s suffering. Because the well-off avoid material deprivation, they find it easier to pity the destitute than the comfortable. Aristotle realized tragedy got audiences to pity those leading respectable, even enviable lives. We cringe to see a beggar, in his miserable position. We’d leap to borrow time as a wealthy hero. We toss coins to the beggar, to pay off his bad luck. At the tragic hero’s demise our debt is canceled, a jubilee. We’re better off.
Pity was and is synonymous with mercy, tenderness, sympathy, compassion, and kindness. With Christianity’s medieval rise, these words bundled as piety. They were signs of a very religious personality. A pious person pities.
Ancient Greece’s “eleos,” pity, likewise meant mercy, tenderness, etc., but with no religious connotation. That’s how pity is currently used. It devolved from important religious behavior to ordinary acts, over four centuries. It followed piety’s decline, from a generously sympathetic person to an unthinking conventional devotee. American society no longer dignifies people who act pious. Their behavior seems self-righteous and superior, a tough sell in a materialist culture with egalitarian pretenses. Pity may be less jarring, but shares self-righteous traits.
Aristotle’s era didn’t derive pity from piety, as medieval Christians did. Eleos was a natural, even instinctive reaction to seeing someone in far worse conditions than ourselves. Aristotle found pity useful in tragedy because it was applied unnaturally, against instinct. People usually pitied the destitute, not the wealthy. Well-off tragic heroes avoid material deprivation. Tragedy got audiences to pity them anyway, in their well-provisioned lives.
Plato dismissed an audience’s pity as an emotion disrupting social order. Plato thought you project your own feelings on the victim. We see a beggar. We imagine ourselves, with our background, begging on the street corner. We’d feel shame and suffering, so we pity the beggar. To Plato, pity turns the beggar into a victim, without considering the beggar’s own behaviors that led to his debasement. Aristotle may have agreed, but the process worked in tragedy with a twist. We have to imagine ourselves as someone wealthy or noble, whom we’d normally not pity. Trying on the nobleman’s condition without envy, but as something that causes suffering, was inherently mind-expanding to Aristotle. He shared his era’s belief that higher status people were wiser than the rest.
Pity was necessary, but not sufficient, for successful tragedy. Since pity had to be purged for catharsis, Aristotle did not consider it something to protect. Tragic pity expands consciousness, it retains its inclination to forgive. But if pity impedes looking at the hero’s warts and all, that’s the very thing tragedy forces us to do. This is the tension at the tragedy’s core. We felt mercy and compassion for the individual who normally doesn’t need it, then see fates and flaws that render pity inconsequential.
But this only undermines pity, rather than purge it. If pity turns up empty handed, how is that dangerous? In the core document I locate pity’s missing element in empathy. But in alternative content I find another solution applies in modern catharsis. Check out “Another way to wring out pity” in the main document.
Empathy, when audiences project themselves into the character’s place and walk in his shoes, wasn’t conceived in ancient Greece. The word was invented in the late 19th century, for art appreciation. It got applied to audiences who imagined themselves as characters on stage and screen in the 20th. Empathy became something good performers induce in spectators. Only in the 1990s was it given scientific credence, when primate scientists discovered mirror neurons. A monkey grasps an apple and specific neurons fire in its brain. Then the monkey sees another primate grasp an apple, and its same neurons fire again. Humans have mirror neurons, too. We feel what we see other people appear to feel. Monkeys and people can almost taste the other’s apple. That’s empathy. Films and TV inundate audiences in audio-visual sensation. When virtual reality seems more real, it’s easier to empathize.
Empathy transforms pity. Imagine there’s a rule: give money to a beggar if you feel pity. The beggar’s station is low, so I feel pity and give. But empathize with a beggar, and his view isn’t mine. Empathy means you imagine standing in his shoes, looking out his eyes, with his difficulty, resignation, or contempt. Does he feel pity for his condition? There’s no way around it: I have to imagine if he pities himself. I don’t know his reality’s details, the pulls on his emotions.
Modern media and knowledge radiates audience pity and fear into varieties of empathetic experience. We know a fictional character’s struggles in detail. An empathetic audience feels character’s self-pity. Pity for others is mocked. Self-pity, however, is worse. It corrupts intentions and starves affections. Artfully produced stories let audiences walk in a pitiable character’s shoes. As consequences befall the character, audiences empathize with self-pity. Fictional punishment then stings more than just their good conscience. Self-pity lands the audience in the tragic trap.
When the prospect of hard consequences jolts them out of their revery, fear descends.
Stories can cause fear at any point, from many effects. Most ramp up audience anxiety. Simply piling on fear doesn’t trigger catharsis. B-movie horror films give boys an excuse to pull girls under their protection. These movies rarely induce empathy, nor have cathartic endings. Couples leave more nervous, but holding hands. Cathartic fear happens when the audience’s eyes open, and they’re in the wrong, the wrong place, wrong time, blindsided by empathy. We may tremble when enemies conspire, and shrink from on-screen violence. But when audiences empathize with the hero’s self-pity, we own it. Fear is transient. Fear plus responsibility lasts.
Self-pity and guilt-ridden fear are empathy’s transformation of Aristotle’s pity and fear. If a story purges them, it’s quite an accomplishment, what Catholic confession and Freudian psychology aspire to. Buddhism is supposed to achieve it through the ego’s self-annihilation, a sort of ultimate catharsis. Shawshank’s modest version pushed it atop IMDB’s greatest list. Other movies on the list charge audiences with sublime beauty or incendiary passion. Some are vast enterprises that create entire worlds, and viewers love the adventure. Shawshank effects audiences differently. It provides extended catharsis, to steadily purge audience self-pity and guilt-ridden fear.
Six themes converge for Shawshank Redemption’s audience catharsis.
- Its deep cathartic current is man’s need for friendship. Handled visually, it appears periodically and is resolved at Shawshank’s conclusion.
- 19th century German philosophers recast tragedy as social movements, then Freud explored catharsis psychology. Subjects that lead to widespread catharsis resolve deep social tensions. Shawshank’s subject, prisoners sentenced for life, addressed a major American tragedy. Convicted murderers usually leave audiences cold. Shawshank’s plot softens ’em up.
- U.S. incarceration is an analogy for an American existential crisis. In its 20th century version, existential philosophy advised struggling for distant goals bit by meaningless bit. True existential effort inspires others to overcome social anxiety and self-pity. Shawshank’s hero demonstrates existential triumph, and inspires others, including the audience.
- The most existential film genre is film noir. It’s so close to tragedy, with plots that Aristotle wanted. Shawshank riffs in film noir, to light a cathartic fuse.
- Shawshank interweaves a completely different genre, surrealism. H.P. Lovecraft tales or Luis Borges paintings shock audiences, to untether them from reality. Terrified by unknown forces, audiences calm once artists put them back in their cages. Readers feel they’ve purged rote knowledge, overcome dread, and made discoveries. Shawshank transmutes this potential catharsis into a passage between prison and freedom.
- After channeling Aristotle and Nietzsche, Sartre and Lovecraft, with a dash of Raymond Chandler (though King would deny such intellectual pedigree) the plot detours into a tomorrow’s version of catharsis. In a long epilogue, Red takes over the hero’s position, though still the audience’s point-of-view man. He follows clues, overcomes traps, and finds treasure: a game. To win he must reach the goal. It’s an unblemished vista, a gamer’s catharsis.
The IMDB Club: Generation X Male Film Buffs
IMDB’s voting pattern correlates with the preferences of American and English white males who belong to Generation X (born between the 1960s and 1980s) as found in academic surveys.
Most IMDB “top films” are in English, and produced in the U.S.. India produces more films than the U.S., and Japan, China, and South Korea together make as many. Continental Europe generates a equivalent number. Consequently, most IMDB “regular voters” are in the U.S., Canada, or Britain. 1
Each top film requires at least 25,000 votes, and IMDB systems prevent multiple voting. Statistically, that could represent up to 100 million movie-goers. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey uses a sample of 60,000 to estimate over 300 million. IMDB’s “regular voters” are movie aficionados, a fraction of North American and British adults. As a proxy for “regular voters” I use frequent moviegoers, from Motion Picture Association of America data. Although 12-24 year olds are the biggest audience group, 25-39 year olds go most frequently. One in eight go at least once a month. All told, there are around 20 million Generations X frequent movie-goers in the U.S.. IMDB’s 25,000 threshold is statistically sufficient. Shawshank, furthermore, has received a million votes.
A robust 1998 study assessed American moviegoer film preferences by their ethnicity and gender. It was before Shawshank Redemption’s climb to fame, but Godfather, IMDB’s current #2, was ranked 1st by whites, 6th by African-Americans, and 16th by Latinos. Godfather ranked 2nd among men (Star Wars was tops), but didn’t even make women’s top 25! More women than men were sampled, too.2
So IMDB’s top rated films are not universal opinions. Shawshank Redemption’s #1 rank probably represents the judgment of Anglophone Generation X white males (numbering around 65 million.) If roughly 1 in 8 of these are regular movie-goers, that’s eight million film buffs. Shawshank’s one million votes suggests a massive turnout. The movie must really motivate them.
The Great American Tragedy
26 centuries ago, Euripides (and others) “pathologized” personalities from epic myths to generate tragic plots. The flip side of a hero’s strengths were flaws, not weaknesses. Fate and human instinct, not personal choice, caused their downfall. 2,200 years later, Shakespeare’s generation drew on contentious social history rather than epic myth, and found tragedy in a free individual’s choices. After Napoleon’s citizen army swept aside Europe’s princes, 19th century thinkers like Nietzsche and Hegel saw history as mass action directed by charismatic leaders. German identity was stunted by centuries of divisive conflicts, so they wanted tragic catharsis to work on an entire population’s anxieties.
Modern reality deflated German romanticism, but mass media and mass movements make dramatic resolutions a mass event. People adored characters in “Gone With the Wind,” but it was the movie’s revised history that carried them to an emotional threshold. A generation after “Birth of a Nation” transported audiences with white supremacy, Atlanta burned to the ground. If World War II hadn’t jarred Americans into a different mindset, a final Civil War movie might have induced a better national catharsis. But a better war short-circuited it, and other films provided its catharsis.
“Birth of a Nation” topped the box-office in 1915. “Gone With the Wind,” made in 1939, is the most profitable film of all time. “Saving Private Ryan,” the ultimate WWII catharsis, was the biggest winner in 1998. Producers want a wide audience, not an elite few. The mid 20th century’s second most profitable movie was “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Inspired by an article producer Samuel Goldwyn read about returning WWII veterans, it provided millions of their families a tearful release. In Goldwyn’s celebrated neologism: “I don’t care if the film doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” Mass catharsis makes big bucks.
Prisons rank as the worst social spaces in the U.S., and reveal the nation’s deepest scars. Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote American prison conditions violate the nation’s self-image, with “a sign at the entrance for inmates saying, ‘Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.’” The government’s 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found 4% of state and federal inmates admit to being raped the previous year. The true number is higher. Long prison terms create depressed, isolated, violent communities – behind prison walls, and among those left behind. If prison life is meaningless, life sentences generate meaningless lives absolutely.
Over 0.7% of all U.S. men, women, and children are behind bars, the highest rate in the world. It’s 50% higher than Russia’s, over four times China’s. This in itself could be an explanation for Shawshank’s lofty evaluation: it’s about American exceptionalism of the worst kind. But the rise of the ‘prison-industrial complex’ affects a fairly distinct population. African-Americans make up 40% percent of prison populations, 12% outside. Almost 4% of African-American men are in prison, compared to 0.5% of white men. The figure for Hispanics and mixed-race people is around 1.5%.3
If Shawshank reflects America’s tremendous social experiment, mass incarceration, it doesn’t show its skin color. But if African-American rates are astronomical, non-Hispanic white incarceration levels are still higher that anywhere else in the world. McCarty found 30% of Americans know at least one man in prison. Being young, non-white, and male increases the odds of knowing a prisoner – but only a little. People in every walk of life say they know one.4
Shawshank portrays long sentences’ psychological impact. Time inside is bleak, violent, and inhuman.
With psychological realism, and a hero railroaded by those in power, it has the trappings of social commentary. Not so. In the 1931 classic “I am a Fugitive From a Chain-gang,” inhuman prison conditions pounded audiences with a message: this is wrong. People wept at the hero’s degradation, and directed anger at real people in real institutions. Shocked by southern conditions, the movie’s audiences demanded reform, which led to prisoner retrials and releases.
Shawshank seems unrealistic in comparison. It’s set in Maine, the least diverse U.S. state. No offense, Maine citizens, but your state is rather Canadian. It pushes into Quebec like a thumb in soft plaster. Some Mainers speak French! The town near Shawshank prison is fair, in temperament, skin tone, and mindedness. Local newspapers publish Dufresne’s documents condemning the town’s prison warden, without contacting the warden first. No “old boy’s” police network protects prison guards. Perhaps Canada isn’t cleaner, less violent, whiter, and less libelous than the U.S., but that’s its reputation. How different from the reality of “I am a Fugitive From a Chain-gang,” whose real-life prison warden sued for libel, whose state (Georgia) hunted the film’s real-life hero till he died.
Rather than fictionalized documentary, Shawshank is a hard-boiled fable. To those coming of age after the 1970s, the incarceration tidal wave made prison stories salient. Shawshank exploits that, in the natural way any good story exploits its era’s conditions.
Glued With Romanticism, then Broken
King plays the audience with a romantic theme, Dufresne as a “phantom.” Andy’s hot-blooded reaction to his wife’s adultery is chivalrous but wrong. He refuses to plea bargain, standing stoically against fate. Inside prison he soon calls the shots without drawing attention, and provides secret spirit to uplifts others. He resembles the “phantom of the opera,” a romantic drama that ended badly. Once upon a time, grand opera buildings defined nations. A phantom inside could lift or doom them. Prison is a culture-defining American institution, Andy the romantic phantom therein.
Shawshank’s romanticism is strategic. It keeps the mass market glued to the screen. Beethoven used romanticism to address a similar theme, two centuries ago. His great prison opera Fidelio illustrated oppressive incarceration, but avoids political statement, like King’s Shawshank. Beethoven’s music extolled personal sacrifice and courage, which triumphed over a prison’s tyrannical governor. Both Stephen King’s and Beethoven’s heroes are reluctant romantics, or French baguettes, crusty outside and soft within. Beethoven sidestepped the politics of vast imprisonment under republican France, even if audiences didn’t. Shawshank avoids the U.S. incarceration boom, because popular romanticism doesn’t mesh with documentary evidence. His audience doesn’t.
Shawshank begins with “sturm und drang,” storm and tension, as Dufresne slugs a bottle, loads a gun, and heads off to kill wife and lover. Beethoven used “sturm und drang” early in his career. Once the movie enters the prison orbit, Andy gradually evolves into a new man, a German romantic motif. In more mature works, Beethoven interwove minor and major keys to move from “dark and stormy” to heroic romanticism. Thomas Newman, Shawshank’s soundtrack composer, does the same thing.
Nietzsche wrote how Beethoven’s Ninth let him “float over the earth” above humanity. Thomas Mann, in the midst of Germany’s mounting fascism, heard danger instead. Romantic thunder rose “into an air no longer familiar or safe.” Sheer will power and idealism can fuel great deeds or destroy us. Andy’s best friend Red is uneasy about Dufresne’s romantic spirit. Mann warned his readers with the story of Joseph, falsely imprisoned in ancient Egypt, who became his prison warden’s financial assistant. Even as Pharaoh’s vizier, Mann’s Joseph was still a foreigner, never safe. He symbolized Germany’s Jews, who served a nation that would murder them. Andy Dufresne, the clever banker, who managed the prison’s money affairs, faced danger if he allowed his romantic spirit free reign.
Andy follows Nietzsche, not Mann. Nietzsche thought society’s catharsis needs bacchanalia to wrestle discipline. This “Dionysian” (wild and sensual) vs. “Apollonian” (order) conflict is resolved by a great individual. When Dufresne rebels, it’s not through politics, intellect, or physical force. He broadcasts a Mozart aria from “Marriage of Figaro” (perhaps the greatest romantic opera) over the prison’s loud speakers. Awed prisoners succumb to beauty. They’re frozen in position, yet filled with sublime feelings. Dufresne pulls off Nietzsche’s cathartic ideal magically, as King intends. He’s advised writers to exploit the Apollonian and Dionysian collision to generate catharsis. But this time it’s a mirage. We’re not in Vienna, we’re in Maine.
Romantics talked tragedy but struggled to reach cathartic closure. They set great plots in motion, but couldn’t pull the trigger. King uses romanticism’s bad habits to lead to Aristotle’s tragic shift: a reversal of fortune. First, Dufresne rises to importance. His sly accounting tactics enable the warden’s illegal, lucrative prison-labor scheme. He gets state funds to offer high school equivalency training and tests. Andy helps one young prisoner obtain a GED. The young man says he knows who really murdered Dufresne’s wife, his cell-mate from an earlier stretch.
It’s a Cinderella story. Andy marches forward, developing hubris, the very thing that destroys heroes. Romanticism made hubris a virtue, but it’s a tragic flaw. Prisoners warn Andy to temper hope. He’ll have none of it and makes a fatal error of judgment. As if the all-powerful warden is a friend or father figure, Dufresne confides in him. He slams head on into a reversal of fortune.
Audiences love the rich drama of romanticism. King gave them what they wanted, but used romanticism’s flaws to set up the story line’s critical junction. Aristotle would approve.
Existential Heroes and Fans
Existentialism is well illustrated by loyal fans of a beleaguered sports team. Though they face perennial disappointment, they never lose hope. They root even when the season’s lost, to keep up team spirit. These fans don’t pretend their team is champion, but believe in a plan to build one. Existentialists hope but are realistic, keep their chin up, and commit to long-term plans.
In the U.S., people used to be locked into relationships, both at home and in work. Now relationships are works in progress that get continuous scrutiny. General anxiety replaced occasional crisis. It’s all about the small stuff now. Existential heroes know that but don’t sweat.
In the post-industrial modern condition, tragedy has become existential. Life can still be noble and cursed, but it’s often without purpose. The individual’s responsibility is still to carry on. An audience is lifted by an individual’s tragic dilemma in society, when he faces it squarely. What if the face-off is no longer a sudden conflict, but a hard, endless slog? That’s a harder plot to stay interested in. Stephen King found in prison a useful analogy. It has an existential time-frame, but melodrama too.
Shawshank Redemption’s IMDB audiences know, at least unconsciously, that incarceration has carved out a new American netherworld. Shawshank doesn’t confront history directly, instead exploiting prison’s existential associations – life’s meaninglessness. It nails IMDB’s voters existential dilemmas. A life used to have religious certainty, ethnic identity, and gendered duties. Generation X males exist in a society that squeezes vitality from these beliefs. Prison is a metaphor, because it blows existential purpose to bits. Film buffs never expect to go to prison, but take a dose of Shawshank to cure post-modern blues.
Lifers are prisoners sentenced to eternity. Total loss of freedom narrows one’s mind. Most prisoners succumb to fantasy and melodrama. Shawshank’s hero, ex-banker Andy Dufresne, wills rather than whittles away life. He’s no big emoter, prefers details, and builds out a prison library to better his inmate brethren. A man of still waters, he stores thoughts deep within. He gains respect, from prisoners and the audience, as time proves his resiliency. Self-destructive thoughts undermine others, but Andy seems immune. He creates his own reality where it’s deliberately squelched, the definition of an existential hero.
Dufresne’s existential work is mostly unspoken. Silence is an existential code that allows one to wade through rotten conditions. Jean Paul Sartre, who created modern existentialism, claimed that because he couldn’t talk, he felt free in German occupied France. Occupation’s poison made “every accurate thought a conquest.” He was forced to silently think instead of talking, an illuminating experience. Under a police state that “tried to force us to hold our tongues,” there was no casual conversation, only serious thought. There’s striking similarity between draconian occupation and maximum security prison. Both demand robotic subservience, which usually distorts consciousness, but remains an existential opportunity.
Institutionalization does more than domesticate creatures. As beings lose autonomy they become masks. Life struggles to emerge. Trapped behind false faces, prisoners extrude twisted life. Unlike the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who believe flickering shadows are reality, real prisoners know they’ve lost touch. To accommodate a relationship-poor environment, long isolation spells interrupted by friction, whatever spirit squeezes between bars hardens. Lifers get a thick, reptilian skin, to maintain minimum self-worth. Some dissociate after a particular traumatic event. For most it’s like annual tree rings, habit forming. Their great trauma waits in the future, gaping jaws in the light at tunnel’s end. It’s a mammal’s world outside, where soft-skinned people generate heat with each other. An ex-lifer’s shell cracks in this rosy warm-blooded kingdom, exposing raw atrophied spirit.
The existential challenge is to keep the spirit within burning, without exposing its light to the world. This attracts an audience wrapped in the artifice of ordinary work, pursuing artifacts of ordinary life. Shawshank reminds them a light still burns inside, and it’s never too late to tend it. It promises an existential catharsis somewhere in the future.
Beleaguered fans again can illustrate. Miracles happen in sports, and when a last-place loser finally wins the championship, its long suffering fans walk on air. This is their cathartic moment, when “we can be heroes, just for one day,” as David Bowie sang. Fans who started cheering the team when it started winning don’t have this release. They haven’t built up annals of existential effort. It’s the years of tragedy, which led fans to fear hope and be ashamed of their team, that get gloriously purged.
When Andy Dufresne escapes from Shawshank, other prisoners and the audience feels this release, because we’ve been through the long haul with him. Darabont draws on an existential tool kit for this.
The 20th century was broadcast, so that history itself became living tragedy. No one came away perfectly clean. But in the U.S., the nation’s power was considered righteous.
Film noir reacted to simplistic moral codes of mid 20th century America, using black and white realism to express gray shaded morality. Classic tragic action can be noble in act one but immoral by act three. Film noir heroes navigate polluted moral currents, and the perfume in act one often stinks later on. They’re judges of guilt’s subtleties, which tragedy also trades in. In both tragedy and film noir, some offenders pay too much for their acts, others too little, but no one gets off free. Both make the audience choose sides in an imperfect world. Heroes sacrifice, which compresses audience spirit in a scary knot. The ending lets audience spirits swell like yeast.
Film noir used murder and corruption to squeeze audience sympathies, then lets truth fly. Most were more style than substance, but some, like “Casablanca” and “Maltese Falcon,” deliberately broke romantic rules to deliver cathartic endings.
After Dufresne confides in the warden, he suffers a reversal of fortune. This is the plot’s nadir, where all is lost. The audience pities Andy. The path goes straight to tragedy. You don’t have to read Aristotle to enjoy plots that build a character high, only to have him fall. Show audiences reversals of fortune, and they expect heroes to falter. Lead them on with clues, and they expect worse. Aristotle described a pattern, he didn’t invent one.
After months in solitary Dufresne looks crushed, the plot’s compressive moment. Everyone expects tragedy. The film shifts to film noir. Andy looks like Elisha Cook, the sad punk Humphrey Bogart set up in Maltese Falcon. He’s reduced to a numbers man, his head down while he runs the warden’s books. With narrator Red we worry. Then Dufresne requests a rope, shines the warden’s shoes, and retires to his cell. We’re left hanging. It’s harder to be on Andy’s suicide watch than see rapists corner him, because we share the guilt for this. The audience wanted Andy Dufresne to demand freedom, and these are his unjust desserts.
Identifying with the hero’s fate is chilling. It takes a hard solution to purge this built up pity and fear. Nature’s justice has to crush the hero, but also his enemies, to eviscerate the audience’s bad consciousness. The tragic hero doesn’t absolve our sins just by dying. He takes the slings and arrows of outrageous justice, but exacts his own. This Andy has not yet done. Something’s not right.
Next morning Dufresne has disappeared, catharsis interrupted. Film noir intersects surrealism at this point. The same events are presented twice, in different light. Both take tragedy’s elements and rework them. King slowly plays out the audience’s suspended catharsis on a taught plot line.
In film noir flashback, we watch Andy Dufresne pull a con. Con artists are perfect film noir heroes if they attack bad men. They’re liars and cheats, they steal, but it’s all good because the mark is so much worse. Morality is turned upside down, and shoes become important. “The Sting,” the penultimate con movie, opens with a shot of fancy two-tone shoes stepping over bums. That’s all it takes to define the rich mark. “The Third Man’s” cat unveils mysterious Harry Lime, by licking the shoes of someone otherwise in shadow. Andy walks to his cell with shiny black shoes on, but as Red narrates, “how often do you look at a man’s shoes?” Phillip Marlowe, film noir’s famous private eye, usually did. Their shine told him a character’s status, their tone his state of mind.
After Andy’s escape, he continues to con. We see those shiny black shoes enter a solid bank. Dufresne now wears the warden’s best suit, carried in sealed plastic during his escape. Under the warden he’d set up accounts under a fake name, to hide ill-gotten gains. Andy cons a series of bankers, knowing their lingo and looking so good. He withdraws all $375,000.
The audience is well past caring the money came from exploited prison labor. Andy deserves it so much more than the warden. The con is sweet. It’s not complete catharsis, it’s a piece of a longer one. As kid Hooker (Redford) tells veteran Henry (Newman) after they’ve finished their revenge con, “it’s not enough … but it’s close.” Film noir usually stays down and dirty. After the better side is pulled from the muck, there’s no celebration. We return to an existential equilibrium, one somehow improved. In Dufresne’s case, that’s easy. It’ll be in freedom.
Raymond Chandler, Marlowe’s creator, said a “detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” He referred to nailing bad guys. Andy mails the warden’s guilty documents to newspapers. They make headlines, the police raid the prison, and the warden commits suicide. It’s the kind of rapid chain reaction that finished off many film noirs. Justice returns, makes noise, and we settle a little cleaner. It’s important that tragic heroes, even survivors, take down some evil. Dufresne did his job.
Like Sam Spade, Dufresne weighs ethical gray zones with clever justice. His cool approach lets him evade detection and collect damning evidence. Imperfect justice, inverting morality, accomplishing something that is prohibited and hidden, these are tragedy’s elements that lead to catharsis. They are also film noir elements, which King arrays on a trajectory intermixed with H.P. Lovecraft surrealism.
Through the Beast’s Belly
The Lovecraft theme isn’t supernatural, but surreal and symbolic. There are similarities between Lovecraft’s esoterica and Jorge Luis Borges. For both, the universe overwhelms reason, time goes backwards and forwards, and symbols become reality. Dufresne’s prison escape is something worthy of Salvador Dali or other artists, who turned psychological surrealism into symbolic art.
The frustrated warden reveals Andy’s journey accidentally. He throws a stone at a Jane Fonda poster on his cell wall, and it goes right through the pin-up. She’s hidden Dufresne’s hole with little covering. The pin-up identities changed over the years, from Rita Hayworth to Marilyn Monroe to Fonda, a Dali clock. Behind them Andy chipped away decades, minute by minute.
In Lovecraft’s stories, walls split to reveal incomprehensible powers. In Shawshank, the open tunnel reveals will power, Dufresne’s. The cell wall’s hole shocks everyone. In one of the movie’s best shots, we’re in the tunnel looking back at the cell. The warden’s perplexed face slides into this oval patch, like Alice looking down the rabbit hole. He orders guards to climb in, and none will, because it leads to the prison sewer.
Metaphor is made real. Andy passed through the belly of the beast. The title of a 1981 best seller by a permanent prisoner, “Belly of the Beast” described prison’s “zoo-like” conditions that reduce inmates to animals. In flash backs, Dufresne crawls through the zoo’s lower intestines. The tunnel is dark, claustrophobic, rat infested, and nauseating. A wall of shit descends in a rush and covers him. This demonic wormhole is unnerving as any of Lovecraft’s. But Andy isn’t pulled into it, he inches forward
In “The Shining,” the Overlook Hotel was a malevolent force in itself, infecting those who pass through. The Shawshank prison was equally damning, but not from supernatural malevolence. It’s saturated in pain of human on human. There’s as much horror in this reality as fantasy, but it’s uglier. The symbolic passage at The Shining’s end is a giant maze of hedges. Shawshank’s shit-filled pipe drains a mad dungeon.
For all the calumny that King heaps upon Kubrick’s picture, Shawshank also spends a lot of time examining its big building. Overlook and Shawshank both first appear in long tracking shots, isolated under gray sky. Buildings are surreal painter M.C. Escher’s domain, who treated space as Lovecraft did time. Gravity shifts direction so that people can walk right-side up and upside down. Stairs go up and down in perpetual motion. In one such building, the creatures are no longer human, but lizard-like. Inside and out, Shawshank resembles these structures of endless processions.
Shawshank’s gray surrealism inverts interior and exterior. We remove criminals from society and send them inside. The prison is outside ordinary reality. Realism paints pictures of ordinary reality. Surrealism presents impossible circumstances realistically. A U.S. maximum security prison is, almost by definition, beyond the pale. Only a surreal perspective can present it accurately. This throws cold water on a religious interpretation of redemption in Shawshank Redemption.
Justice Kennedy’s remark, that U.S. prisons should have a sign warning “abandon hope all ye who enter,” is from Dante’s inferno. It marked where Dante found miserables sentenced to eternal pain. This is exactly what Andy Dufresne opposes. The prison is a surreal subterranean castle, not hell. It inverts and subverts human feelings with fascist staff and architecture. It’s a trompe l’oeil perpetual motion factory. The warden pretends to be religious, but runs a hideous edifice.
Andy’s existential task is to avoid the cosmic trap, where he thinks his condition is predestined. Life sentences mock the very idea of eternal life. Anyone who lives too long in prison decays into a ghoulish travesty of humanity. But no condition has to be permanent. Dufresne sheds his putrefying surface after passing beyond the prison sewer. He rips off disgusting clothes and screams for joy in hard falling rain. His catharsis discards surreal despair. We feel it too. Reality is redeemed.
In ancient Greece, playwrights intuited a toxic unconscious, hooked audiences on it, let it play, jerked them in, then removed the barb. Catch and release. Pain’s release is sweeter than heaped-on pleasures. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to appease angry gods, the only way he could lead Greeks to victory in the Trojan war. A Greek audience would approve the sacrifice. On Agamemnon’s triumphant return, however, his wife waits to revenge her daughter. The chorus expressed the audience’s pain. When she murders Agamemnon, the chorus is furious. Euripides’ play ends, however, as the chorus realizes the wife’s owns sons revenge their father by killing her. That was equally dreadful. The audience, now identifying with the chorus, stepped back from the precipice, no longer vengeful.
In the early Greek dramas the audience played a role in the action, through the chorus, which represented and behaved as typical people might. They were powerless to change the action directly, but influenced it. After the tragic hero commands audience fear and pity, his demise leads the audience to identify with the chorus instead.
Dramatic roles that served as audience representatives diminished after the Greek era. Plays were stories, not games that audiences participated in.
The greatest artistic transition of the late 20th and 21st century is the development of video games that tell stories. Players unfold them. There’s a huge gap between a fixed story told with the pretense of audience influence, and role playing games that unfold with the pretense of generating narrative. The game play’s the thing that usually stirs the blood. It’s limited to what fingers do on a controller. Good stories need themes that express ideas. Game players leave little trace of their own. They pick up stories as the game lets them.
Still, the sheer intensity of game play, which can take weeks, as well as putting the player into a character’s point-of-view, pushes emotions hard. It’s not Aristotelian pity and fear, but invested energy and anxiety. Perhaps the big limitation of video games is they don’t induce pity. Once the player reached the final goal, games usually flash a glorious paradise has arrived. Game players experience real exultation and satisfaction, a cathartic variant.
King uses a game-like scenario after Andy Dufresne escapes and disappears. Red is the audience’s voice, a modern chorus. He narrates the whole movie, an unusual ploy. Films don’t easily support narratives, because it disturbs the audience’s immersion. Shawshank is remarkable because the narrative so transparently expresses audience perspective, without interfering. As the chorus takes center stage after doomed Oedipus leaves to wander, after Andy disappears we identify with Red.
Red faces his last parole board. He’s both resigned and blunt: there’s no such thing as rehabilitation. He was, is, and will always be guilty. He’s locked up with his regrets. Red’s honesty flows from what Andy demonstrated: your situation is what you make of it. There’s nothing he can do.
The parole board grants his release. It’s not surprising, because we’ve never seen Red look so alive. We follow him out of the gates, and the final game is on. Shawshank was made in 1993, when the most popular story-driven video game was Square Co.’s Final Fantasy. Its stories take an imaginary universe and throw it in turmoil. Players put game heroes through dangers, battles, and puzzles. Their victory reestablishes equilibrium.
The prison behind us, two paths diverge in a nearby New England boarding room. The one most taken ends darkly. King had early shown us what happened to Brooks, released after serving 50 years. He entered prison in a horse-drawn wagon. He left, and 400 horsepower Ford Galaxies roar outside the boarding house. Brooks meant something in the meager prison network. He’s no one outside, and hangs himself in the room. We get it: this is a trap, like rooms in other Stephen King stories. Red must survive it.
Red passes a pawn shop that displays compasses and guns. These are tools, and the player must select the right one. He does. Red uses a compass to find the field Andy told him of, in another town. As in a video game he has clues, but seems magically directed. He reaches the end of a stone wall, and finds buried treasure, several hundred dollars and a letter from Andy. It asks him to come to Mexico.
Red violates parole and takes buses to the Texas-Mexico border. He’s discovered the key, hope.
There’s one more scene, only one shot. It shows Red walking on the Zihuatanejo beach, where Andy waits, working on an old boat. The two men see each other. On one hand this culminates the deeply cathartic sentiment of true friendship overcoming adversity. It’s also Red’s victory moment. His world is completely righted, in an idyllic long shot, a final fantasy ending.
Classic tragedy has short, hot catharsis, as doomed heroes take the guilty with them. They blow-out at 75 miles per hour. King extends catharsis for a cooler, gradual release. The hero’s fate evolves, from inevitable crunch to cosmic arc. Shawshank’s hero exercises free will that’s cruelly boxed in. As Aristotelian tragedy, Dufresne would break free, only to find he’s trapped without the people left behind. This is Shawshank’s deep theme: existential fulfillment is a mirage without true friends. But it’s reached at the end of a long, roundabout journey.
To summarize, Shawshank Redemption moves so many IMDB voters because it combines methods of achieving catharsis. Although based on Aristotle’s reading of Greek tragedy, these are modern methods that reflect sociology, politics, and mass media entertainment. Film noir provides elements of muddy morals, romanticism’s sequences stir supportive emotions. These different approaches are vastly different from ancient or renaissance genre divisions. They converge in Stephen King’s plot.
1data from Theatrical Market Statistics 2012, Motion Picture Association of America, mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2012-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-Report.pdf
2Fischoff, Antonio, and Lewis, 1998, Favorite Films and Film Genres As A Function of Race, Age, and Gender, Journal of Media Psychology, Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1998
3data from Carson and Golinelli, 2013, U.S. Department of Justice, Prisoners in 2012, December 2013, NCJ 243920
4McCarty, C., et. al., (2001), “Comparing Two Methods for Estimating Network Size,” Human Organization, 60, 28–39.