Shawshank Redemption

It’s an old chestnut: is a stage or film version faithful to its book original — or is one better than the other? With the Harry Potter films, J.K. Rowling’s insistence on close adherence to the books has made many enthusiasts rush from one to the other. In my experience, Potter buffs generally find pleasure rather than pain in spotting small differences from the inevitable trimming of book to make film. In contrast, the film and play of To Kill a Mockingbird, though well worth seeing, are poor relatives of the powerful, passionate novel.

The perfect story to choose for filming is Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a novella by Stephen King, made into The Shawshank Redemption film in 1995. For me, Stephen King is a master story teller, whatever genre he chooses. In this case, the story is not one of his typical Sci Fi/Fantasies, but pure realism, a story with the same power as dramatic historic truth. Even though the only women in the story are photographs of film stars, this film has wide appeal from its portrayal of the inner freedom which even lifers in jail can maintain.

King’s characters are deep, broad, multilayered, and engaging. The Shawshank Redemption story has a strong plot, with interesting twists on the familiar theme of prison life. The possible, but improbable ending, works beautifully in any medium, as so many readers or audience members are willing it to happen.

Film director Frank Darabont also wrote the screenplay, winning an Oscar nomination for best adaptation. He made some daring changes of detail which to me underscore and strengthen an already excellent story. The most daring change was the casting of an African-American as Red, the narrator and best friend of the protagonist. Red’s name originated from the red hair of the character in King’s novella, and one line cheekily kept in the film works superbly from the mouth of Morgan Freeman: “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish.” Freeman’s deep and dignified performance won him, too, an Oscar nomination. Tim Robbins’ performance as protagonist Andy, a banker wrongly convicted of killing his wife, was superb, though not enough for Oscar nomination.

In 2009, Irish writer Owen O’Neil and British writer Dave Johns collaborated on a stage version, also called The Shawshank Redemption, which ran successfully in Dublin and London. I aim to see any revival, having missed the original production, directed by Peter Sheridan. The authors worked from King’s original and were at pains to point out that they weren’t stealing from the film. Nonetheless, the production was wise enough to follow the film’s successful innovation, and cast an African American as Red. It is evident that O’Neill and Johns felt compelled to write the play having read King’s original. That’s understandable.

January 24th, 2010

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