Friday, September 24, 2004


THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994, USA, Frank Darabont from Stephen King story)

If Steven King writes your nightmares, then this is the one where they send you to jail for a crime you didn't commit. But, as in so many of his stories, King wants to do much more than scare us out of our theatre seats, and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION also charms and intrigues and inspires us.

Maybe that's why the film currently stands at #2 in the Internet Movie Database Top 250, an ongoing poll of IMDb users. A remarkably faithful Frank Darabont adaptation of King's novella "Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption," the movie lost money at the box office but went on to bag seven Oscar nominations, and by the time it was in the hands of video vendors, those golden statues that it didn't quite get and the platinum word of mouth that it did get turned it into a genuine phenomenon.

People love this movie. Christians love this movie. My first time I liked it okay, but re-viewing it in advance of its limited theatrical re-release this Friday I joined the ranks of its fans. I love the film's easy pace and the welcoming, let-me-tell-you-a-story voice of its narrator – a star-making performance by Morgan Freeman who, after a couple decades of steady work in mostly smaller roles in mostly minor films, hit big with stand-out stuff in UNFORGIVEN, then SHAWSHANK, then SE7EN. I love the agonizing tension between how bad the place is and how good the things that happen there can be. It's dark as hell inside Shawshank prison, but I love watching Tim Robbins soft-spoken banker Andy Dufresne kick at it – quietly, relentlessly, over the span of decades – until it bleeds daylight. Tim Robbins shares his co-star's ease and calm within the role, and director Frank Darabont deserves huge credit for getting performances from every one of his actors that are far removed from the melodrama and hysteria we might expect in a Steven King pot-boiler.

Of course, if that's all we expect from Mr King, we're not paying close enough attention. The central character in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) is an eleven-year-old girl lost in the Maine woods, whose hope comes from imagining herself as her hero, the gritty Red Sox relief pitcher who points to heaven after every save. We Christians who were sure we sensed something capital-T Transcendent in the story sensed right: in a letter accompanying review copies, the author wrote ”I have been writing about God - the possibility of God and the consequences for humans if God does exist - for 20 years now, ever since The Stand,” twenty-one years earlier.

He grew up poor in a series of small towns, his mom working endless crummy jobs to keep her two fatherless boys in food and clothing. He won a Bible for memorizing verses at Methodist Youth Fellowship, watched a lot of movies and spiked countless rejection slips onto a nail he pounded into his bedroom wall, proud testimony to his persistence as he submitted story after story to an endless series of pulp magazines.

Always he had an eye for the horrors and cruelties to be found in the mundanities of life around him, the maggots that bred in restaurant linens he cleaned at an industrial laundry or the soul-crushing oppression visited on an impoverished classmate when she got herself some pretty new clothes and tried to rise above her circumstances. "Someone made a break for the fence and had to be knocked down, that was all. Once the escape was foiled and the entire company of prisoners was once more accounted for, life could go back to normal." (On Writing, pg 81)

That high school episode fueled the writer's first best-seller and hit movie Carrie, the story of a girl whose torment leads to horrific, if unintentional, retribution for her tormentors – a less than divine judgement that's not proportionate or just, but which has the horrible finality of one of Jesus' more stark and startling parables: "Fool! Tonight your soul is required of you."

King's description of that episode also points to one of his central pre-occupations: a life stripped of freedom can be hell, the kind of hell you find in a prison cell. But that's not the whole story: even in such a place, hope can see a person through. The hope of freedom, freedom that's found in books and music, in hard-won ice-cold beers on a rooftop on a hot and hard-working afternoon. Most of all, the hope that works itself out in friendships, that works itself out in long and persistent efforts to make things, and to make things better.

In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Andy painstakingly fashions chess pieces out of rocks scrounged from prison workyards. He's told it's hopeless, but year after year he sends off letters to state legislators, requesting books and funds to improve the prison library (I can't help thinking of the persistent hope of that young boy, mailing off stories to editors of pulp magazines). He teaches reading, he gives free tax advice, he asks the name of an anonymous prisoner who's been beaten to death. Andy bears up under terrible oppression, becoming a favourite target of "the sisters," inmates who subject him to years of painful abuse (again, echoes of high school oppression and impossible retribution). And over the years, hope grows: in Andy, in the other prisoners, and especially in the character through whose eyes we view the story. Morgan Freeman's Red is an institutionalized man, a lifer who knows he's guilty (something most other inmates won't admit) and who has come to accept and even rely on the very prison walls that keep him from true freedom.

Viewers who aren't put off by the inescapable violence of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION may want to check out THE GREEN MILE, another Steven King prison story where the violence (and everything else, spiritual themes included) is much more explicit. Also directed by Frank Darabont, it's not nearly the film his first one was, marred by a stylistic heavy-handedness that's on its way to being as glossy and smack-you-in-the-face manipulative as 1999's THE MAJESTIC, where the director tries for Capra but gets mostly corn: it looks and feels more like an ad than a movie.

As King himself suggests, THE STAND is also loaded with things for Christians to chew on. Indeed, some reviewers who don't believe any of this stuff are quite put off by it all. It's one of those post-apocalyptic survival yarns, where the stark setting and life-and-death situations force characters to make impossible moral choices with their survival on the line. In THE STAND, those revealing decisions are clearly shown to have spiritual consequences, as people gradually align themselves with 108-year-old Mother Abigail or the demonic Randall Flagg. True King Fans tell me the big fat novel is a much better bet than the sometimes fascinating, sometimes tacky 1994 mini-series (available on DVD), but it's got its draws: watch for cameos by people like Ed Harris, Kathy Bates and even Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi.

By far the greatest film derived from a Steven King story is Stanley Kubrick's treatment of THE SHINING. Die-hard fans of the novel may be bothered by Kubrick's departure from the book at key plot points, but most film buffs agree this is a prime example of a truly great film being made from a potboiler novel (see also GODFATHER, THE). The director zeroes in on the family dynamics here, and finds the real terror: what's it like for a boy to fear his father, a wife her husband? Isolated in the snow-bound Outlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson plays an increasingly obsessive writer whose white-knuckle sobriety doesn't look like it'll make it to spring thaw. If the film isn't clearly "spiritual" it certainly ends up supernatural, but what matters here is the auto-biographical: King's life and family were very nearly destroyed by his own alcoholism, and you have to wonder whether it wasn't his recovery process that got him relying on the Higher Power who begins showing up with greater and greater frequency in his stories from then on. On Writing includes his understated account of surviving a near-fatal accident, which seems suffused with a sense that he may have been delivered from death in an almost miraculous way.

It's dodgy to try reading testimony into someone else's story – just about as dodgy as drawing assumptions about an author from the things his characters say or do, or the way his stories play out. Those who look to Steven King for the latest celebrity conversion are likely to be disappointed: as much as hope and faith, even Christian faith, are constant themes in his books and movies, he's quite direct about the whole business when he writes "while I believe in God, I have no use for organized religion." (I can't help thinking Jesus himself may have had similar thoughts, but never mind.)

But believe in God he does. Many of his stories – especially SHAWSHANK – are filled with hope in the face of horror. With a sense that evil is real, and must be resisted – but that it is mostly overcome not through magic or violence, but in the heart. The real battle against evil and despair is fought in the hard everyday decisions of ordinary, faithful people who choose not to give in.

In Dreamcatcher, one of King's most recent novels (filmed in 2003), a character talks about God, "who had crept back into his life over these last few months... who sings the lullaby, helps us to go to sleep when we’re sad and scared.” That sounds like the God I know.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies