The unlikely greatness of ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ 25 years later

THE WASHINGTON POST

By Zachary Pincus-Roth August 29

25 years later, people are still watching ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ Here’s why.

MANSFIELD, Ohio — In the lobby of the Renaissance Theatre, Justin Tedders lifts his T-shirt: A poster for “The Shawshank Redemption” is tattooed across his entire back. The movie’s phrase “Brooks was here” is just above his right butt cheek.

The 34-year-old from Barbourville, Ky., a loader at a Walmart distribution center, beat out other Shankheads to be second in line at a 25th-anniversary screening here two weeks ago, part of a three-day celebration in and around the prison where the movie was filmed. His obsession with movies is a safe way of channeling an “addictive personality,” he says, and any time he’s in trouble, he returns to “Shawshank.” “It’s given me a purpose,” he adds. “My back represents what it means to me. I can’t really tell you what it means. I can show you what it means.”

What does this movie mean? In its 25 years, as of next month, “Shawshank” has emerged as an unlikely entry in the contest for the most beloved movie of all time. It’s not a family saga like “The Godfather,” or a geopolitical romance like “Casablanca,” or a technical masterpiece like “Citizen Kane” — just a box-office also-ran about two prison friends. It’s too sappy, some might say. It’s too neat. It’s basically an all-male cast. It’s not quite at those other movies’ level, but it’s not quite not at their level, as it’s spent the last 11 years as the No. 1-rated movie on IMDb. It somehow found the right alchemy of hope and friendship and, of course, redemption — with an ending so cathartic that, yes, this story still requires a spoiler alert. And it’s moved fans to make pilgrimages to this town in Ohio that once pretended to be a town in Maine.

At the Renaissance Theatre in Mansfield, Ohio, cast and crew gather for a panel before an Aug. 16 screening of “The Shawshank Redemption,” part of a weekend of events celebrating the film’s 25th anniversary. (Destination Mansfield)
When writer-director Frank Darabont read the original Stephen King novella, “it felt like a perfect metaphor for every hardship I ever endured,” he recalls, standing outside the theater.

Rob Reiner’s company Castle Rock offered Darabont about $4 million if he’d hand over his script adaptation and let Reiner direct it with Tom Cruise as the star — but he refused. He had made a TV movie and written scripts like “Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” but “Shawshank” “was the one I didn’t want to let get away,” he says.

His script built the bit character Brooks into a symbol of how prisoners can become dependent on their walls. He mushed three wardens into one, to focus his villainy. And when an executive suggested a final reunion on the beach, he eventually agreed the audience had earned it.

Tim Robbins prepared to play Andy by spending a few hours in solitary confinement and staring at a tiger in a zoo. Morgan Freeman, while playing Red, says he pretty much just spoke the words on the page. “Be as true as you can to the lines,” he notes. “No philosophizing.”

Robbins and others felt it was the best script they’d ever read — “I mean, you know, not counting Shakespeare,” he says — but the set didn’t exactly conjure Stratford-upon-Avon. Some felt Darabont’s inexperience showed and the number of takes got out of hand. In the beach scene, Freeman fought hard not to be playing the harmonica.

Director Frank Darabont: “Mostly every day on the set what I was thinking was, gee I hope I’m not screwing this up too badly.” (Destination Mansfield)
“Shawshank’s” theatrical demise is infamous, as it earned just $28 million domestically on a $25 million budget. It got seven Oscar nominations, losing to the likes of “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction,” but it bested them to become the top-rented movie of 1995. Ted Turner started blasting it all over TNT and TBS, where it’s aired more than 100 times, says Michael Quigley, the networks’ executive vice president of content acquisitions and strategy, helping it become one of the few movies “made by cable.”

“Shawshank” works particularly well on a small screen. It’s a relationship study with few vistas or intricacies, and no human being who’s seen it before can change the channel before the final payoff. Urban Dictionary even has a term for “the condition of having been sucked in by a highly watchable movie while channel surfing”: Shawshanked.

The film has made a number of best-of-all-time lists: AFI’s updated top 100 movies (No. 72), an Empire magazine poll (No. 4), the Writers Guild of America’s greatest screenplays (No. 22). But “Shawshank” transcended mere eyeworm status when it hit No. 1 on IMDb in 1997. It fell to second place for much of the aughts (typically below “The Godfather”), before reclaiming the title in 2008, eventually racking up 2.1 million votes.

IMDb founder Col Needham says IMDb helped its popularity snowball because it “arrived at the perfect time when people were starting to discover great movies and shows to watch via these early online communities.” And while Needham acknowledges that the site’s raters tend to be male, among those who provide their gender, “Shawshank” gets a 9.2 from women and a 9.3 from men.

It’s still hard to ignore that the only female speaking roles are a bank teller and a grocery customer, plus Andy’s wife, if you count moaning as speaking. “Shawshank” is probably the rare film whose score on the Bechdel test, a measure of female representation, is a negative number. (The 2016 book “The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World’s Favorite Movie” points out the many ways “Andy is a feminine representation cut loose and undermining an exclusively masculine domain.”)

“I always think of this as a love story — two men who just totally bonded,” says Freeman, right, with Robbins. (Sportsphoto/Alamy Stock Photo)
Desson Thomson, whose Washington Post review was one of the few lukewarm ones, says the movie fit the trope of African Americans “seen as always helpmates.” Overall, the film “felt a little begged and borrowed, secondhand.” He hasn’t seen it since, but its iconic status has given him pause. “It made me think to myself: I just missed something.”

Everyone has a theory behind its popularity. “I always think of this as a love story — two men who just totally bonded,” Freeman says. “At the very end of the movie, when they hook up — it’s complete.”

“That friendship doesn’t involve car chases or skirt chasing or typical buddy movie kind of things,” Robbins says. “These different characters grow based on the relationship with each other. It’s a rare thing — not a lot of movies like that.”

There are other areas to pan for meaning. Andy is a messianic figure — in the rooftop scene, he’s surrounded by 12 beer-drinking “disciples.” But Andy doesn’t use religion; he saves others through the prison library, and himself through a movie poster. He rebels by playing Mozart over the loudspeaker. On the podcast Unpooled, Amy Nicholson (an occasional Post contributor) points out that he fights off a rapist by smacking one with a film reel. “This is a movie about how art saves the soul,” she says.

It’s enough of a fairy tale to allow for various projections — like when sportswriter Bill Simmons used the film to explain the cursed Boston Red Sox.

“We’re all stuck, in some measure — some by choices we make, some by life circumstance, some by tragedy,” Robbins says. The film asks: “What does it actually mean to be free — and what is that life fully realized?”

The Ohio State Reformatory, where much of the film was shot. Now it’s a tourist attraction, with tours, a Shawshank museum and a gift shop. (Zachary Pincus-Roth/The Washington Post)
Mansfield was once a town for Westinghouse and General Motors. Now it’s a town for Shawshank.

Its Ohio State Reformatory opened in 1896 with the goal of rehabilitation, explains Thomas B. Clark Jr., the resident Shawshank specialist. “Embedded into the brick and mortar is hope,” he says. But it became a maximum-security prison, closed in 1990 and was slated for destruction before the “Shawshank” shoot was its own redemption, turning it into a tourist attraction with more than 100,000 annual visitors.

It’s now part of the “Shawshank Trail,” which guides visitors to 14 other area filming locations, bringing in $16.9 million in revenue last year. Also in town is a candy shop, Squirrel’s Den, which created chocolate dioramas of the movie’s halfway house and beach scene. It displays photos of Barack Obama peering over them — the president told the clerk that the beach scene makes you want to cry. A local running store holds an annual Shawshank Hustle 7k that streams forth from the prison — if you beat the jogger dressed as the warden, you’re entered to win a pair of shoes.

At the 25th-anniversary celebration, 15,000 fans attend panels, tours, a jazz-band party and a cast autograph session that spills past three hours. The prison debuts its Shawshank museum, which holds artifacts like the tin Red digs up under the oak tree. (You can buy a tiny version in a gift shop.) At one point, Darabont pulls out a prop rock hammer to donate and bestows it on the curator, who bursts into tears.

Freeman and Robbins can’t make the celebration. But there’s the convict who says “When do we eat?” There’s Alfonso Freeman, Morgan’s son, who played an extra and got to bond with his dad. There’s the actress who plays Andy’s wife and the actor who played her lover, for just a few seconds on screen, hanging out at a bar late into the night.

There’s Brad Mavis signing copies of “Rita the Shawshank Dog,” about an extra who adopted a stray he found on set. There’s a table selling keychains and rock hammers carved from the movie’s oak tree, which fell victim to wind and lightning.

Justin Tedders shows off his tattoo of the 10th-anniversary poster art by Drew Struzan. (Zachary Pincus-Roth/The Washington Post)

The Squirrel’s Den candy shop in Mansfield displays dioramas of scenes from the movie. (Zachary Pincus-Roth/The Washington Post)
Everyone wants a bit of that Shawshank magic. Especially the fans.

Melinda Hammond, a 45-year-old mom from Simpsonville, S.C., wears a denim jacket smattered with “Shawshank” patches. She cross-stitched a replica of the sign over the warden’s safe — “His judgement cometh and that right soon . . . ” — and gifts it to the actor, Bob Gunton.

“I’ve had butterflies all weekend,” says Jennifer Eglinton, a 51-year-old IT consultant who flew from Watford, England, after a fight with breast cancer convinced her to check the prison off her bucket list.

Darabont once heard from a fan who dropped out of college, ballooned to 350 pounds and considered suicide, but the movie made him turn his life around. Another who had ALS wrote a Newsweek essay about how his body was his Shawshank, and the movie motivated him to find ways to tunnel out. Nelson Mandela once told Robbins that the film’s depiction of incarceration hit home — as did its message that hope can heal.

That’s what Andy tries to convince Red of, that “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” “Shawshank” inspires faith in the survival of many good things: knowledge, art, justice. It wants us to believe that a best friend is forever. That walls cannot confine you and do not define you.

Saying “Shawshank” is my favorite movie once felt like revealing an offbeat secret — before it became our collective favorite, and it felt like a cliche. But the true Shankheads in Mansfield fully embrace their devotion to a thing that is great, and good.

Before the screening, as Darabont chats outside the theater, a bystander hawking a comedy show discovers the director’s identity and says he heard that “Shawshank” was the best movie in history.

“Aww, that’s sweet,” Darabont responds. “I’m not sure I believe that. But I’ll take the compliment.”

“The Shawshank Redemption” returns to theaters Sept. 22-25.