A comparative essay I wrote for my ‘Film and Literature’ module:
Stephen Kings novella ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ vs. Frank Darabont’s ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ as an adaptation :)
Stephen King’s 1982 novella ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ tells the story of a convict named Andy Dufresne that restored hope to a fellow inmate, known simply as Red, through a series of fantastic displays of unfaltering optimism and perseverance. The novella is written as a memoir from Red’s point of view detailing the amazing story of his friend’s escape from Shawshank State Prison. It skillfully condemns the corrupt politics of prison officials and the horrific conditions in which convicts were forced to live between the 1930’s and 1970’s, whilst relaying an uplifting tale of hope, friendship and the strength of the human soul. In 1994 director Frank Darabont released an adaptation of King’s novella entitled ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, a film that earned the respect of film critics and the Academy despite its lukewarm box office success. To criticize this adaptation is very difficult, as the film itself is now broadly recognized as one of the greatest movies of all time (according to multiple online lists, including the AFI’s ‘100 years.. 100 movies’ list, at which it ranks at #72) that is to say that both the novella and the film are masterful pieces of work, however it is interesting to explore the various techniques employed by Darabont in his direction of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and the changes he made to the script to translate King’s original prose to the silver screen.
The first noticeable change in the film happens to the narrative perspective. By opening with Andy sitting at the scene of the crime and cutting to his court scene, Darabont reestablishes Andy as our protagonist. In King’s novella the first and only narrative voice we hear is Red’s, therefore the story he tells is really his own and he is our protagonist, however in the film an omniscient narrative perspective hones in on each characters experience in chronological order, as opposed to hindsight in the novella. This omniscient narrative allows the viewer to take what they see at face value, to believe that we are being presented with the facts of the story, where originally (in King’s version) this was a memoir of hearsay, gossip and personal musings compiled by Red in the first person, with no single thread of the story presented as ‘fact’. This change in the narrative perspective allows the viewer to feel more secure in their knowledge of what is going on in the plot, removing a certain element of suspense from the original, relatively questionable narrative. It also allows for the development of many characters that only play a minor role in King’s original story, freeing the perspective to allow the viewer a peek at moments that Red could not have known about or seen himself.
A perfect example of this would be the film’s expansion of Brooks character. Brooks, Shawshank’s elderly librarian, is mentioned very briefly in King’s novella to outline a point Red is trying to make about inmates becoming institutionalized. Instead of following Brooks on his journey to the outside world (which Red’s first person narrative could not possibly do) the simple metaphor of Jake, Brooks pet pigeon, being found dead in the yard is used to portray Brooks own uncertain fate and the effects that institutionalization have on any creature that is set free after a lifetime of imprisonment. This story is expanded on in the film to add emotional intensity to the stories conceit about institutionalization. Instead of the simple metaphor in the novella, Darabont presents the viewer with a heart wrenching mini story within the over arching plot, that of this kind old man, one of the only characters we have grown to really love in the film because of his unlikely displays of kindness towards Jake and his sweet demeanor, ultimately taking his own life in fear of the outside world, its advances and the freedom it allows him. Despite Brooks character featuring heavily as a sort of quiet, caring grandfather figure throughout the film we never find out what he is ‘in for’. He call’s himself an ‘old crook’ in the film, which insinuates that he was imprisoned for petty theft or embezzlement charges and also allows the viewer to remain comfortable with him and empathize with him as an old man as opposed to a hardened criminal. By following Brooks into the outside world and seeing the tragic image of a frail old man lost in the modern world and taking his own life, the audience is emotionally manipulated into feeling outraged at the system that broke him. As wonderful and emotional as this little subtext is in the film, King could masterfully evoke that realization with the very simple visual metaphor of Jake being found dead in the yard. There is something a little more tasteful in King’s original metaphor, but that is one of the biggest differences between literature and film, where literature becomes all the richer in its subtleties film must over emphasize and fantasize the point to reach the audience on the same emotional level. It is worth noting however that Brooks story in the outside world is exactly the same as Red’s when he is granted parole, apart from the ending. In King’s novella we don’t find out Brooks fate, but it lends a great deal of poignancy to the film to portray Red going through the same motions that Brooks did, to hint that the system still views all ex-con’s as being alike and puts them through the same halfway house and the same bag-packing jobs. It serves to highlight the impact that Andy Dufresne had on Red’s life, to see him standing up on a chair to scratch his name in next to Brooks after going through the exact same experiences that he did but choosing to ‘get busy living’ instead of dying.
The only real criticism that is warranted for Darabont’s adaptation of ‘Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’ is its sterilization of King’s indictment of the corruption within the prison system. For instance, in the novella Red’s smuggled goods are transported from one cell to another via a ‘screw’ (prison officer) who has been paid off with cigarettes, or a cut of Red’s earnings. In the film Brooks takes on this role, removing one element of petty corruption from the shoulders of the prison guards. Another striking omission to the film adaptation is the implication that Andy paid the guards to beat Bog’s in his cell, Darabont leaves out any mention of Andy possessing money in the prison and therefore insinuates that the guards beat Bog’s out of respect for Andy after he has given Hadley advice on his taxes. Perhaps this little discrepancy in the script came as a result of Darabont’s will to sanitize some of the details in King’s story, such as the way in which Andy actually smuggled cash into the prison in the first place. Many gruesome aspects of the story are sanitized in the film adaptation, probably because they would be far too explicit to show on screen. For instance, ‘King writes frankly about things like the necessity of putting toilet paper down your backside to absorb the blood and Andy having blood running down his legs’ after being raped by the sisters, but instead of being quite so obscene Darabont utilizes clever ellipses to imply the rape scene’s without actually depicting them. To depict even one of the many rape scenes in King’s novella true to their original description would have made ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ far less acceptable for public consumption and earned it at least an NC-17 rating, significantly decreasing its audience at the box office. Still, one would have to wonder why Darabont shied away from the more subtle hints at the prison guard’s inhumanity, such as the scene in which Andy sets up a trust fund for a guards children and the guard shakes his hand. In the novella King specifically states that the guard held his hand out to Andy and then, upon remembering that Andy was an inmate, withdrew it. These very minor moments of cruelty in the novella build its over arching sense of how alienating and lonely it is to be a prisoner and by augmenting them the way Darabont does in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ the effect is a sort of sugar coating that was not present in the original story.
To move away from criticism, many of the greatest moments in the film are owed to Darabont’s rewriting of the script. For instance the eternally memorable scene in which Andy plays classical music over the tannoy for his fellow inmates was a creation of Darabont’s that did not feature in the original story. This moment in the film is the pinnacle of our realization of the role that Andy plays in Shawshank, as the camera sweeps across the entire yard and we see hundreds of hardened criminals moved to silence and stillness by the beauty of this music we realize that Andy’s true goal is to restore inner freedom and humanity to his fellow inmates. This clever use of music to denote hope and freedom is something that obviously couldn’t be utilized in King’s novella, but when translated to film gifts such as the pieces of driftwood shaped rock that Andy gives Red in the book become richer for turning into a harmonica in the film, an audible symbol of freedom that is more transcendent than a visual representation of beauty. Music plays a huge role in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and guides the viewer through the emotional ups and downs of the characters, aiding moments such as Andy’s escape greatly by creating huge amounts of tension with both the score and the sound effects of thunder and rain.
Many aspects of the story were also changed to allow for more suspense and mystery in the film. Darabont’s script skillfully removes all of the subtle (and some not so subtle) hints at Andy’s eventual escape to keep the viewer guessing until the very end. For instance, the very name of the film being changed to simply ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ removes the admission that Rita Hayworth is somehow more important in the grand scheme of the story than simply being a decoration on Andy’s wall. In the book Andy actually explains how he has set up a fake identity for himself outside of the prison to Red, which immediately alerts the reader to his plans for escape, whereas the film very coyly outlines the fact that Andy is capable of creating false accounts and ID documents for the sake of tax evasion for the guards, but doesn’t explicitly give away the information that he has set this identity up for himself. The issue of Andy being left alone in his cell is also removed from the film by simply not mentioning, until the end of the film, that any inmates share cells at all! Even with the addition of the scene in which Andy scrapes his name into the cement in his cell (one of the guesses Red gives at the end of the original novella as to how Andy began his escape) the viewer is still completely shocked by the ending of the film. This is more than likely the reasoning behind the decision to move the poster from its originally intended position (above Andy’s bed in the novella) to the wall. Warden Norton’s discovery of the hole is far more dramatic and shocking in the film than it is in the book because of this small change to the set design. In the book the poster is on the roof of Andy’s cell above his bed, and Norton only discovers it because he literally rips the poster off in a rage, an act that would look quite unnatural on film because of how high the poster would have to be positioned. In the film however, the poster is on the opposite wall of Andy’s cell and while we are still completely unaware of how Andy managed to escape Norton throws one of Andy’s rocks through the poster. This is the ultimate moment of shock and awe for the viewer, the sound of the rock falling down the shaft and hitting the pipes below is utterly thrilling and far more cinematic than King’s original description of the discovery.
‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is a piece of cinematic gold and offers all of the trappings of a Hollywood ending that a viewer could hope for. Contrary to King’s novella Norton and the other corrupt guards are arrested at the end of the film after a wonderful twist that see’s Andy swindling them out of all the cash he helped them skim off their taxes and sending details of the entire scandal to a newspaper. One could criticize this shiny Hollywood ending for being untrue to King’s more realistic depiction of a never ending chain of corruption, but let’s be honest and admit that that wouldn’t amount to the same feeling of neatly wrapped up vengeance and justice that the cinema audience craves. The same reasoning applies to Red reading Andy’s letter in the golden hayfield in Buxton rather than over his microwavable dinner in a dank flat, it’s simply more cinematic and uplifting. While many dislike the rather corny ending that sees Red finding Andy on a beach in Mexico I believe that this was actually a tribute to the metanarrative of King’s original story, but translated for film. Where King’s novella constantly referred to itself as a construct and memoir, Darabont’s film does the same with a vague sense of irony in the ending by making the audience realize that they are watching a film, conscious of itself as a construct hoping to appeal to a mainstream audience. In my personal opinion the final scene both adds and takes away from the story. I do find this nod to King’s metanarrative amusing and admittedly enjoy a happy ending as much as the next person, but King’s ending with the phrase ‘I Hope’ in the original novella seems so much more powerful and I almost wish that the film had ended with Red’s monologue on the bus to Zihuatenejo and that hope (for both Red and the audience) that he will find Andy and find inner freedom.