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How The Shawshank Redemption Became Beloved

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A giant dud in the theater, but a critical favorite over time. I had never heard the phrase "guy cry" movie, but this defines the genre.

The key to it being a great movie is the script.

Today The Shawshank Redemption tops the IMDb’s Top 250 cinema-favorites list with more than a million votes, having passed the previous champ, The Godfather, in 2008. (While The Godfather—trailing by 300,000 votes—has maintained its runner-up position, Citizen Kane, the perennial greatest movie ever in critics’ polls, whispers “Rosebud” from No. 66.) Readers of the British movie magazine Empire voted The Shawshank Redemption* No. 4 in a 2008 list of “the 500 Greatest Films of All Time,” and in 2011 the film won a BBC Radio favorite-film poll.

Morgan Freeman relies on less empirical evidence. “About everywhere you go, people say, ‘The Shawshank Redemption—greatest movie I ever saw,’ ” he told me. “Just comes out of them.” Not that he’s a disinterested observer, but Tim Robbins backs his co-star: “I swear to God, all over the world—all over the world—wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life.’ ” Even the world’s most famous former prisoner connected with the movie, according to Robbins: “When I met [Nelson Mandela], he talked about loving Shawshank.

How did a period prison film running 142 minutes—a life sentence for most audiences—become a global phenomenon capable of rankling a world superpower and stirring a Nobel Peace Prize winner? To borrow a quote from Shawshank, “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes, really. Pressure and time.”


Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said some version of “To make a great film you need three things: the script, the script, and the script.” Robbins says of Darabont’s finished adaptation, “It was the best script I’ve ever read. Ever.” Freeman repeated a variation of that accolade—if not the best script, certainly among the top.

Completed in an eight-week writing jag, Darabont’s script had the good fortune to land on the desk of a filmmaker with “a prison obsession”—longtime Castle Rock Entertainment producer Liz Glotzer. “I like reading about prison for some reason,” she says. “Any script that came in that was a prison movie, [my co-workers] would say, ‘Oh, Liz’ll read it.’ ”

Prison films date back to Hollywood’s earliest days, and the genre includes such landmarks as The Big House, Cool Hand Luke, Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz, and Bad Boys. But prison films have never been on the list of reliable moneymakers, which made Glotzer’s threat to quit if Castle Rock didn’t makeShawshank all the more nervy, but her passion had been stirred by her emotional response to Darabont’s script, becoming so engrossed in it she “didn’t want to finish reading.” Echoing Robbins and Freeman, she says, “It was the best script I’d ever read when I read it.”

I just cannot see Tom Cruise in the lead role. Tom Hanks turned down the role, too.

Luckily for her, director Rob Reiner—a founder and “godfather of the company,” according to Darabont—“flipped” for the script. Reiner then made the screenwriter an offer almost no one would refuse: a rumored $3 million to direct Shawshank himself.

The figure was “something like that,” says Darabont, before pausing to “set the record straight . . . I’ve read so much speculation through the years, and now with the Internet every asshole who doesn’t know crap knows everything. I’ve heard versions of this where there was some power struggle over the script and the truth is incredibly simple.”

Reiner had himself mined Different Seasons and struck a vein when he turned the novella The Body into 1986’s Oscar-nominated Stand by Me. By the 90s, Castle Rock—formed after Stand by Me’s success and named for the movie’s fictional town—had a string of hit one-sheets on its office walls, from When Harry Met Sally, to another Reiner adaptation of yet another King story, Misery. Coming off the success of 1992’s A Few Good Men, Reiner saw that film’s star, Tom Cruise, as Shawshank’s Andy Dufresne. Though Darabont was attached to direct his script, Castle Rock asked if he would consider this alternative: “A shitload of dough,” according to Darabont, in exchange for allowing Reiner to make the movie with Cruise.

Darabont, who had been born in a French refugee camp for Hungarians fleeing the 1956 revolution and subsequently grew up poor in L.A., was tempted. “In my struggling-writer days, I could barely meet the rent,” he says. TheShawshank payday, whatever its precise number, would have put Darabont at the top of a profession he’d been “trying to achieve membership in for a lot of years.” Glotzer confirms Darabont was “completely tormented” by the offer. As if to turn the screws, Castle Rock said it would finance any other movie he wanted to direct if he ceded to Reiner. Surprisingly, though Darabont was only 33, philosophical thinking won out because, he says, “you can continue to defer your dreams in exchange for money and, you know, die without ever having done the thing you set out to do.” Still, the decision to direct the film himself was “nerve-racking. People get fucked in this business all the time. Contractually, [Castle Rock] could fire me after the first meeting, say I wasn’t hacking it, and, oh, gee, we’re just going to bring in Rob Reiner.”

Like Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life, Shawshank benefited from lots of repeat broadcasts.

It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz—the most viewed film of all time, according to the Library of Congress—followed similarly erratic paths into America’s psyche. Both were box-office disappointments that were defibrillated by TV reruns. And like The Wizard of Oz’s “There’s no place like home,”Shawshank quotes are now part of the beloved-dialogue lexicon. “It’s always, ‘Get busy living or get busy dying,’ ” says Freeman. “That must be the one that resonates the most. You know, are you going to do something about your life or not?” That mantra alone has inspired everything from T-shirts and tattoos to pop songs and sermons.

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