It's About Hope
Though set in a prison, The Shawshank Redemption is, ironically, an optimistic movie. Sometimes it's easy to tell what a movie's underlying theme is - the characters just up and tell you. In 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, a conversation between Red and Andy tells us that the story is about hope.
Hope may seem like a strange thing to be looking for among the lifers in prison, but finding things in strange places is like an unexpected gift.
As the movie poster says, "Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free."
Sentenced to Life
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) arrives at Shawshank Prison in Maine in 1947, sentenced to two life sentences for the murders of his wife and her lover.
Andy is unusual among the prison population. A cultured, well-educated bank vice-president. And something else. Everyone in prison says they're innocent, but Andy is telling the truth.
Shawshank is a dangerous place. A prisoner can be beaten to death at a guard's whim, without repercussions. The "sisters" like fresh meat, especially if they fight. None of the old timers expect Andy to last very long.
From Laundry to Library
But Andy is tougher than he looks. Befriended by old-timer Red (Morgan Freeman), who is also the occasional voice-over narrator, Andy makes a life for himself in prison. His knowledge of finance causes the authorities to move him from the dangerous laundry to work in the pathetically rundown prison library - to give Andy better surroundings to help the guards with their income tax returns and setting up education funds for their children.
Here Andy meets Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), who provides a frightening object lesson about prison and freedom. Brooks has been in prison for fifty years, and is finally paroled into a world that he is incapable of living in. Bewildered and lost, Brooks hangs himself at the halfway house.
Red and Andy
When Red first showed up in the movie, I was afraid he was going to be the 'miracle negro', a now-trite plotting device in which an African-American character is created for the sole purpose of impacting the story's protagonist by means of his saintliness or wisdom. But Shawshank turns that convention on its head.
Red has given up. He's been before the parole board countless times, and rejected again and again. Hope, he tells Andy, is the most dangerous thing you can have in this place. Red is just existing, keeping his head down. He admits he's been 'institutionalized'.
Andy dares to dream. Hope, he tells Red, is the one thing they can't take away from you.
Persistence and Patience
Andy doesn't just dream, he takes action. He wants to see the prison library expanded, and finally sees that dream come true. All it took was a letter to the state legislature. Every week. For six years. Andy helps the inmates complete their educations, get their GEDs, make themselves more employable when they are released.
He also helps the corrupt Bible-quoting Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who creates the prison work gangs program that is such an ideal atmosphere for graft, skimming, and kickbacks. Andy's financial knowledge helps the Warden hide his ill-gotten gains.
That assistance comes back to haunt him, because when a new prisoner enters Shawshank with information that could help Andy exonerate himself, the Warden can't possibly let Andy go now. The hapless informant winds up dead, leaving Andy to realize there's no way to work within the system - now he must both escape from Shawshank and see that Warden Norton gets what he deserves.
Nineteen years in prison, but Andy has been working toward the day of his escape since he arrived.
The Shawshank Redemption Credits
The Shawshank Redemption was directed by Frank Darabont, who also wrote the screenplay, based on Steven King's short novel Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption.