BFI Classics: The Shawshank Redemption

Author: Mark kermode

Mark Kermode writes a love letter to The Shawshank Redemption in this addition to the BFI Modern Classic series. Although it’s a love letter that isn’t without bitterness, recriminations and regret.

A scene-by-scene dissection, Kermode concentrates in the main on the religious imagery in the film, invoking God, Christ and Judas comparisons with gay abandon and piling on the religious analogies. Andy is described variously as Jesus and God, as he creates people (for money laundering purposes) then is resurrected via the sewage tunnel. The Warden is Judas (patting Tommy, who could be Andy’s salvation, on the shoulder in lieu of a kiss on the cheek and sending him to his death), and Zihuatenejo is heaven “… in which all sins of forgiven”. Unfortunately the evidence provided is so superficial that it’s a flawed and blinkered interpretation, notably shown when Kermode admits that director Frank Darabont told him he didn’t intend parallels to be drawn between the roof tarring scene and the Last Supper.

More interesting is Kermode’s all-too-brief exploration of cinema as religion – “a rebellious alternative religion whose visual fantasy will ultimately triumph over the corruption of the material world”. He compares the poster of Rita Hayworth to Christian iconography and talks about the “sanctity of the silver screen” and cinema’s “ability to transport the viewer … into the endless possibilities of visual fantasy”.  Other non-religious themes discussed include a perceived homosexual edge to Red and Andy’s relationship (something which I, perhaps naively, hadn’t picked up on previously) listing coy glances, flirtatiousness and ‘a hint of arousal’ in their scenes together. Kermode also reminds us of the darkness at the heart of Shawshank – it contains some pretty graphic depictions of violence and male rape which is odd, as Kermode notes, for a film which people remember with such misty-eyed fondness.

Fans of King’s original novella won’t be disappointed as Kermode considers the differences between the source material and the finished film. He picks up on King’s numerous references to Richard Nixon and makes some interesting claims about Warden Norton as a reincarnation of the disgraced ex-president. The political angle is engaging but regrettably it’s soon dropped in favour of returning to the religious interpretation.

Kermode also discusses why Shawshank was a commercial failure initially, only garnering praise and viewers on its VHS release. There’s some appealing stuff here, but it’s a shame that he doesn’t take it further and consider the reasons for this particular King adaptation’s lasting success – with the exception of The Shining and The Green Mile, (arguably) a lot of King’s works don’t make successful leaps from page to screen.

All in all, this is a nice looking book and an easy read, which is more than accessible to readers not familiar with, or interested in, the minutiae of film analysis. Kermode writes well about the production, including trivia and interviews with the actors and crew as well as ample glossy stills from the movie and behind the scenes. Devotees of the film will lap it up, although may tire of his dogmatic insistence on a religious subtext, and will almost certainly take umbrage to his slating of the addition of the final “Return to Zihuatanejo” scene.

Emma Wilkin

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