You turn on your television in the middle of the night – you can’t sleep again – and start flipping channels. You haven’t been sleeping well lately and you’re not sure why. Yes, you’re quickly approaching your fiftieth birthday and no, you haven’t published that novel or collection of short stories. But you have friends and loved ones and a nice place to live and a job with a health plan. You should be sleeping.
You pass up on The Home Shopping Network and Seinfeld and, although you’re tempted by a maliciously voyeuristic impulse to watch a rerun of The Jerry Springer Show, you pass up on that too. And then you stumble on The Shawshank Redemption. The damned movie is always on and you’ve seen it – what, a million times? – and yet, there’s Tim Robbins telling the boys at the table that he’s innocent. It’s early in the movie, still, and he doesn’t know that’s a joke, that everyone claims innocence in the pen. You’ve known a few ex-convicts and you know real prison isn’t like that. It isn’t hokey and the men aren’t gentle. Real prison is harsh and full of humiliation and a mostly losing struggle for dignity.
You begin to wonder why this movie is so irresistible. If you’re being honest with yourself, you have to admit that the characterizations are two-dimensional. The warden is irredeemable, greedy and mean for the sake of being mean while the prisoners mostly seem unrealistically likable – they’ve learned their lesson and gosh darn it, if only they could get a second chance. Prison has turned them into the wisest uncles you never had. The hero, Tim Robbins, is guilty only of a moment of drunken human jealousy but is otherwise more myth than man, and Morgan Freeman spends the film trying to figure the guy out. He is us, you surmise, trying to decide whether to follow Robbins into life or to give up. When you really think about it, you realize the plot is a bit meandering and kind of predictable at the same time.
So why do you love this movie? Why does everyone seem to?
You go to the refrigerator and make a turkey sandwich with mayo and lettuce. If you’re going to do this thing, do it right. When you get back to the couch, Robbins is up on the roof of the prison, convincing the hardest screw ever to walk a beat at Shawshank to give his fellow prisoners a beer so they can feel more like men. He never stops pursuing beauty, you realize. Later, he plays a record of an opera singer over the loudspeaker for the entire prison and gets tossed into isolation. He says it’s worth it because the guards can take freedom away, but they can’t take away music. What does he say near the end? You either get busy living or busy dying. That’s the choice he and his fellow prisoners have.
You bite into your sandwich and think about the novel you used to be working on, the thinly veiled autobiography about your relationship with your father, and wonder why you haven’t been working on it lately. Work brings in money and a decent amount at that, but what else does it do? Is the key to the film’s appeal that it takes place in prison and all of us stuck in pin-wheeling corporate American jobs are prisoners too? You take another bite of your sandwich – you’ve put on too much mayo – and think that you’re one melodramatic son of a bitch. Besides, there are many films about prison – Escape from Alcatraz, Cool Hand Luke, Kiss of the Spider Woman and so on – and some are good and some are bad, but none seems to connect you to inner truth more than this one.
The film does have many delights. It is, after all, a movie about revenge. Robbins gets revenge on the self-interested warden and the masochistic guard, by turning in the books he’s been cooking for them for years. The bad guys get their comeuppance and never see it coming. The revenge is perfect, the way you would fantasize doing it if you could (if only your ex-landlord was a prison warden…). But bad guys get their comeuppance in lots of movies. In those movies, the good guys gloat or celebrate, they high five. Here, it’s simply a fact of the film reported by Morgan Freeman and then life returns to its old routine. With one exception.
It’s later in the film now. You should have dozed off, but of course you haven’t. It’s the moment when the warden peals back that Raquel Welch poster and discovers a giant hole carved into the wall behind it. You think back to the beginning when Freeman – a man who can get things – acquires a tiny rock hammer for carving stones for Robbins. Robbins uses that hammer over the course of twenty years, covering it with posters of whichever sexpot is fashionable at the time, to tunnel his way through solid stone and ultimately to freedom.
Now, with Robbins escaped, the men, aging (or downright old), have stories to tell each other, and you’re one of them in that moment. They have the thing that Robbins says you should never lose – hope. When Freeman is finally paroled – essentially because the board has squashed his hope – he manages, after a brief struggle to fit into society, to follow the breadcrumbs his friend left him all the way to a paradise in Mexico where the two reunite. It’s unbelievable and corny, but you want to believe in it. Everyone does.
Because this movie is about what you think when you can’t sleep, the way life seems to slip through your fingers like water. Why can’t you get this feeling to stop? Why can’t you savor your life? Where is the hope going? And then there’s Robbins and his heroic struggle. And it’s not so much that he doesn’t think about giving up – he’s human -- but that he simply does the things necessary to keep going. He digs. Robbins and his slow, inexorable escape is a metaphor for all that’s good that comes out of living. It’s that rock hammer and that wall and his will. Work steadily on something for long enough and you can free yourself. You can live in the sunshine.
When you wake – it’s hours before you need to go to work and your head feels like a steel rivet -- you have a half-eaten sandwich on your stomach and the TV is still on, some terrible morning show. You stretch your arms. You’re exhausted, but now you don’t mind. You have a reason to be awake. And you begin writing. You write just a few hundred words. But you do it again the next morning. And the morning after that. You develop a routine: 500 words a day. At first it hurts like a trip to the dentist, you practically have to tie yourself to the chair. But you keep showing up, day after day, and after a while the pain starts to give way to something else, something familiar from youth, like the day you hit a homerun with your dad in the stands, the day you pretended you were Captain James T. Kirk and saved the pretty girl next door by pretending to beat up your best friend Kevin who was pretending to be the Gorn commander, the day you wrote your first short story. A sense of joy. So you keep at it. You carve just a tiny bit of rock out of the wall and then drag the debris around in your pocket all morning until it’s time for that walk in the yard. Then you slowly drop each chunk, bit by bit, through a hole in your pocket and out your pant leg and you smile as the rubble strikes your shoes because, as it turns out, you know something no one else knows.
Jonathan Kravetz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the literary webzine, Ducts.org. His plays have been produced in New York, Dallas and Brighton, England, and he holds an MFA from Queens College.