Coming from the same collection as The Body (adapted as Stand By Me) and sourced from a story by Tolstoy, Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a masterpiece that as a film often makes its way into the top spot of Best Films.
Why does this story so resonate with audiences? It’s plot revolves around a man wrongly accused and sent to prison, an experience very few of us have shared and yet we can relate to the story itself. Because once again, the power of this story is not that the plot events are something we can relate to, but that what the story is about touches at the core of who we are. And reading the plot as Metaphor means it speaks to every one of us, no matter what our situation or experience. That’s what story is, that’s why it is an essential part of our DNA, that’s why we still tell them.
I’m aware I’m generalising when I say that we’ve all been in a prison of some sort or other. Those of you who haven’t have been greatly fortunate. They are prisons of fear, prisons of rejection, prisons of pain, abandonment, indifference, addiction, poverty, loneliness and on and on. We sometimes put ourselves in these places and sometimes others force us there. For each of us, regardless of the source or issue, the nature of the prison is the same. It is limitation, it is restriction, it is loss of liberty. It is order, it is predictability, it is monotony. It is separation, it is isolation, it is theft and corruption of community itself. And for many it is brutality, bullying and abuse of power.
Some fit so well into the system that they become part of it. They either become one of those asserting power over other “inmates” – like the “Sisters” who make themselves feel powerful by raping Andy – or they fit into the system by accepting it as normality – as poor Brookes does. Or they fit into the system by seeming to subvert it, as Red does with his smuggling items into the prison – yet this act itself is part of the “way things work”. This behaviour by all three groups is a symptom of the absence of hope. It’s not just that for some there is no hope of escape, or an end to the imprisonment, but that there is no hope that they will be defined as anything other than a criminal, prisoner or victim. Each group has allowed the prison (and the people who are invested in its continued existence) to not only take away their freedom, but to take away the elements that made them individuals, to take away part of their humanity – and they have no hope of regaining that. For some, the hope is voluntarily given up, for others it is torn away. For all of them, the absence of hope is what keeps them imprisoned.
Hope can redeem us from even the worst of prisons. It’s not simply the hope that our time in the prison (whatever it is for each of us) will end, but that even inside that place or situation we can live as if we are free. It’s not about ignoring our circumstances or situations, a sort of denial as it were, but about holding on to the parts of ourselves that make us different from the rocks, that make us human. So like Andy we can continue to use our creativity, to use our minds, to seek out friendship. We can still pursue art, pursue education, pursue purpose. That Andy acts as an agent for others, revealing a willingness to serve and help others is no mistake. His determination to develop the library on behalf of the other inmates and his mentoring of Tommy are a key part of “buying back” not only his own life, but the life of others. And there can be no true redemption if it is only for “self”.
It’s not overnight
Andy’s escape is 20 years in the making. It was triggered by the heartless murder of Tommy, but had always been inevitable. From day one, he had planned to get out of that prison and that had been the thing that had maintained hope in him. To dig that tunnel with that tiny rock hammer – my goodness, that is true resilience; that is the kind of “not giving up” that exemplifies real love. That kind of resolve is at the heart of hope and fuels redemption. This is my kind of tenacity and reveals the truth behind Andy’s famous words – “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’”. And above all, that kind of long term hoping is contagious. Part of dying (or becoming part of the prison system) is taking hope away from others. Part of living is giving hope to others. Get busy living my friends. Share hope, never give up.