Why The Shawshank Redemption Works For Everyone Who Watches It.
Shawshank Redemption is undoubtedly one of the best movies to have ever been made. IMDb ranks it #1 on their best movies of all-time list. But what is it about this movie that makes it so great? Why does almost everyone have such an incredible sense of affinity towards the movie?
All of us come from different places and backgrounds. We’ve all grown up around different people and have unique experiences. Hence, it is only natural for all of us to be drawn towards different kinds of stories. Some prefer watching Rom Coms, while some enjoy Thrillers. While some prefer watching Dramas, others like Horror. While no movie can be slotted into 1 genre exclusively, we are all drawn towards one overarching theme of a story. So, while some people love watching Avengers, others like Taxi Driver. While some like Tamasha, others like Dabangg. But Shawshank Redemption somehow manages to elude this. It makes an impression on almost anyone watching it. This universal appeal is perhaps the hallmark of a great movie.
But what really makes the movie click? Let’s find out.
On paper, Shawshank Redemption isn’t all that likable. Viewers enjoy watching protagonists who have interesting jobs (see: James Bond) and lead glamourous lives. In our case, the protagonist Andy Dufresne is a banker. To make matters worse, he isn’t fun and aspirational. In fact, he’s cold and lacks empathy (which also leads the jury to wrongfully convict him for his wife’s murder). The story is set in a prison, an establishment most of us have never set foot in. The movie also is a commentary about the American prison system, something which is a niche, to say the least. But despite all of these things pulling it back, the movie successfully finds its way towards redemption.
To take a closer look at the events in the story and what they trigger in us psychologically- let’s look at one of the most popular models in human behavior- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory suggests that all human needs can be categorized into one of five brackets. These needs are namely- physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization needs.
Source: Simply Psychology
A movie like Tamasha is primarily geared towards fulfilling its protagonist’s self-actualization needs. Whereas, a movie like Crazy Stupid Love fulfills the love and belonging needs of its characters. Shawshank Redemption, on the other hand, masterfully presents itself as a movie which fulfills maybe one or two of these needs but ends up fulfilling them all- giving different kinds of audiences a little bit of all that they need. Here’s how:
(Source: One Perfect Shot- Twitter.com)
When Andy Dufresne arrives at the Shawshank Prison, we immediately know the danger he is in. The inmates, including Red, even bet on him breaking down on his first night in the prison. Andy comes from a sophisticated and well-to-do background. It is clear to us that even his basic needs may not be met at this place. Not to mention the constant fear of death that looms over the head of the protagonist in the form of the sisters. He is raped and beaten up by them on more than one occasion. All of this presents the movie as an underdog’s fight to survive; in turn, making all of us root for Andy.
Source: Belly Up Sports
Safety and security in the Shawshank prison was a consequence of the whim of Warden Norton, the guards as well as the inmates. At no time do we feel that any of the inmates are safe. And even if we do feel so for a couple of minutes, something happens in the movie which proves otherwise. Constantly putting Andy in isolation by the Warden and the guards makes the viewers wary of any sense of comfort, and them on their toes at all times. Even the eventual shooting of Tommy orchestrated by the Warden makes us aware of the lack of safety in the prison. Hence, when Andy escapes all of this, we feel his joy and true liberation.
Love and Belonging Needs
The best example of this is the friendship between Andy and Red. From being acquainted in the beginning of the movie, till the meeting in Mexico at the end- this relationship speaks to the part of us which seeks companionship. Hence, we feel an incredible amount of catharsis when Red reads Andy’s letter about hope- and eventually meets him in the last frame of the movie.
Brooks’ storyline also offers an interesting case study in respect to our need of belonging. Humans want to feel like they are a part of a community. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something as common as a workplace, or as grim as a prison. Brooks’ story reminds us how important the people around us are, and makes us appreciate those people in our lives.
Source: Illustrated Fiction
When Andy helps one of the guards with his tax problem and scores his friends a cold bottle of beer- it is the first time we see him gaining confidence and fulfilling his esteem needs. This makes him stand out from the rest of the prisoners and makes him appear aspirational. Further, his persistence to write letters to the Senate in order to build a library furthers this theme.
Even helping inmates like Tommy finish their high school diplomas- portrays Andy as someone to be respected. And finally, after Andy’s escape when we realize that he had outwitted Warden Norton, that furthers the esteem of Andy- and leaves us in awe of him (much like the feeling that Frank Abagnale left us in Catch Me If You Can).
Andy starts the movie as a lifeless banker, who cannot love his wife the way he wants to. His stint at the prison teaches him what is truly important in life. All of us have instances, where we want to escape our everyday mundanities and move to a beach in Mexico. Andy actually realizes this dream but does it with so much more gravitas. Even Red’s journey of rehabilitation shows his transcendence above all unimportant and materialistic things (ironic given his reputation of being able to source things for the inmates). Ultimately Red, just like Andy, begins to believe in the power of hope.
So, no wonder this movie satisfies all the needs of different audiences from around the world. It has been successful in providing moments of joy and laughter to millions and will continue to do so over for future generations.