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Movie Analysis: “The Shawshank Redemption” — Characters

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.
But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It’s important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

For this week’s movie, we go back in time to 1994: The Shawshank Redemption, screenplay by Frank Darabont, novella by Stephen King.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Dialogue
Saturday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. But seriously, if you haven’t seen The Shawshank Redemption, stop whatever you’re doing and watch it! If you have seen The Shawshank Redemption, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

I choose to look at Andy and Red as Dual Protagonists. That is you can look at the story through either of their eyes.

Archetype line-up:


Protagonist = Andy
Nemesis = Warden Norton / The Sisters
Attractor = Tommy
Mentor = Red
Trickster = Captain Hadley

Andy starts in a stark Disunity state: An innocent man wrongly in prison. Also consider these comments from the judge when sentencing Andy:

You strike me as a particularly icy
and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne.
It chills my blood just to look at
you. By the power vested in me by
the State of Maine, I hereby order
you to serve two life sentences,
back to back, one for each of your
victims. So be it.

“You strike me as a particularly icy and remorseless man.” Then consider Red’s observation when he first set eyes on Andy:

RED (V.O.)
I must admit I didn't think much of
Andy first time I laid eyes on him.
He might'a been important on the
outside, but in here he was just a
little turd in prison grays. Looked
like a stiff breeze could blow him
over. That was my first impression
of the man.

A “little turd in prison grays.” So in the External World, where he’s trapped in a FOOW (Fish-Out-Of-Water) experience — innocent man in prison — in the Internal World, he begins the story in a state of retrenchment, almost more a lump of human material — “an icy man / little turd” — than a fully evolved human being. The experience of whatever it was that caused his wife to drift away from into an affair, her death, his trial, and now his imprisonment has created this beginning negative Disunity state.

Ironically Andy’s stay in Shawshank transform him, forcing him to get back in touch with aspects of the human experience and his own core essence that cause his ‘authentic’ self to emerge: Love of the arts (music, books, chess); hobbies (carving chess pieces, upgrading the library, helping Tommy with his education); simple pleasures (listening to a Mozart opera, watching his friends drink beer on a rooftop). He also evolves to a point where he admits a basic truth, this confession in his final conversation with Red, the day before Andy escapes from Shawshank:

My wife used to say I'm a hard man
to know. Like a closed book.
Complained about it all the time.
She was beautiful. I loved her. But
I guess I couldn't show it enough.
I killed her, Red.Andy finally glances to Red, seeking a reaction. Silence.ANDY
I didn't pull the trigger. But I
drove her away. That's why she
died. Because of me, the way I am.

He admits to culpability in the failure of his marriage and turning away from his wife, the “icy man,” the “hard man to know” contributing to her seeking affection elsewhere in her affair. However I think we can quibble with Andy a bit here: She didn’t die because of the “way I am.” Rather because of the way he was. Is there any doubt in your mind that if Andy’s wife were still alive and Andy walked out of Shawshank the way he is at the end of the movie, he wouldn’t have done everything he could to love her, share his feelings with her, be fully committed to his marriage?

That’s because Andy does change, does transform over the course of the story toward his Unity state. But he doesn’t realize the full measure of his Unity with his escape. Red needs to join him in Mexico for that to happen.

The oppositional dynamic is played as a sort of tag team. We meet the prison warden (Norton) when Andy first enters prison (“Put your faith in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.”), but then he drops pretty much out of the plot until early in the second act. So the screenwriter and director Frank Darabont uses Bogs and The Sisters, their sexual aggression, to serve as a transitional antagonist role. Once they’re dispatched, almost immediately Norton is back in the picture. And if Andy’s goal is to get out of prison, Norton is the obstacle standing in the way. This is made most manifest when he has Tommy, the prisoner who heard Elmo Batch’s confession to the murder of Andy’s wife, assassinated.

Speaking of Tommy, I look at him as Andy’s primary Attractor character largely because he is a projection of who Andy was when he entered Shawshank: An unformed mass of human potential, someone who while making some mistakes on the outside, doesn’t really deserve to be in the type of correctional facility Shawshank is. He’s also separated from his wife and child — and perhaps Andy projects a “what could have been” for himself emotoin into his understanding of Tommy. In any event, as Red observes, “He [Andy] really liked the kid.” So when Tommy is killed, in the External World, Andy loses Tommy’s testimony re Elmo Batch, which means he has no legal recourse to get out of prison. But in the Internal World, there is another emotional response to Tommy’s death: It is the devastating experience of seeing something Andy had nurtured — Tommy’s growth intellectually and emotionally — get crushed by the Norton and the system. The combination of that contributes directly to Andy deciding to escape.

I think Red functions as Andy’s Mentor. Red is the man “who’s known to get things.” He understands the ways of prison life; indeed Red is the one who tips off Andy about The Sisters’ sexual interest in Andy. Red acquires for Andy the basic tools by which Andy digs his way out of prison — the rock hammer, movie posters. Red tries to counsel Andy to not get caught up in hope, a position that reflects Red’s own Disunity issues, so in that moment, Red functions as a ‘negative’ wisdom, a shadow or dark mentor, helping to confirm in Andy that hope is all there is in this prison, hope is theonly thing Andy can cling to in order to survive. Finally, Red is the character Andy reaches out to again and again to explain what he’s doing (how he cooks the books for Norton’s extortion scheme) and where Andy is with his own emotional transformation (most notably, his final ‘confession’ scene with Red the day before he escapes).

And the Trickster? The hulking prison guard Hadley. He is clearly a threat to Andy, but once Andy wins him over, offering to handle Hadley’s financial dealings, Hadley is the character who disposes of Bogs by beating him to the point Bogs is confined to a wheelchair and moved to another facility. Hadley puts up with Andy’s efforts on behalf of the library, but also busts him during the whole Mozart opera shenanigan. And most importantly, Hadley provides one of the biggest tests for Andy — by pulling the trigger on the rifle that kills Tommy. All that fits a Trickster character.

That’s my take on Andy as a Protagonist. We can also look at the story through Red’s perspective as a Protagonist — making them in essence Dual Protagonists.


Protagonist = Red
Nemesis = Institutionalization
Attractor = Andy
Mentor = Brooks (dark wisdom / suicide)
Trickster = Freedom

Looking at Shawshank through Red’s eyes as the story’s Protagonist shifts everything — including the various character archetype functions.

As a Protagonist, what is Red’s Disunity state? Simple. He has a heart, a brain, a pulse, so in the most basic sense of the word, he is ‘alive,’ but when we meet Red, he is a man who has given up hope. Witness this exchange between Red and Andy after Andy has emerged from solitary confinement after the Mozart opera sequence:

That there are things in this world
not carved out of gray stone. That
there's a small place inside of us
they can never lock away, and that
place is called hope.RED
Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
man insane. It's got no place here.
Better get used to the idea.

“It’s go no place here.” Red’s Disunity is he’s alive — but hopeless, stringing out his days in prison with no exit strategy other than his eventual demise.

What has squashed Red’s hope? What has turned him into such a cynic? This character is his Nemesis, standing in the way of Red and the goal he shares with all his fellow inmates: Getting the hell out of Shawshank. And who is keeping Red from that goal? Red confesses the truth when he tries to explain why Brooks (James Whitmore) freaked out when told he was being let out of prison:

Believe what you want. These walls
are funny. First you hate 'em, then
you get used to 'em. After long
enough, you get so you depend on
'em. That's "institutionalized."

Institutionalization. That is Red’s Nemesis. The daily grind of trying to survive in prison has forced Red to accommodate himself to his environment. He knows prison life, he knows Norton, Hadley, the prisoners, the very walls of Shawshank; in fact, he knows all of it so well that he is the go-to guy to procure what people need (“a man who knows how to get things”). And the most telling line in his ‘confession’ above is this: “After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em [i.e., the walls].” Does that sound like a man who is taking up the battle against his Nemesis? Instead it feels like Red has given up — or nearly so. The Nemesis — institutionalization — has ground down his hope to the merest wisp of a flicker suppressed deep down inside his dark soul.

Enter Andy — Red’s Attractor. If Red personifies cynicism and hopelessness, Andy determines to cling to hope. So if we were to examine Red’s relationship with Andy, in the External World, Red “liked Andy from the start,” became curious about this most different inmate as he procured his rock hammer and poster of Rita Hayworth, finagled suds on the roof for Red and his fellow inmates, and played Mozart over the prison P.A. system. But in the Internal World, their inter-dynamic is all about hope: Will Red respond to Andy’s clarion call to claim hope, cling to it for everything worth living, or yield to the ever-relentless life-sucking power of Shawshank’s walls and institutionalization? In other words, is Red’s ‘attraction’ to Andy and what he represents (philosophically) greater than Red’s hopelessness?

Into this mix comes Red’s Mentor character: Brooks. Brooks who Red understands, a fellow patient afflicted by insititutionaliztion. Brooks achieves Red’s ostensible goal — freedom. And what does Brooks do? He can not cope with life ‘out there,’ and commits suicide. Why is Brooks Red’s Mentor? Because Brooks carves a path for Red, indeed the very same town, the very same room, and the very same job that Red experiences later when he’s set free. Brooks’ suicide is the act of a Dark Mentor / Wisdom, a projection of Red’s own cynicism — if Red has really given into hopelessness, why not kill himself — offering one way to resolve things.

And Red’s Trickster? Freedom. He finally gets what he wants — leave Shawshank. But like Brooks, he can not handle life outside those damn prison walls. He is tempted to follow Brooks’ path except for one thing:

INT -- RED'S ROOM -- NIGHT 288Red lies smoking in bed. Unable to sleep.RED (V.O.)
Terrible thing, to live in fear.
Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all
too well. All I want is to be back
where things make sense. Where I
won't have to be afraid all the time.He glances up at the ceiling beam. "Brooks Hatlen was here."RED (V.O.)
Only one thing stops me. A promise
I made to Andy.

At that existential pivot point in Red’s life — accept the hopelessness which has been his consort all those years in prison and follow the path of his Dark Mentor Brooks toward death or believe in Andy enough to claim the tiny flicker of hope sputtering inside his soul — Red opts to follow Andy. Freedom provides the ultimate test. And it comes down to: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

Red chooses the way of his Attractor — Andy. He chooses hope. In fact, here are the last lines of dialogue in the movie:

RED (V.O.)
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.
I hope.

“I hope.” Therein marks the end point of Red’s transformation: From hopelessness to hope. His reunion with Andy on that beach in Mexico signifies the beginning of his Unity state. In a battle for his soul, his Attractor (Andy) helped Red defeat his Nemesis (Institutionalization) and the call of his Dark Mentor (Brooks).

The Shawshank Redemption.
The story of two Protagonists.
Each with their own transformation arc.
Each intertwined together.

And one of the great movies — and screenplays — of all time.

What are your thoughts about the characters in The Shawshank Redemption? Head to comments and share your insights and observations.

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