The past two years has brought us a new curse word that transcends boundaries, that unifies any conversation through shared sorrow and pain. It’s a very useful word, accompanied by a shake of the head and downcast eyes. I’m very sorry to use it here, and it may get edited out, but you know you’ve likely used it a few times this week already in conversation. Ok, ready for it…? You were warned…
Yeah, I know. I shouldn’t announce it so dramatically. But I refrained from using it three times like Beetlejuice… so hopefully, it doesn’t appear.
Anyway, this wretched number, while not the worst year in recorded history (go look up 526, 1347, or 1665/66), is certainly something bad in our lives, so I decided on Thanksgiving that I needed to pick something uplifting to watch with the family while the turkey and stuffing settled into the old digestive system.
And no, I did not choose It’s a Wonderful Life. I do love me some Frank Capra, but that movie is for later in the year. It has too much snow in it and, contrary to retail outlets, it’s not Christmas or New Years’ yet.
My fourteen year old daughter became grouchy when I grandly announced we’d be having a Shawshanksgiving this year. I swear that her eye and mouth twitched at the dad joke of it, but she quickly regained control and said that The Shawshank Redemption was too depressing for Thanksgiving. I almost replied that a prison movie was the perfect metaphor for that family time on Thanksgiving that happens between the meal and bed time, but I thought better of it. (Note: I have since looked up the term Shawshanksgiving and found out to my great disappointment that someone else cleverer than I had already coined the term.)
Rather than argue the point with my daughter, I waited until she went to take a shower to conspiratorially pop in the Blu-ray with my wife. We both knew that she’d get sucked into the movie when she returned. That, and there are more age-inappropriate parts we have to fast-forward through at the beginning of the film.
Released in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption was a box office flop. Many commentators cite the title as the reason, but everyone agrees that it was also overshadowed at the box office and the later Academy Awards by two super popular films also with themes of redemption – Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. The movie is based on a novella by Stephen King, though his name was purposely left out of the advertising. It really became a hit with audiences on video and later when Ted Turner and company bought the cable rights and started showing it regularly on TNT.
“GET BUSY LIVING OR GET BUSY DYING”
Okay, spoiler warning… this movie is 26 years old and has some plot twists, so if you haven’t seen it, go get busy watching it. Then come back and read the rest of this.
The Shawshank Redemption is a film about hope, beauty, and redemption set in the midst of a prison filled with ugliness, villainy, and despair. Seems fitting for the past couple of years, right? To show you why you should start celebrating Shawshanksgiving, I’ll focus on just a few of the themes in the movie that seem particularly apt these days.
The main character is ex-banker and now prisoner Andy Dufresne, convicted of killing his wife and her lover upon finding out she was cheating on him. Sentenced to two life terms at Shawshank State Prison, Andy undergoes various travails through the film, including brutality from a guard, solitary confinement, and oppression from the Warden, who runs a corrupt prison slavery program along with other illegal enterprises and uses Andy to launder the money. Over his nineteen years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, Andy experiences several reversals of fortune. At the core of his survival is his ability to hold onto hope and close friendships, especially one with Ellis “Red” Redding.
HOPE KEEPS YOU FROM BEING INSTITUTIONALIZED
A major idea throughout the film is that a lack of hope leads to “institutionalization.” Red describes this concept when the characters try to come to grips with why their friend, Brooks, attacks one of their other friends shortly after receiving parole (after serving 50 years in prison):
“…I’m tellin’ you that these walls are funny. First you hate ‘em. Then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on ‘em. That’s institutionalized… They send you here for life and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts anyway.”
Without hope, the regular difficulties of life distract from and gradually erase our capacity for hope. The biggest danger from pain and suffering comes not with the sudden and short-lived catastrophe, but with the consistent wearing down of chronic suffering and evil.
In a beautifully filmed, but heart-wrenching sequence, Brooks struggles to live life outside the prison and ends up committing suicide. He has been imprisoned for so long that survival in prison is all he knows. He isn’t able to transcend his past and live with freedom.
HOPE IS ALIGNED WITH BEAUTY
The film shows us that one way we can regain and grow hope is through beauty, which inspires our hearts and minds and protects us from the full ravages of evil.
In a key sequence in the film, Andy finds a record of Marriage of Figaro. At this point, his fortunes seem to be on the rise – he is doing taxes for the Warden and the prison employees and the Warden is allowing him some level of privileges. He has access to the room where the prison’s PA system is kept. Rather than playing it safe, he connects the PA system to a record player, and then begins playing the recording of the “Duettino-Sull’Aria” over the loudspeaker to the entire prison. When a guard questions it, he locks the guard in the restroom and locks the room. We see the various prisoners stop what they are doing and look to the loudspeaker.
“I have no idea to this day what those Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words. And it makes your heart ache because of it… it was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
Andy is put into solitary confinement for two weeks for his actions. When he’s released, haggard looking and weary, his friends ask him about surviving solitary for so long. He tells them “it’s the easiest time I ever did” and that he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company” in his mind and in his heart.
Andy: “That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”
Red: “I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. It didn’t make much sense in here.”
Andy: “Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.”
Andy: “Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that there’s something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.”
Red: “What are you talking about?”
Red: “Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.”
Andy: “Like Brooks did?”
Hit too hard by that last comment, Red gets up from the table and walks away.
Another main theme throughout the film is the role of friendship as a path to redemption. Andy goes through the film as a sort of saint already, complete with the visual imagery of baptism and crucifixion, suffering, helping others, fighting religious hypocrisy, and bringing goodness, truth, and beauty into the prison. The real redemption in the title of the movie is Red’s. Through his relationship with Andy, Red undergoes a conversion into life and hope.
The lowest point in the film is when Andy serves two months in solitary confinement after the warden orders the killing of the one person who has evidence that can exonerate him of his wife’s murder. Andy emerges visibly gaunt and emotionally shaken. He tells Red of his dream to live on a beach in Mexico, still showing hope and telling Red that he wants him there with him. Red is hopeless and says that “I’m an institutional man now, just like Brooks was.” Red tells him that his hope is “shitty pipe dreams.” Andy tells Red he is underestimating himself and that “it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
These words of Andy’s are echoed later when Red is released on parole to the same halfway house room where Brooks killed himself: “Get busy living or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.” Red chooses living and follows Andy to Mexico. His friendship with Andy, a saint-like figure, helps to free and redeem him. That Andy symbolically rises from the dead at the end of the movie, with baptismal and crucifixion symbolism, is no mistake.
THIS IS THE KIND OF MOVIE WE NEED RIGHT NOW
Hope truly is a dangerous thing, but not in the way Red means. It is dangerous because it helps us fight being “institutionalized” by distractions, pain, suffering, and evil in the world.
Romans 5:3-5 states, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (ESV).
Sometimes though, to get from suffering to endurance, from endurance to character, and from character to hope, we need help. Two ways, as shown in The Shawshank Redemption, are exposing ourselves to the wonder of beauty and the encouragement of deep relationships.
Towards the end of the film, Andy has already escaped from the prison and writes a letter to Red, telling him, “Remember Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
So go get busy living and hold onto hope (and go watch this film if you haven’t already). Happy Shawshanksgiving!
And don’t forget: “…let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:8-11 (ESV).
Steven is a lover of deep conversation, literature, film, comic books, video games, and travel. He is a father of a daughter more talented than he, husband to a wife more creative, and a leader of many people who are more skilled, but he manages to get by. He writes memoir, poetry, essays, and fiction. Loving balance in all things, he makes this exception: he doesn’t believe there are such things as thinking too much, learning too much, or caring too much. He spends his non-hobby time as President at the C.S. Lewis Foundation, working with great joy planning and managing events with his merry band of volunteer superheroes.