The Shawshank Analysis

Why is it we can’t turn away when this film pops up during one of those weekend marathons? We’ve all seen it before, we know what’s going to happen, yet we still delight in re-experiencing the struggle of these character to overcome overwhelming odds. Why is that?

Is it something spiritual? Something deep within us, a yearning for universal absolution the film provides? Or could it be something more Earthbound? Perhaps, something more closely tied to our own biology? One can’t deny the Christ-like symbology in Andy’s final gesture of triumph, yet why then does the film work for all regardless of belief?

A framework of problem-solving

Universal attraction transcends any notion of spirituality. Removing religious attribution or the belief in the cultural trappings of mythology in story allows one to see the real process behind great stories. Spirituality need not be discounted in the final analysis, but should not be seen as a requirement for great success.

The Shawshank Redemption–both film and short story from which it came–presents an incredibly well-crafted argument, a solid example of problem-solving in motion. To understand why this film works so well requires a understanding of story more holistic in nature, an understanding that appreciates the various perspectives at conflict and brings them together into one seamless and purposeful model of human psychology.

The emerging field of narrative science lifts the veil of mystery shrouding this film and begins to improve the quality of discussion surrounding what makes great stories so great.

Projections of our projections

Those still saddled with the prerequisite of spiritual or mythological motive see stories as a method for understanding who we are and how the world works. Their templates of innermost caves and helpless cats make sense as a means to appreciate ourselves and our human experience. Clear away the aforementioned baggage, however, and reality shines through: Stories employ a structure based on how we see and make sense of our world, not the other way around. In other words, stories exist as projections of how we problem-solve.

When one asks why the strong attraction to The Shawshank Redemption, the answer lies in how accurately the story projects the mind’s own problem-solving process. Beginning with a clear delineation of perspective and ending with a meaningful dissonance of both subjective and objective appreciations, the story of Red and Andy works because it follows a system familiar to all of us.

Four major points-of-view

Problem-solving requires a problem. In Shawshank, one word stands out above all others as the source of trouble: support. Whether implicitly applied by simply going with the flow (“Yessir, I do believe I have been rehabilitated”) or explicitly through the cheering on of “fresh fish”, an application of support creates conflict.

The Shawshank Redemption presents four unique perspectives on this problem of towing the line. The first lies within Red, the only guilty man in Shawshank. From his point-of-view we get to experience what it is like to personally have this problem. We follow him into the parole-board hearings, we’re there with him as this kid with the silver spoon up his ass arrives, and we experience the shock of disbelief when we discover what’s really been going on in Andy’s cell. We experience the story through Red’s eyes.

But it is within those parole-board hearings that we truly experience the problem of supporting a system. Red’s problem lies in his institutionalized way-of-thinking: he supports the system, believes it has helped him, and hat-in-hand tells everyone what he thinks they want to hear.

Of course, they continue to deny him until he finally begins to stand up for himself. Once he finally tells them to shove their assessment–once he finally opposes the system–the shackles of his problematic way-of-thinking clang to the ground and he leaves Shawshank a free man.

A prison for all

Stepping outside of Red and rising high into the air like that helicopter shot on the day Andy first arrives provides us with the story’s second perspective. From here we begin to see the problems of support from an objective point-of-view. Red gave us that personal subjective perspective, looking at everyone dispassionately grants us distance and greater understanding.

An inmate’s promise to be a friend to an overweight new arrival ends up in a brutal beating. The drive to support the educational development of the inmates leads to participation in and continuation of corruption. An agreement to be there for the wife-killing lawyer in the re-opening of his case,gets a young inmate shot for trying to “escape.” Contrast these various perspectives on the problem of support with those experienced through Red and one begins to gain a better appreciation of why stories draw us in.

Red stands up for himself because that was what was needed to overcome his personal problem. But how can we be sure of this solution without first seeing how it works within others? From an objective point-of-view we can see that the same solution applies. Andy’s defiance with his broadcast of The Marriage of Figaro gifts freedom to the inmates of Shawshank; for a moment, they were all free. His final act of opposition to the Warden’s efforts of indoctrination furthers the viability of such a solution by showing it bringing down the walls of scandal within that prison.

Note the importance of these two views: as an Audience member we get to experience what it is like to have support as a problem while at the same time we witness problems of support for everyone.

That doesn’t happen in real life.

More on this later, but for now more investigation. These two perspectives–while comprehensive in their exploration of the problem–fall short of telling the whole story.

An opposition towards justification

In order for Red to grow to the point where he can stand up for himself he needs to encounter a different point-of-view. One similar in scope to his own (small, intimate), yet presented in a fashion similar to the objective view explained above.

Andy himself provides that needed third perspective. Interestingly enough, however, from this point-of-view a problem of support looks more like a problem of control. Whenever someone tries to clamp down on Andy’s activities or when he attempts to control a situation it impacts Red. Even the way he carries himself, cold and aloof, hits Red in a way that leads the old-timer to question his own approach of towing the line.

This distinction, of how Andy’s problem influences Red rather than how it effects Andy personally, defines the all-important third perspective of complete stories - the perspective of personal opposition.

Rounding it out with friendship

The most effective arguments stand on a firm ground of balanced perspective. Offer someone all the alternatives and your position will garnish greater acceptance by avoiding the trappings of a one-sided argument. The same concept applies to the different points-of-view within a story. Just as Red’s intimate subjective perspective needed an intimate objective perspective to balance it out (Andy’s point-of-view), the larger objective perspective of everyone colliding within the prison requires a smaller subjective perspective on the conflict of colliding viewpoints. In The Shawshank Redemption this point-of-view can be found in the friendship between Red and Andy.

From Red’s point-of-view and the point-of-view of everyone trapped in the prison the problem of Shawshank appears to be an overabundance of support. From the point-of-view of Andy the problem looks like stifling control. However, from the point-of-view of the friendship between Red and Andy the problem looks like neither of these, preferring instead to appear as a failure to reconsider one’s position.

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” Red tells Andy, succinctly verbalizing the sticking point preventing these two from ever becoming friends. Andy sees the world differently, preferring the dream of Zihuatenejo over Red’s cynical consideration. The heart of the story revolves around this inability of either to change their mind; the plight of their friendship resting on a simple decision:

“Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

The purpose of storytelling

These four distinct well-balanced perspectives exist for a reason. As mentioned before, the prison of our own minds prevents us from experiencing a subjective point-of-view at the same time we experience an objective point-of-view. We cannot simultaneously be inside of ourselves and out. Stories grant us this rare opportunity to see a problem resolved from all different points-of-view.

The Shawshank Redemption offers up the argument that standing up and speaking out brings triumph–both universally and personally. The juxtaposition of this solution both from an objective view and a subjective view transcends a simple “message” into a concrete argument. Rounding it out with a look at the actions of a life steeped in control and the inability of two to come together without a second glance at preconceived notions solidifies the Author’s position within the minds of the Audience.

As Stephen King writes in his fantastic memoir On Writing:

[Writing is] telepathy, of course…I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.

An act of telepathy from writer to reader. An argument effectively crafted and transmitted to be received years later by an open and willing mind. This defines the purpose of story. To the extent a narrative mimics the psychological processes present within the minds of a reader or audience member determines a story’s power and ultimate effectiveness.

By bringing together the various points-of-view one can consider when evaluating an argument against towing the line, The Shawshank Redemption succeeds in grasping our attention and commanding our acknowledgment of King’s position. A purpose for fiction far outlasting mere entertainment or mythological trends…a purpose of simple communication…

A sharing. From one mind to another.

But wait, there’s more!

For a comprehensive analysis and a continuation of the discussion above, be sure to check out the 2-hour (!) deep analysis class of The Shawshank Redemption on YouTube. Facilitated by the author of this blog, Jim Hull, the recorded class explores the model of psychology hinted at in the above article. Joined by story enthusiasts from around the world–both online and off–Jim uncovers the underlying meaning encoded within one of Stephen King’s greatest stories.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

How can one determine how the problem will look from all the different perspectives? From the Main Character (Red) and Overall Story (those in Shawshank) perspectives the problem appears as Support, yet from the Influence Character (Andy) and Relationship Story perspectives the problem looks vastly different. The Dramatica theory of story–essentially the flash point of narrative science–provides the tools necessary to approximate these various points-of-view.

By charging the engine of story with these values:

Change, Start, Be-er, Linear, Decision, Optionlock, Success, Good, Situation, Future, Delay, Support

Dramatica effectively narrows down the model of the human mind to one singular storyform–a combination of structural and dynamic appreciations that holds the meaning of a particular piece of narrative fiction.

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