It’s Unconventional Week here at Scriptshadow, and here’s a reminder of what that’s about.
Every script, like a figure skating routine, has a degree of difficulty to it. The closer you stay to basic dramatic structure, the lower the degree of difficulty is. So the most basic dramatic story, the easiest degree of difficulty, is the standard: Character wants something badly and he tries to get it. “Taken” is the ideal example. Liam Neeson wants to save his daughter. Or if you want to go classic, Indiana Jones wants to find the Ark of The Covenant. Rocky wants to fight Apollo Creed. Simple, but still powerful.
Each element you add or variable you change increases the degree of difficulty and requires the requisite amount of skill to pull off. If a character does not have a clear cut goal, such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, that increases the degree of difficulty. If there are three protagonists instead of one, such as in L.A. Confidential, that increases the degree of difficulty. If you’re telling a story in reverse such as Memento or jumping backwards and forwards in time such as in Slumdog Millionaire, these things increase the degree of difficulty.
The movies/scripts I’m reviewing this week all have high degrees of difficulty. I’m going to break down how these stories deviate from the basic formula yet still manage to work. Monday, Roger reviewed Kick-Ass. Yesterday, I reviewed Star Wars. Today, I’m reviewing The Shawshank Redemption.
Premise: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
About: Often at the top of IMDB’s user voting list for best movie ever, The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994 and subsequently bombed at the box office. It later became an immense hit on home video.
Writer: Frank Darabont (based on a Stephen King story)
Degree of Difficulty: 5 (out of 5)
Why the degree of difficulty is so high:
The producers of The Shawshank Redemption along with Frank Darabont expressed shock at how badly their movie fared in theatrical release. Sometimes I wonder if anybody in this business understands how the public thinks. If you give us a boring title, throw two actors on a poster who we don’t know very well, set them in a gloomy shade of gray, have them look depressed and confused, then avoid giving us any clue of what the movie’s about…chances are no one’s going to see your movie.
And even if you did find out what Shawhank Redemption was about, did that help any? A couple of guys wallow in a prison for 25 years. Wonderful. Opening Day here I come.
Besides the depressing subject matter, the movie embraces a 142 minute running time. While that’s not in the same boat as Titanic, it’s a questionable decision due to just how relaxed the movie plays. In fact, this wouldn’t be a big deal except that The Shawshank Redemption is missing the most important story element of all: PLOT. That’s right. A nearly 2 and a half hour movie has no plot! There’s no goal for the main character. Nobody’s trying to achieve anything. There’s no inherent point to the journey. Contrast that with another long movie like Braveheart, where William Wallace is on a constant quest for his country’s freedom. He’s beheading Dukes. He’s taking over countries. That’s why we’re able to hang around for 3 hours. We want to see if he’ll achieve THAT GOAL. What is it the characters are trying to get in The Shawshank Redemption? Pretty much nothing.
So when a movie doesn’t have a clear external journey, the focus tends to shift to the inner journey. This usually takes place in the form of a character’s fatal flaw. A fatal flaw is the central defining characteristic that holds a person back in life. Gene Hackman’s coach character in Hoosiers is bullheaded. He does things his way and his way only. Through his pursuit of a state basketball title, he learns the value of relinquishing control to others, which helps him become a better person.
Neither Andy nor Red have a fatal flaw. They’re not forced to overcome any internal problems. I guess you could say Andy keeps to himself too much and eventually learns to open up to others, but it’s by no means a pressing issue. Red speaks his mind at the end and it gets him parole. But refusing to speak his mind never hindered him in other parts of the movie. In other words, there's no deep character exploration going on with the two main characters. That’s pretty nuts when you think about it. You have an overlong movie with no plot and no significant character development. That would be like Rocky already believing in himself and not having to fight at the end of the movie. He’d just walk around Philadelphia all day hanging out. So the question is, how the hell did Shawshank overcome this?
Why it still works:
One of the main reasons The Shawshank Redemption works is because its characters are so damn likable. Let’s face it. We love these guys! There’s a segment of writers out there who break out in hives if you even suggest that their characters be likable. But Shawshank proves just how powerful the likability factor is. Andy and Red and Brooks and Tommy and Heywood. We’d kick our best friends out of our lives just to spend five minutes with these guys. And when you have likable characters, you have characters the audience wants to root for.
On the other end of the spectrum, Shawshank’s bad guys are really bad. I’ve said this in numerous reviews and I’ll continue to say it. If you create a villain that the audience hates, they’ll invest themselves in your story just to see him go down. Since Shawshank has no plot, Darabont realized he would have to utilize this tool to its fullest. That’s why there’s not one, not two, but three key villains. The first is Bogs, the rapist. The second is the abusive Captain Hadley. And the third, of course, is the warden. Darabont makes all of these men so distinctly evil, that we will not rest until we see them go down. If there’s ever a testament to the power of a villain, The Shawshank Redemption is it.
So this answers some questions, but we’re still dealing with a plot-less movie here. And whenever you’re writing something without a plot, you need to find other ways to drive the audience’s interest. One of the most powerful ways to do this is with a mystery (sound familiar?). If there isn’t a question that the audience wants answered, then what is it they’re looking forward to? The mystery in Shawshank is “Did Andy kill his wife or not?” Now it doesn’t seem like a strong mystery initially. For the first half of the script, it’s only casually explored. But as the script goes on, there are hints that Andy may be innocent, and we find ourselves hoping above everything that it's true. The power in this mystery comes from the stakes attached to it. If Andy is innocent, he goes free. And since we want nothing more than for Andy to go free, we become obsessed with this mystery.
And finally, the number one reason Shawshank works is because it has a great ending. The ending is the last thing the audience leaves with. That’s why some argue that it’s the most important part of the entire movie. And it’s ironic. Because Shawshank’s biggest weakness, the fact that it doesn’t have an actual plot, the fact that virtually nothing happens for two hours, is actually its biggest strength. The film tricks us into believing that the prison IS the movie so escape never enters our minds. For that reason when it comes, it’s surprising and emotional and exciting and cathartic! There aren’t too many movies out there that make you feel as good at the end as The Shawshank Redemption. The power of the ending indeed!
When you think about it, Shawshank actually proves why you shouldn’t ignore the rules. Doing so made the movie virtually unmarketable. It’s why you, me, and everyone else never saw it in the theater. Let’s face it, it looked boring. Luckily, all of the chances Shawshank took ended up working and the film was one of those rare gems which caught on once it hit video. I’m not sure a movie like Shawshank will ever be made again. That’s sad, but it makes the film all the more special.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
What I learned: Shawshank taught me that you can lie to your audience. If you can trick them into thinking one way, you can use it to great effect later on. When Andy asks Red for a rock hammer, the first thing on our minds is, “He’s going to use it to escape.” But Red quickly dispels that notion when he sees the rock hammer himself and tells us, in voice over, “Andy was right. I finally got the joke. It would take a man about six hundred years to tunnel under the wall with one of these.” And just like that, we never consider the notion of Andy escaping again. So when the big escape finally comes, we’re shocked. And it’s all because that damn writer lied to us!