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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Shawshank Redemption is an Oscar-nominated 1994 movie based on a Stephen King story about a man sent to a maximum security prison in Maine in the 1950s who shows the other inmates perseverance and provides a sense of hope and optimism in the bleakest of places and under the most difficult of circumstances. The gritty world of Shawshank Prison is populated with sadistic guards, a corrupt warden, and predatory fellow inmates. Prison rape, while not graphically shown, is very strongly implied, with references and body positions suggesting forced anal and oral sex. Guards beat and kill an inmate. A prisoner is shot and killed by a man with a rifle. There is also a scene in which a character crawls through 500 yards of a sewer pipe filled with excrement. There is also frequent profanity, including "f--k" and its variations. However, the film also shows inmates forming a loving community of friendship and support despite oppressive conditions and a sense of maintaining perseverance and hope in the darkest of hours.
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What's the story?
In THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is convicted for the murder of his wife and her lover and sent to prison. It's 1949, and Andy doesn't have the stuff for prison life. Andy befriends "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) and uses his past as a banker to get a job in the prison library. But things unravel. In doing the books for the warden, he learns that the prison boss is taking bribes, and Andy is to launder them. A lovable former inmate hangs himself when he gets to the outside but can't adjust after decades behind bars. The inmate whom Andy helps get his GED is shot by the guards to keep him quiet about information that might prove Andy is innocent of the murders and set him free. Andy spends two months in solitary. After he gets out, he seems depressed and Red worries he'll kill himself. The next day, Andy isn't dead, but he isn't there, either -- he's escaped. The rest is a perfect Stephen King happy ending, complete with comeuppance for the corrupt warden.
Is it any good?
This is a movie that stands the test of time and still resonates with viewers. Call this the Stand by Me of prison stories. Stephen King, who penned Stand by Me, also wrote the short story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based. Here we have all the things that made Stand by Me such a satisfying experience: loveable characters, writerly flourishes, one-dimensional evil antagonists, enduring friendships, poetic justice, and a happy ending. This one is far darker and far more violent than Stand by Me and so ought to be reserved only for older teens. The story is slow to develop, and younger kids and children sensitive to the suffering of others may find this world a difficult one to sit with for the film's duration.
Having said all that, the film is satisfying but cloying. Andy is the minister of the healing power of hope. He educates the inmates on the healing power of Mozart. He builds a library. He asks Red why he stopped playing the harmonica. When Red replies that it's no use in prison, Andy looks at him soulfully and replies that "here's where you need it the most." Despite the somewhat unbelievable friendship between a white, upper-class banker and an African-American man in 1949, it's a valuable lesson that may seem inspired to kids who haven't heard this story before.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the ways oppressed people have kept their spirit historically -- for example, through spirituals created by slaves. How do Andy and Red handle prison differently in The Shawshank Redemption? How would you handle such a bleak future? Why did Brooks feel more comfortable in prison than out of prison?
Why did Andy get Red a harmonica? What did that represent? Why did Red and Andy disagree on whether they should have hope for a better life? Did their class and race affect their approaches?
This movie attempts to show the life of inmates in a prison in 1950s Maine. While much has changed about prison life since that time, does the "institutionalization" discussed in the movie seem like it would be a problem today?
One of the most universal stories is the story of a "stranger coming to town." In other words, someone new to a place with long-established customs, rules, and traditions comes along and upends everything or at least changes or questions the ways in which things are done. How is this film an example of such a story? What are some other examples of movies, books, and plays in which a stranger comes to town?
- In theaters: January 1, 1994
- On DVD or streaming: February 3, 2004
- Cast: Bob Gunton, Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins
- Director: Frank Darabont
- Studio: Castle Rock Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters
- Character strengths: Integrity, Perseverance
- Run time: 142 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence, mature themes
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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