Grady, Maura, and Tony Magistrale. The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie.
Carrie was Stephen King's first published novel (1973) and the work that started his career; a few years later, Brian DePalma's Carrie, the first film adaptation of a King story, was a critical and commercial success. Since then, King has become a household name and his work has been adapted for film and TV over 100 times, not always successfully, but sometimes making movie magic. Most recently, we've seen new film adaptations of It and Pet Sematary and, on TV, Mr. Mercedes and Castle Rock. But our fascination with King doesn't stop with adaptations--documentary examinations (or behind-the-scenes exposes) have also become popular. Documentaries on Pet Sematary, The Shining, Creepshow, Cat's Eye, and Silver Bullet have all been screened or announced as in-production. Participating in this trend, The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie offers multiple perspectives from which to reexamine and document The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which is based on King's 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
As is the case with most of King's work (and, in general, the horror genre), place is important to the narrative. Shawshank, both story and film, takes place in the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary. The prison setting is important to the story's focus and theme in that it allows for a character study of the power plays and friendships between men confined together. But like other places in King's work (for example, pet cemeteries, haunted houses, and hotels built on ancient burial grounds), Shawshank is more than a place--it's an evil presence. Grady and Magistrale suggest that the real-life location for the film shoot, the Ohio State Reformatory (OSR) in Mansfield (vacant since its closure in 1990), is one reason for the film's success. Built in 1886 as a training camp during the Civil War and described as haunted, intimidating, and a "cathedral of punishment," it was "saved from demolition because of its role in the movie" (20). After becoming famous as the location for Shawshank, OSR began refurbishing and offering tours, including (quite appropriately) ghost tours. It remains as a place in the real world that symbolizes much of what fans love about the film. The "Experience" from the book's title refers to visiting OSR, and especially fans of Shawshank who visited for the 20th anniversary of the film, a celebration that included screenings, cast and crew interviews, and a tour of the "Shawshank Trail" (shooting locations throughout the prison and the town of Mansfield, Ohio).
The text of The Shawshank Experience is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 provides contextual analysis of the novella (its place within King's canon), the film's director Frank Darabont (Shawshank's place within Darabont's canon), and the "Shawshank Experience" (the relationship between the film, the place, and the extension of the fan community into cyberspace). This chapter also offers a comprehensive introduction of the three topics covered in the remaining chapters, stated most simply as: the place (chapter 2), the film (chapter 3), and the fans (chapter 4). Grady and Magistrale clearly lay out their "most ambitious intentions.to contribute to the existing scope of scholarly knowledge available on Darabont's nuanced movie, King's critically neglected novella, OSR's labyrinth past that spans parts of three separate centuries, and the type of fan response exclusive to only a selective number of Hollywood movies" (20).
Chapter 2 presents a comprehensive documentation of the history of OSR, using archival material that has never been published before. The fictional Shawshank is a "bad place" (King's name for it) that has retained traces of all the violence, sorrow, and death that have occurred on its grounds. At OSR, the violence, sorrow, and death happened in real life--and continues to haunt it. In an interview, Tim Robbins (who plays Andy Dufresne) said, "You could feel the pain. It was the pain of thousands of people" (68). Perhaps the reality of OSR and its past is why it's such an effective setting for the film, helping to bring the story to life in a way that has had a lasting effect. The authors document the prison's dark history from the time it served as a Civil War camp, to its time as a "reformatory" prison, and then, last, as a maximum security prison before being closed down after a class action suit for overcrowding and inhumane practices. Also in this chapter are discussions about OSR's unique combination of Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Queen Anne architecture (59), parallels between the film and the American penal system, and the ways in which the film does and doesn't depict the reality of a prisoner's daily life.
Chapter 3 is dedicated to a comprehensive analysis of the film and how it has been interpreted and received by fans. It begins by contextualizing the film's reception in 1994--although it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, it was not a big box office draw: $18 million opening in comparison to its competitors that year, Forrest Gump, Speed, Pulp Fiction, and Dumb & Dumber, which all opened at $100 million or more. The authors argue that Shawshank has left a more lasting impression than its peers, having since become the subject of critical work by criminologists, sociologists, and film studies and cultural studies scholars, who use it as a jumping off point for topics such as "prison tourism, racial relationships, and critical examinations into the American justice system" (88). A detailed comparison of Forrest Gump and Shawshank reveals the similarities between the two films, both "'feel-good' narratives about the resiliency of the human spirit" featuring the restorative function of male friendships with the complication of racial differences (and the "magical Negro," although the authors argue that this is more true of Gump). Both offer an optimistic message, but Grady and Magistrale argue that Shawshank's focus on the possibility of human agency makes it a more lasting film than Gump, with its focus on Forrest's more passive trust in the human spirit's ability to endure.
This chapter more fully examines OSR as the "bad place" that has the power to seduce and corrupt the characters, and then transitions to an analysis of the film's place within the Gothic literary genre. The prison narrative and the Gothic narrative intersect in Shawshank with classic Gothic themes of entrapment, forced incarceration, and violence (96). In addition, the authors provide a comprehensive analysis of Andy as a parallel to the "persecuted yet intrepid gothic maiden in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century" Gothic fiction. As "the only innocent man in Shawshank," and someone of refined character, cultured yet trapped with hardened felons who are continuously out get him (and do), Andy is constantly "besieged by various hypermasculine monsters that are an omnipresent psychological and sexual threat" (100). Andy is also feminized by the way he interacts with the other prisoners--he teaches, nurtures, and creates a library for them. When he is trapped by the warden, he becomes his "bitch" in exchange for perks like the ability to have posters in his cell and to create a library. The posters of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, and Raquel Welch also represent Andy, for he sees them as heroes, and when he escapes through the hole covered by the poster of Welch, "the tunnel he crawls through.operates as a symbolic vagina/birth canal that provides him entrance into a new life" (102). This chapter also includes analysis of the male relationships in the film, the issues of race that are presented (and skirted), and analysis of the women in the film, largely represented by the posters in Andy's cell.
Finally, in chapter 4, Grady and Magistrale focus on the fan base. Because there is an actual place to visit (and not just the prison, but multiple stops along a drive-yourself tour) and recurring celebrations to mark anniversaries, the audience can do more than just watch the film, or talk about it in cyberspace, they can interact with it. Film-fan-location tourist spots have become increasingly popular in the last decade; perhaps the most well-known is New Zealand, where there are multiple tourist spots that were sets for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Old, closed prisons are also popular tourist sites--millions each year visit places like The Tower in London or Alcatraz in San Francisco. Grady and Magistrale argue that the ability to make a pilgrimage to OSR allows fans to create a deeper relationship with the film than might be seen with ordinary film-based fan groups. Going back to the comparison between Shawshank and its 1994 competitor Forrest Gump, they relate how there is no one place where Gump fans meet, and thus the fandom for that film is strictly cyberspace. In comparison, Shawshank has a real-life location where fans can meet, and do--there were 111,000 visitors to OSR in 2015 (172).
The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie might seem to have narrow appeal primarily to those interested in the film The Shawshank Redemption or the Ohio State Penitentiary. But, in fact, with the ever-growing acceptance of Stephen King's work as an academic topic (thanks in no small part to Dr. Magistrale's long list of publications on the subject matter), this book is arguably an essential requirement for any scholarly writing about King. One might quibble with the authors' claim in the title that Shawshank is "the World's Favorite Movie." It is true that the film has garnered a committed fan base--and many of those fans are so committed that they make vacation plans around visiting a place. But in reality, there are many films and fans like this. For example, thousands of fans of A Christmas Story make an annual pilgrimage to Ralphie's house in Columbus, Ohio. Martha's Vineyard is a tourist destination for Jaws fans, some of whom border on the obsessive. Multiple cities now hold an annual Lebowski Fest in honor of The Big Lebowski, and then there's the multi-generational, decades-long appeal of Rocky Horror Picture Show, with its dressed up fans who can recite the dialogue word for word (and use props!) on their weekly pilgrimage to their local midnight screening.
Quibbling aside, The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World's Favorite Movie is an easy read, full of interesting anecdotes and trivia about the film, and it's an excellent research tool for anyone doing Stephen King studies, genre film studies, audience reception, fan studies, and academic approaches to the American penal system as it intersects with its presentation in films. The authors made good on their promise in chapter 1 to contribute to the existing scope of scholarly knowledge about the film, King's novella, the importance of OSR and its past as a character in the film, and the type of cultural impact and fan response that is exclusive to only a select number of Hollywood films.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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