Every moviegoer is different—influenced by personal, cultural, and preferential biases—making it quite difficult for any one film to gain the approval of all who watch it. In fact, it seems safe to argue that no film has truly managed this feat, though one has come awfully close. The Shawshank Redemption, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of its wide release today, is undoubtedly a highly entertaining film marked by an uplifting story and memorable performances and lines, but how did it find its way to the top of the IMDb Top 250 with an almost perfect fan rating ? Clearly many people love the film, but one must take time to consider how this story of Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne overcoming a cruelly unjust penal system manages to stand above iconic staples of cinema like The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, and Schindler’s List in the minds of fans, the brain trust behind IMDb’s list.
When discussing Shawshank, some people talk about realism and Sartre and other fancy extrapolations, but those aren’t the main factors that have pushed the movie’s popularity to the brink of unanimity for two decades. This movie, despite barely covering its budget with its box office gross, has warmed the hearts of millions of people for years and years. To be fair, it did receive seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture (but somehow not for Robbins’ performance). But keep in mind: at the time of Shawshank‘s release, Morgan Freeman was not yet an untouchable American icon, despite several standout roles and a couple of Oscar nominations, and Robbins was not a bankable blockbuster star. So how did director Frank Darabont do it? Why do the movie-watching masses love Shawshank so tirelessly, clinging to cable showings that seem to pop up on a weekly basis?
Some men stuck in the penitentiary have given up hope while others cling to it relentlessly, but either way it envelops their existence. Granted only occasional glances into life beyond bars, the men of Shawshank define themselves by their interactions with hope. Andy tells Red, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Andy’s preservation of his self and his unyielding faith in hope is hard to resist. Of course Red—through Freeman’s beautiful, gravelly sound—tells Andy, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” He may be right, but the audience doesn’t care. Watching these men, we’d rather see insanity than complacency. We’d rather see Andy fail over and over à la Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke than rot with Red’s dire vision in mind. Light within darkness will always catch viewers’ collective fancy, no matter how much darker the darkness they view is than their own dim circumstances.
One does not have to wonder why people enjoy Shawshank more than something like Schindler’s List. Of course it’s more fun to be uplifted than to be haunted by Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, and the fans’ IMDb list tends to reflect a taste for fun first and foremost. The fans look for undeniably entertaining films rather than nuanced film-school interpretations. A snobbish cinephile may point to IMDb’s list and say, “That’s just crazy normal people who don’t know anything.” Go ahead and think that way, but Shawshank is beloved regardless.
Maybe this is where a greater man would bring in Sartre and Camus and other great existentialist thinkers, but what Shawshank’s success comes down to is good winning out even when evil has the odds stacked up against the light. You may recognize this idea from the other titles scattered throughout that IMDb list you skimmed over earlier in this post. Cue Sam inspiring Frodo at the end of The Two Towers and Batman leaning on Gotham’s goodwill in The Dark Knight and even Red Genia standing out amidst Schindler’s bleak, colorless chaos.
The key difference with Andy and Red, however, is their realism, their ordinariness. All of those movies above are wonderful and deserve their high rankings, but Shawshank succeeds without imagining heroes or alternate worlds or remembering humanity’s darkest moments. Andy goes through Hell, and Red’s been living in it for decades, but their power lies in a far quieter strength than that of Batman, Schindler, or Samwise. The story finds its heart in the desire to live—not to save the world or a city or thousands of people—to save themselves from collapsing beneath the pressure of bureaucracy and unjustness, evils far realer to viewers than most others. The film manages to find that same light in the darkness, to warm hearts and awaken optimism—beaten down over and over again—in quiet tones, with the sound of a song and the taste of a beer; with the toss of a rock and another’s overturning; with subdued fortitude and relentless hope, never raising its voice but never losing its soul.