One of the most popular and enduring films, and fast on its way to becoming a timeless classic, features murder, nudity, adultery, savage violence, homosexual rape, and suicide. The movie is Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption.
Based on a novella by Stephen King, the film recounts the story of uptight banker Andy Dufresne, who is locked up for life in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and lover despite his claims of innocence. With a spell binding plot and a tight twist in the tale, the film has a mysterious power to draw audiences back for repeated viewings.
How does it do so when the content is so unavoidably grim? Is the film immoral for dealing with violent and vile topics? A film is not immoral simply because it features nudity or violence. If the nudity and violence are not gratuitous, the film may be essentially moral. Likewise a very immoral film may feature no nudity or violence at all.
For example, some time ago on British television there was a drama in which nice middle class people in a cathedral close were committing adultery. Everything was filmed in glowing soft colors and there was a background score of angelic choristers singing. There was no nudity and certainly no violence. At the end of the film however, the adulterers went off happily into the sunset while the child of the broken marriage was seen playing happily with grandpa. The clear message was that adultery does not harm anyone and if a marriage breaks up, everyone will still live happily ever after. A film like this is far more powerful in its subtly immoral effect than a film which may show sex or violence, but which is essentially moral in its underlying values and message.
In Shawshank Redemption the surface images and story are exactly the opposite. In the opening scenes of the film we witness the torrid affair of Andy’s wife and also Shawshank Penitentiary as a grim, granite hell. Within the first half hour we witness a murderous beating by a prison guard, scenes of homosexual rape, and the daily brutality of life inside.
After setting up the harshness of the prison regime, Andy Dufresne makes friends with an insider called Red. This friendship is the core of the story, and as the film takes us on a roller coaster ride of hope and despair we see the friendship between Andy and Red mature and develop into a powerful expression of deep and mutual respect. Running beside the theme of friendship is a lesson of hope. Andy Dufresne is a dignified and intelligent hero who despite his incarceration, never gives up hope. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Hope is not a virtue unless it is hoping for the hopeless.”
As Andy’s hopes are dashed time and again we are drawn to the edge of our seat wondering how his story will end and so share at a visceral level the hope he never forgets. Then suddenly the story turns; we see how Andy’s hope is fulfilled and how his undaunted spirit has transformed the prison from a place of dread and despair to a place of hope and trust.
The Shawshank Redemption is an excellent example of how positive themes properly permeate a work of art. Art should never be didactic or preachy. The themes should never be up front and “inyerface.” Instead the theme is communicated most powerfully by being deeply embedded in the characters, plot, and conflict of the story. In this way the truth is embodied within the story in such a way that the truth cannot be stated without telling the story.
For example, there is only one scene in The Shawshank Redemption where the hero speaks openly about hope. But on a second or third viewing it becomes clear that the whole film is about hope—from the first scene where the hero contemplates suicide through to the last scene where all of his hopes have been fulfilled.
When the truth is embedded in the story it is communicated secretly and is all the more powerful for that because that way the truth goes straight to the heart through the experience and participation of the viewer. Art, in this sense, is a more powerful tool of evangelization than intellectual treatises which may merely convince the intellect. Finally, when truth is embedded in the drama, that dynamic combination reflects the mystery of the incarnation, where the eternal Redeemer was himself embedded in human history, and where the eternal Word of truth was made flesh to dwell among us.
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