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Adapting Stephen King's Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption: A History Of Frank Darabont’s 1994 Antidote To Cynicism

Tim Robbins free in the rain in The Shawshank Redemption
(Image credit: Warner. Bros)

When any individual finds success, it’s always wonderful to see them turn around and work to try and help others in their field, and while Stephen King has made all kinds of support and outreach efforts to other creatives over the course of his career, one of the earliest moves he made in that regard was establishing what is referred to as the Dollar Baby Program. In the late 1970s, he was regularly getting requests from student filmmakers hoping to get permission to adapt his short stories, and while his lawyers saw it as a potential legal quagmire, the author created a policy that would allow select works be available for the price of $1 under three conditions: 1) King would retain all rights to the original story; 2) the resulting movie wouldn’t be exhibited commercially without permission; and 3) a copy of the finished work would be sent to him to watch.

In the last four decades, many young writer/directors have taken advantage of this program, but there is no question whatsoever that the standout work among all those completed is an adaptation of “The Woman In The Window” that was made in 1983. Featured in the collection Night Shift, the short story is an emotional and melancholy piece about terminal illness and euthanasia, and the 30-minute movie is a haunting and powerful incarnation. Stephen King was impressed and shocked by the quality, and made a point of remembering the name of the young filmmaker responsible for making it: Frank Darabont.

Around 1987, Darabont reached out to King again, but this time not about a Dollar Baby short; he wanted permission to take a crack at adapting “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption,” a prison-set novella from 1982’s Different Seasons. The author didn’t quite see the cinematic potential in the story, but he trusted the material in the hands of the man who made The Woman In The Room and granted the filmmaker the option. After years of procrastination, Darabont wrote the script on spec in the span of eight weeks, and when shopping it around to studios, he only ended up having to go to Castle Rock Entertainment – the production company behind Stand By Me, Misery, and Needful Things – to get a “yes.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Frank Darabont was offered $2.4 million to sell the script to Castle Rock so that Rob Reiner could direct, but Darabont refused, wanting to direct the movie himself, and he instead took an offer for $750,000 plus a percentage of future profits. Thus began the journey making 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption – a film that is now regarded as one of the most beloved of all time, and is the subject of this week’s Adapting Stephen King.

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins sitting together in The Shawshank Redemption

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

What “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” Is About

The novella has never precisely been the most desired medium in the business side of the literary industry, but they have been a staple of the Stephen King canon nearly from the beginning. Being the exceptionally dedicated and prolific writer that he is, King fell into a pattern in the early years of his career that saw him complete a novel and then follow it up with a shorter work that was too long to be classified a short story. The first four in this pattern were ultimately collected in the aforementioned Different Seasons. Per Douglas Winter’s Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness, he wrote “The Body” after completing work on Salem’s Lot; “Apt Pupil” was penned after The Shining; “The Breathing Method” was imagined in the wake of Cujo; and “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” poured from his exhausted mind after finishing the marathon that was The Stand.

According to Stephen King’s essay “Rita Hayworth And The Darabont Redemption” (included as an introduction in The Shawshank Redemption’s published screenplay), original inspiration for the story came out of a desire to echo the style of author Max Brand, a.k.a. Frederick Schiller Faust. Brand’s books would often feature a “plain-spun narrator” telling stories about their amazing friend – but at the same time be telling a story about themselves. Writes King,

I had always loved this technique of creating a hero out of a secondary character (sort of like turning Watson into Sherlock Holmes), and determined to try it with “Shawshank Redemption.” The result was a moody tale with more thinking than action in it... not the sort of thing that usually makes a good movie.

As “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” began to flow out of his mind and out through his fingertips, the narrator in question became Red, a veteran prisoner in a Maine penitentiary named Shawshank Prison, and his heroic secondary character was revealed as unassuming, determined banker Andy Dufresne. With those two spectacular protagonists, King weaved a remarkable journey about indelible friendship, the secret strength embedded in hope, and the powerful optimism understanding that “no good thing ever dies.”

Beginning in 1948 and spanning nearly 30 years, “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” chronicles Andy Dufresne’s time as a convicted innocent man learning how to survive all the horrors that transpire inside prison walls. Written as a memoir from Red’s perspective, who during his time on the inside is known as a man who knows how to get things, the story goes from seeing Andy as an introverted loner, to impressive hero, to mythic figure.

Morgan Freeman reading a letter in The Shawshank Redemption

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

How Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption Differs From “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption”

On the page, “Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption” doesn’t come off the page as being particularly cinematic (as recognized by the author himself in the quote above), but when Frank Darabont read it, he saw something that even Stephen King didn’t recognize. The purest proof of this is that there is very little about the material that is changed in the journey across mediums – and the stuff that is altered is perfectly sensible.

The most sensible change made between the novella and The Shawshank Redemption is in the realm of character amalgamation. In the text, Shawshank Prison is overseen by multiple wardens during the tenure of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), but the movie simplifies things by just having Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) be the one in charge for the entire duration. Similarly, the role of Brooks (James Whitmore) has story bits that come from multiple sources in Stephen King’s novella, but he is constructed in the film to be the perfect personification of institutionalization.

Another significant modification involving the warden involves the fate of Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows), the young prisoner whom Andy helps get an education and could hold the key to his freedom. In a surprise twist, the film version is actually much darker than what Stephen King originally wrote, which simply sees Tommy transferred out of Shawshank to a minimum security prison. With this change, it was Frank Darabont’s intention to really drive home the extreme villainy of Warden Norton, and in that mission he is certainly successful.

One of the very few straight-up additions made by Frank Darabont to the story is the sequence where Andy locks himself in the warden’s office and plays Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” over the PA system. The filmmaker was inspired to include the moment because he was listening to the music as he was writing the screenplay, though it’s a scene that Stephen King isn’t particularly enamored with, as he writes that he “never liked” it in his essay about the film in Stephen King Goes To The Movies.

Perhaps the most famous difference between the Stephen King story and The Shawshank Redemption is the ending. Red (Morgan Freeman) – who, it should be noted, is a white guy with red hair in the source material – never actually reunites with Andy in Zihuatanejo, Mexico; he simply rides the bus to El Paso, Texas with hope in his heart that he will see his friend again. Frank Darabont originally planned to have that be the ending of the film as well, but Castle Rock insisted that he at the very least shoot a scene with the characters reuniting. It was left to be the writer/director’s choice whether or not to keep or cut the moment on the beach, and he chose the former.

The last change I’ll note is the secretly established identity that Andy takes on following his prison escape. In the novella, Andy winds up going by “Peter Stevens,” but that was nixed by the production due to concerns of possibility of being sued by an actual person with that name. Frank Darabont fixed it to be “Randall Stevens” instead, with “Randall” being a direct reference to the villainous Randall Flagg from The Stand, Eyes Of The Dragon, and the Dark Tower novels.

Clancy Brown threatens Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption

(Image credit: Warner Bros,)

Is It Worthy Of The King?

That header, a repeated feature of this column, seems silly in light of the reputation that Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption has earned in the 27 years since its original release, so I’ll be brief in directly addressing it: unquestionably. As a Stephen King adaptation, it is a film that uncovers and exposes the gorgeous and precious soul of the novella that inspired it, and every choice made in bringing it to life – casting, direction, cinematography, editing, and so on – is remarkable.

Its great power is in its earnestness. Hollywood has spent so many decades overloading us with schmaltz that our cynicism drives go into overload when faced with attempts at pure optimism, and more often than not the wholly appropriate reaction is a hefty and obvious eye roll. The Shawshank Redemption defies that instinct. The love that it has for its characters seeps out of the screen and infects the audience, creating a deep appreciation of their humanity and making it a pressing need to see them free. Its themes about institutionalization and, yes, redemption, are spectacularly complicated to convey, particularly when you’re talking about an ensemble of protagonists who have all been convicted of violent offenses, but it’s magical in its translation of perspective and in its stimulus of empathy.

Both Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins deliver performances that they’ll be forever remembered for – which is an opinion meant to both express the extraordinary quality of their work in the movie, and also the wide-spread love that it has earned since it was declared a flop during its theatrical run. Stephen King touches on the phenomenon of ubiquitous appreciation in Stephen King Goes To The Movies, and credits a great deal of it to the man who originally inspired its creation:

It now commonly appears on lists of the best-loved movies of all time. Do I love it, too? Yes. The story had heart; the movie has more. Frank Darabont, who kept the reins firmly in his own hands by insisting that he direct his own script, is one of the universe's better human beings. That goodness shines through here… The story is hard when it has to be, full of sentiment without being sentimental. This is as good as films get on the subject of how men love each other and how they survive.

The Shawshank Redemption may be less than 30 years old, but it’s not a controversial statement to say that it has already earned the status of timeless classic, and it will forever be recognized as a special title in the Hollywood legacy of Stephen King.

Warden (Bob Gunton) discovers Andy's hole in The Shawshank Redemption

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

How To Watch Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption

It should be surprising to literally nobody that it is spectacularly easy in the internet age to watch Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. It is currently streaming on HBO Max, but even if you don’t have a subscription you can rent or purchase it digitally via Amazon, Vudu, Google, or Apple. If you’re looking for the most pristine version available and/or you collect physical media, a 4K Blu-ray was just released a couple months ago.

Next week will be a very different edition of Adapting Stephen King, as we’ll be going from the Oscar-nominated prestige of The Shawshank Redemption to the grim/silly horror of Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler. Look for it here on CinemaBlend next Wednesday, and to explore all of the previous installments of this column, click through the banners below!

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Eric Eisenberg

NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.