The Shawshank Redemption (1994), written by Frank Darabont, is one of the highest-rated movies of all time. I recently had the chance to read an undated version of the script that came in at 126 pages.
Like many of my recent analyses, so much has been written about this film (and to a lesser extent, the screenplay) that I don’t feel there is much for me to add. I’m keeping this analysis short and am writing freeform.
The beauty of Shawshank, besides the dialogue, which is real and spectacular, is the Third Act. But let’s back up a minute. The story is presented from the perspective of Red, who is not the protagonist, but rather his friend. The voiceovers he uses offer natural points to move the story, which takes place over 20 years, forward.
And I’ll touch on emotional impact because I am coming to believe that makes or breaks a great script. There are some scenes and narratives which are heavy. For example, Tommy (a young felon) earns his high school diploma while in prison and then is murdered by the Warden and Captain Hadley. Really, it’s masterful writing, paired with Red’s commentary, that makes his story (like many of the B Storys), introduced late in the script, so impactful.
Okay, back to my main point: The crème de la crème of this film (been waiting to slide that in a sentence for a while), is the Third Act. It works for a few reasons.
First, we think Andy is going to get his chance for a new trial and it even looks like the Warden is on his side (page 92):
Would you be willing to swear before a judge… having placed your hand on the Good Book and taken an oath before Almighty God Himself?
Just gimme that chance.
That’s what I thought.
Norton proceeds to kill Tommy and just a page later scolds Andy for even trying to be free.
Nothing stops! NOTHING!
Or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection…… Are you catching my drift?
So we go from real high to real low.
Then there are red herrings, an example being where we think Andy will use a rope to kill himself, yet in reality, uses it to escape.
And finally, not only does Andy escape, but he takes down Norton and the corrupt prison on the way out.
It’s the sudden unexpected reversal that makes it such a remarkable climax.
It’s hard to appreciate how great the script is without reading it. I recommend it to anyone interested in screenwriting. I could share more thoughts, but as they say… get busy living or get busy dying.