Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Shawshank Redemption: Stephen King, Frank Darabont and the Art of Adaptation

The Shawshank Redemption:
Stephen King, Frank Darabont and the Art of Adaptation

The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 movie directed by Frank Darabont, and its literary original, the short novel Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, first published in 1982, make for a terribly fascinating comparative study. Adaptation is an art, though it is seldom practiced as one, and there are few better examples when the collaboration between different mediums produced a new masterpiece without ruining the old one. The symbiosis between Mr King and Mr Darabont is much the same as the one between Mozart and Liszt that led to the creation of Réminiscences de Don Juan, a masterpiece that couldn’t have existed but for both composers.

I had seen the movie quite a few times before I finally read the novel. This may explain why I am biased in favour of Mr Darabont. Comparisons are by definition the lowest form of criticism; when so different mediums are concerned, comparisons are indeed stupid. And yet, they are hard to avoid. I do like Mr King’s short novel; it’s a brilliantly written first person narrative, a moving, subtle, funny, and brutal story of hope and courage; it supplies plenty of background you don’t get on the screen. But I do prefer Mr Darabont’s interpretation. Quite apart from his work as a director, which is in fact superior to Mr King’s narrative as far as suspense is concerned (simply compare the discovery of Andy’s escape and you’ll know what I mean), Mr Darabont did an extraordinary job with the adaptation. The screenplay is very close to the novel, with quite a few striking phrases lift verbatim, yet it contains so many imaginative changes and re-arrangements, that it almost amounts to an original work. Let’s have a closer look at them.

Spoilers ahead!

The art of adaptation, first of all, is the art of compression. Mr Darabont’s ability in this department is remarkable, to say the least. He has stripped off everything which is superfluous in Mr King’s work, everything that’s not quite essential for the characters or the plot. For example, there is only one warden in the movie (not three as in the novel), the somewhat drawn-out conversations between Red and Andy are masterfully abridged, and so is Red’s main narrative. It may be argued that the movie thus loses some depth. This is true, of course, but it can’t be helped. It is the necessary evil that must be endured. The amazing thing about Mr Darabont is that his script loses very little depth while at the same time it gains enormously in terms of concision. Consider the matter on “buggery” in jail. It is described in (sometimes gruesome) detail on the page. It is shortened and toned down on the screen, but hardly less effective:

It comes as no surprise to most these days that there’s a lot of buggery going on inside the watts – except to some of the new fish, maybe, who have the misfortune to be young, slim, good-looking, and unwary – but homosexuality, like straight sex, comes in a hundred different shapes and forms. There are men who can’t stand to be without sex of some kind and turn to another man to keep from going crazy. Usually what follows is an arrangement between two fundamentally heterosexual men, although I’ve sometimes wondered if they are quite as heterosexual as they thought they were going to be when they get back to their wives or their girlfriends.

There are also men who get “turned” in prison. In the current parlance they “go gay,” or “come out of the closet.” Mostly (but not always) they play the female, and their favors are competed for fiercely.

And then there are the sisters.

They are to prison society what the rapist is to the society outside the walls.

All this is summarized on the screen in two lines:

Andy: I don't suppose it would help if I told them [the Sisters] that I'm not homosexual.
Red: Neither are they. You have to be human first. They don't qualify.

Rigorous cutting may be the beginning, but the changing is where the true merit – or lack of it – is shown most clearly. Mr Darabont has introduced countless new elements. The most notable is the poignant episode with the duet from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. I wonder why Stephen King didn’t like it; perhaps because he knew it was an improvement and wished he had thought of it himself. For my money, it is among the most memorable sequences from a movie that hardly contains a single minute that is forgettable. The scene has become iconic, and rightly so:

The Mozart interlude is something completely new; 100% Mr Darabont’s invention. Other similar episodes, smaller but even better integrated into the plot, include the “new fish” betting and Hadley’s beating to death the so-called “Fat Ass”, the warden’s “welcome address” and his Bible quote contest with Andy, Tommy’s murder and quite a few other minor touches (including the funny cataloguing of The Count of Monte Cristo in the “educational” section of the prison library). Most important of all, the escape, its explanation and its aftermath are changed to a much more dramatic and emotionally satisfying version. To my mind, virtually all of these changes are improvements. In the novel, the warden remains alive and quits a broken man, Tommy is not killed but seduced by another prison with lighter regime, Hadley disappears from the story much earlier and with much lesser burden on his conscience, and Andy has some friend of his arranging the fake personality and the little fortune to start with on the outside. The hilarious conversation between Red and Andy in the library, which explains the “filtering” of the money, is actually missing from the novel. The escape in the movie is an outstanding scene:

It may be argued that this is less convincing than the more speculative version in the novel. The making up of a fictional person by mail has always seemed to me slightly incredible. Likewise, Andy’s stealing the warden’s polished shoes and suit. But these are insignificant quibbles. No one can deny that the movie’s ending is far more effective than the one in the book. It also makes the reference to Monte Cristo earlier more relevant. Neat touch of poetic justice.

Somewhat surprisingly, the minor characters are better developed on the screen. The reason is that Mr Darabont sticks to them until, while Mr King drops them before, their full potential is realised. He turned Norton and Hadley into more frightening incarnations of sadism than they are in the novel. The cocky Tommy and the stuttering Heywood are also more memorable on the screen than they are on paper. (Indeed, Heywood, played by the fantastic William Sadler, is never mentioned in the novel!) The greatest improvement, however, is the heartrending story of Brooksie. This is not entirely Mr Darabont’s invention – he borrowed some phrases from Red’s own story in the book – but he greatly expanded the meagre original material. Brooks and Jake are barely mentioned in the novel. In the movie, they form an important subplot that unfolds from the their first meeting with Andy in the canteen, through their work together later in the library and Brooks’ putting a knife to Heywood’s throat, finally to the tragic outcome on the outside. James Whitmore gave an unforgettable performance:

In most cases, however, Mr Darabont’s treatment is very subtle indeed. He completely overhauled the original, transposing some parts from the beginning of the novel to the end of the movie, cutting something here, adding another thing there, seamlessly blending his own invention with the novelist’s work. Even a brief list of his changes, as shown above, can be tedious – if not actually misleading, for it may suggest patchy and incoherent result which is simply not the case. To take but two more among countless examples, Red’s great “rehabilitated” speech in front of the last parole commission uses some phrases from the very beginning of the novel; Andy’s classic “Get busy living, or get busy dying!” originally belongs to Red and occurs for the first time in the very end of the novel. The conclusion is nearly word for word the same in both, though. And it’s worth quoting:

I find I am excited, so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
I hope.