How 'The Shawshank Redemption' transformed from dud to fan fave

ON THE SHAWSHANK TRAIL — Enter the old prison via the impressive stone doorway where Andy Dufresne got his first taste of hell, and look up. The view is both dizzying and foreboding.

And over there, near huge, arched windows worthy of a European cathedral, is the spot where “Red” Redding acknowledged that yes, he was a man who could get things, for a price. But the old red brick buildings — including the one where Andy almost got thrown off the roof — are gone now.

Yet it is unmistakably Shawshank state prison.

For a movie deemed a box office dud when it premiered in the fall of 1994,“The Shawshank Redemption” has enjoyed a vigorous afterlife. Fans from all over the world make the trek to Richland County, Ohio, to sit in the darkened cells of solitary or take photos of themselves toeing the infamous “yellow line.”

They arrive from China, South America, Scandinavia. College kids from near (Kenyon College) and far (Stanford) travel to this dark, looming pop culture mecca.

Following the Shawshank Trail at the former Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio is a journey to neighboring locations in Upper Sandusky, Ashland and points in between. Almost all of director Frank Darabont’s best picture nominee, “The Shawshank Redemption,” was filmed here.

“Why the reformatory was chosen to make ’Shawshank Redemption’ here was a pretty simple story: [production company] Castle Rock needed a place to film where they could do whatever they wanted,” said Ron Puff, head tour guide.

One of five best picture nominees at the 1995 Oscars, it got additional nominations for Morgan Freeman (actor), Mr. Darabont’s screenplay (adapted from a Stephen King novella), editing, cinematography, sound and Thomas Newman’s score.

Later, a poll of readers placed “The Shawshank Redemption” among users’ top three all-time favorite movies.

Budgeted at $25 million, it made about $28.3 million at the box office for Columbia Pictures. Despite its message of hope and yes, redemption, its violence, R rating and unfocused marketing campaign no doubt contributed to a lukewarm reception.

Two things prevented “The Shawshank Redemption” from quietly fading away. First, it was discovered on home video, where it became a cult favorite. Also: Ted Turner. His TNT network and later, other channels picked up “Shawshank” and ran with it like a football. 

It resonated with viewers across demographics. Perhaps they only stopped to watch 20 minutes here and there, but the cumulative effect added up to can’t-miss television.

“Mr. Turner, bless his heart, chose to show the movie every few minutes,” Mr. Darabont told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.

Here’s a brief synopsis: bright young banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) discovers his wife is having an affair with the golf pro at the local country club. Drunk, he plans to confront them at the pro’s bungalow but sobers up and leaves.

They’re found brutally slain the next morning. Andy is unjustly convicted and given two lifetime sentences at Shawshank State Prison in Maine. There he meets “Red” Redding, a lifer, a man “who can get things.”

What follows is a story of brutality, friendship and hope, which sounds schmaltzier than it is under Mr. Darabont’s care. It’s also a story of what can be accomplished through time and patience. The King novella throws in the importance of luck as well. Andy’s long-range plan to escape — and take down a horrible, sanctimonious warden (Bob Gunton) in the process — is a most satisfying final act.

Matt Swift, a Columbus, Ohio, filmmaker who coordinates the Ohio State University film studies program, said it’s not difficult to understand “Shawshank’s” enduring appeal: “It plays to the kind of simple alienation that we all have in our lives: being locked in cages that we can’t get out of; having people control us in ways we wish that they didn’t.

“We have this idea of hope from watching this, hope that maybe we can get out of our own shackles.”

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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