I’ve been seriously reading classic English and American literature for almost five years now and I’ve raved a lot about 19th century novels which I thought matter until today, if not to the regular book reader, at least, to a student of writing like myself.
But a recent rewatching of the book-to-film adaptation of Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption (originally published as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption) has opened my eyes to what kind of stories that touch a chord regardless of whether it was published in 1817 or 2017. I’ve seen this movie about two or three times a few years ago before Netflix. The producers have not added a previously deleted scene or remastered it for the millenial audience. Nothing in it has changed. Only I have changed and I celebrate this new chapter in my wisdom-seeking life by sharing with you what kind of stories we should tell ourselves.
Briefly, Shawshank Redemption (the movie version) is about the wrongly accused banker, Andy Dufresne, who went to prison seemingly without a plan or care, but as the story unfolds, he was unlike any other prisoner in Shawshank because he knew what he needed to survive: friendship and hope.
When I think of a good story like SR, I always think of how the diarist, Anais Nin, described the importance of emotions not only in creativity, but also in our development as a human being. According to Nin, we must have full maturity in experience, meaning we must experience things until they become emotional. The reason for this is Nin’s wisdom that until the experience makes us feel more deeply, whether it is our 9-to-5 work or our no-sugar diet or simply our devotion to our family, it becomes traumatic because we are being resistant to or evasive of the experience. And when we can’t overcome the trauma of it, voila! It becomes a neurosis.
In the ending of Shawshank Redemption, it is obvious that Andy and Red did not become neurotic despite their decades of incarceration. It was the very thing that Andy tried to avoid by immersing himself to life in prison. And he did this by letting the warden use him as his pet because he knew that he can trade that experience for something better like getting his letters requesting for library funds mailed or my favorite: getting his peers three bottles of beer each after a hard day’s work.
That scene on the roof when Andy and his friends were drinking cold beer under the sun—- that was the scene that made me realize Stephen King truly has something to say. That is what made Shawshank Redemption a perfect story —– when Red figured out the true reason behind Andy’s action:
You could argue he’d done it to curry favor with the guards. Or, maybe make a few friends among us cons. Me, I think he did it just to feel normal again, if only for a short while.
I think that a great story must have at least two things:
1) A character who goes through an unwanted or inescapable experience fully until he gathers his strength to do something about the experience and
2) A grasp of the intangible —– seeing what others cannot see or saying what is not easily said or understood —— making for unexpected moments of clarity and meaning
Notice that I did not mention that a story must entertain in order to deserve its place in our memories. Shawshank Redemption is entertaining enough to be sure, but I got more from it than just entertainment. And that’s the goal for readers/viewers and writers out there. I think we should do more, experience more, and to look beyond appearances because that’s when things start getting interesting.