Last night I was introduced to IMDb’s highest rated movie of all time, The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont:1994), which boasts a score at the dizzying heights of 9.2. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t impressed. I thought the acting was faultless, and the casting of Morgan Freeman as Red gave the story some serious gravitas through his narration – everyone knows how epic his voice is – and he brought life to the incredible script written for this film. The story itself was interesting. I personally didn’t find it particularly moving, not to the point of shedding a tear anyway, but it was a story about hope, patience and freedom.
That led me to thinking about freedom, and what freedom really means. Of course it means different things to different people, and I realised that this is what I’d seen in Shawshank: the different kinds of freedom.
Brooks served 50 years inside Shawshank prison – most of his life. Perhaps you would expect him to be glad to finally leave and live a normal life but to Brooks, his life was inside that prison. As the librarian, he had a purpose there and that was all he had known for 50 years. Suddenly thrust into a world he knew nothing about, doing a crummy job he struggled to do, trapped by his parole, Brooks was no more free out there than he had been in Shawshank. No longer in control of his own life, he carved his own route to freedom. For Brooks, the prison wasn’t keeping him a prisoner anymore, he’d been there so long it had become normality and his way of life. It was the conditions of his parole that prevented him being free after he left, and the world had changed to a nearly unrecognisable place in 50 years, so much that it scared him. Brooks found his freedom by releasing himself from his parole, and going to a place where he could find peace. Death was his freedom.
Jake was a bird that Brooks nursed to health as a chick. Before Brooks left the prison, he set Jake free. After this, Jake is not seen again and we assume that he is living his new life outside the prison walls. I think that Jake finds freedom unexpectedly. He didn’t feel a prisoner because he had Brooks to care for him, and life inside Shawshank was all he ever knew, but birds are not meant to be kept in this environment. Jake was released into the life he was meant to lead, and found a freedom he never knew he needed.
Both of these characters represent Red’s freedom. Similarly to Brooks, after 30 years in Shawshank, Red has become “institutionalised” and has found that prison life is his normality. He also has a purpose here: the man who knows how to get things, and, like Brooks, he feels trapped by his parole on release. But the promise he made to Andy keeps him from following the librarian’s path. When he finds Andy in Mexico I think he realises that this is freedom. Reunited with his friend, unhindered by parole, and far away from Shawshank, he is happy. This is where I would compare him to Jake: he found freedom unexpectedly, as when he was first released he thought he wouldn’t find happiness in life outside Shawshank. Red chose not to kill himself, he chose to keep his promise, find Andy, and chase down a better path. He had the freedom to choose where his life would go.
Andy himself is obviously free when he breaks out of Shawshank and travels to Mexico – that is his true freedom – but even before then, he finds moments of freedom inside the prison. Andy is driven by an undying sense of hope, and the knowledge that he is innocent of the crime he is convicted for, and he uses this to create a sense of freedom within Shawshank. The first instance of this is when he discusses finance with Captain Hadley and gets bottles of beer for some of the other inmates. He then plays the record across the whole prison in defiance of the Warden, making everyone feel free for a few moments, as Red says. And when he expands the library and gives people the opportunity to work for high school diplomas, he gives them yet more freedom. He acts as a beacon of light to the other inmates and Red describes Andy as a bird with bright feathers, down to the hope he lives by and the moments of brightness he brings to an otherwise dark and dull place. Andy suits life on the outside, which is why I would compare him to Jake; as Red says, “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged.”