Escape from Shawshank Redemption

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I am a big movie buff (some of you may remember I’ve even written a screenplay – – so, umm, any movie producers out there, drop me a line). When I love a movie, I’ll watch it a dozen times or more. Here on Slope, we’ve had some lively discussions about great movies, but one of the classics I never got around to watching was The Shawshank Redemption, even though it is consistently near the top of any list of great films.

Today I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I now understand why people like it so much. However, I was struck by the similarities between the movie and one of my favorites from my childhood, Escape From Alcatraz, which came out about fifteen years before Shawshank.

I mentioned how similar the movies seemed on my Twitter feed, and a few people went bananas (it’s kind of like daring to criticize cryptocurrencies……….all the zealot maniacs come out). In spite of this, I’d like to offer up my having-only-seen-it-once list of similarities:

  • The protagonist, new to the prison, is a highly intelligent and sympathetic character;
  • There are visible and important tensions between blacks and whites;
  • Plenty of gay innuendo, particularly in the shower;
  • The mess hall is a particularly important launch point for social interaction;
  • A convict sneaks food from the mess hall to his secret pet (in Alcatraz, it was a mouse, and in Shawshank, it was a crow);
  • The inmates take great pleasure in terrorizing the new convicts (“fresh fish”);
  • The warden establishes himself early on as especially tough; in both films, the warden is a slender, well-dressed man with glasses who makes a speech about how well-run the prison is;
  • A highly sympathetic older prisoner harms himself (in Alcatraz, “Doc” chops off his fingers after his art privileges are revoked, while in Shawshank, Brooks hangs himself out of despair)
  • The protagonist in each film is given a desirable job in the library, helping to distribute books to other prisoners;
  • The protagonist is sent to solitary confinement as punishment for insubordination;
  • In each film, our hero uses a small tool to dig his way out, and in both movies, he hides the tool inside a Bible;
  • The protagonist makes friends relatively early in each movie with a well-established black inmate who has power and influence among the other prisoners;

That’s a DOZEN similarities, and I’m not even trying that hard. There are a couple of other bits stolen from other movies too (like the white guy and the black guy agreeing to meet up later when life is better at a more desirable place – – in Shawshank, a Mexican seaside town, and in Forrest Gump, on a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico), but I think you get the point.

Shawshank is a terrific movie, but it isn’t exactly a pantheon of original plot points.