The Shawshank Redemption

A series of Oxfordian Guides to popular plays and films outside the Shakespearean Canon.

1. The Shawshank Redemption 1994(?)

Directorship (claimed) Frank Darabont
Authorship (claimed) Stephen King

The case for doubt

Film scholars have long accepted that a script ascription to Stephen King is no more than a mask for the product of all-purpose teams of genre-dedicated writer’s rooms. The use of the pseudonym Stephen King, which was once the authentic and unique property of Richard Bachman, aka John Swithen, has diluted to encompass an oeuvre far too numerous for a single author.

With Shawshank, the orthodox viewpoint also has to explain how the most successful and beloved film in history came to be directed by the unknown Frank Darabont, a director who to this day has nothing else in his CV of any significance. His other works are few and obscure. The Green Mile, The Walking Dead, Frankenstein and so on, have remained stubbornly unpopular with all bar the tiniest of cult followings. Their lead actors remain completely unknown. Who today can name even one film by Eric Stolts, Thomas Hanks or Kenneth Branner? Imdb is silent on the careers of all three.

The biographical evidence

Biographical coincidence, as always, remains the most solid tool in the attributionist’s kit. Where does it lead us with Shawshank?

This film centres on the supposedly fictional life of a character called Andy Dufresne. We are introduced to Andy, grinding his teeth outside his own house as a Golf Pro plays hospitals with Andy’s wife inside. This dramatic device is known as the bed trick and would normally significantly reduce our list of possible candidates. However, as anyone who watches Craig Ferguson can attest, the bed trick is too common in Hollywood to be helpful.

Cut to Andy standing in the dock and we hear his name for the first time. Dufresne. This a thinly disguised Veronym. After detailed research, it becomes apparent that the identity of the individual upon whose biography our tale will be based is none other than The Vicomte André Eugène du Ferraine, 17th Vicomte de Malmédy, the famous 1930’s Belgian laundry billionaire. The homonymic connections are excellent. Furthermore, simply adding some letters and taking a few away produces a perfect anagram and the biographical similarities, as we shall see, produce far too many coincidences to allow any doubt.

To get us firmly on the right track early, we get two further clues in the court room scene. “She said she wanted a divorce in Reno.” and “She packed a bag and went to stay with Mr. Quentin.” In 1936, de Ferraine divorced his wife Nora (Nor-e, anag. Reno) and took up residence in the French town of St Quentin.

This should be enough to prime any experienced Oxfordian investigator. Anyone still unconvinced that what we are watching is a roman a clé will now be alerted by the prison procession in which some cons stand watching the new prisoners walking in to Shawshank while they make guesses as to their identity. 

RED (V.O.) 

I must admit I didn't think much of 
Andy first time I laid eyes on him. 
He might'a been important on the 
outside, but in here he was just a 
little turd in prison grays. Looked
like a stiff breeze could blow him 
over. That was my first impression 
of the man. “

Now we come to a keystone clue sufficiently clichéd to make the eyebrows of even most jaded attributionist stand to attention. The Bible. Holding up a copy of the 1578 Geneva Bible, the warden says “I believe in two things. Discipline and the Bible. Here, you'll receive both.”  There are no Bible classes at Shawshank, of course. This is intended as a reference to Du Ferraine’s involvement with religious cultism at The Church of the Parsimonious but Fundamentally Well-Intentioned Samaritan and a forward reference to the big spiritual climax when it is revealed that the warden has been dead from the beginning of the film.

But perhaps we get ahead of ourselves.

After Andy settles in, the laundry plot gets fully underway as Andy begins his quest for Hexlite, one of two laundry-based leitmotivs that will run throughout the film. The writers allow themselves many little flourishes of misdirection, such as suggesting that Andy might experience worse things than bad grooming and clothes advice from the prison’s gay community. Then the second, more important laundry leitmotiv is powerfully stated. ‘Get busy living or get busy dyeing’ followed by yet more misdirection as the plot careers off the rails into what seems to be a diversion with books and education, but this is merely another writer’s conjuror’s trick, cunningly limiting potential authors to those who, like Du Ferraine in Ghent, have founded public libraries.

Script Extract - note the wobble

ANDY (V.O.)

 

Dear Red.
If you're reading this, you've gotten out. And if you've come this far, maybe you're willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don't you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I'll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready.
(beat)
Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.
Your friend. Andy.

By now, tears are spilling silently down Red's cheeks. He opens the other envelope and fans out a stack of new fifty- dollar bills. Twenty of them. A thousand dollars.

293 INT -- RED'S ROOM -- DAY (1967) 293
Red is dressed in his suit. He finishes knotting his tie, puts his hat on. His bag is by the door. He takes one last look around. Only one thing left to do. He pulls a wooden chair to the center of the room and gazes up at the ceiling beam.

RED (V.O.)
Get busy living or get busy dying. That is goddamn right.

He steps up on the chair. It wobbles under his weight.

The next major theme ties two more biographical strands together, accountancy and tax dodging, as Andy takes over the fiscal lives of the guards and eventually, the Governor himself. It is at this point that anyone familiar with the life of our Vicomte may feel entitled to stand up in the audience and shout “I told you so.” There can be no doubt we are looking at the Belgian millionaire tax exile, now.

After the expiation ritual of his escape, once Andy’s innocence is established, many find the ending unconvincing or miss the details which reveal that in real life, Andy was executed for the double murder. The entire story has, in fact, taken place in the literal Catholic purgatory, an old Papist construct, rather then the metaphorical purgatory of Shawshank (the Ferraine's were old-school religionists). Many more miss Morgan Freeman’s actual suicide before the afterlife reunion on a beach for those who died by hanging. The hazy, seraphic littoral acquires beatific significance at the re-entry of the now heavenly laundry leitmotiv as the theme music swells and the two friends link arms and go off in search of Brooks and some more Hexlite.

There is much to discuss. Obvious clues abound and many more subtle hints reward repeated viewing as a tapestry of allusive detail reveals the unreality of the world of Shakeshank, strand by strand. For example, the microphone in the opera scene is a Grundig RX-990 which, of course, would not have had the input bandwidth to retransmit more than a fraction of the soprano voices.

Once again, however, the cumulative effect of biographical argument can leave no one in any doubt that we are watching the work of a team, a writer’s room at the top of its game, serving up an lightly allegorised account of the life of the Vicomte de Ferraine, carefully covered up for legal reasons.

And the director?

Are we really forced to discount David Lean because he died three years before the film was made? No letters or production documents exist with dates later than 1/2/1991. Nor are any of the cast otherwise engaged at the crucial time. What is the likelihood of all 22 named actors being unengaged from 31/10/1990 to 31/1/1991? Impossible? Of course it is. Lean is right in the frame for this one.

 

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