Shawshank Redemption Novella and Film Compare and Contrast
The 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption takes it inspiration from the Stephen King novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," the first of four stories collected in his 1982 book Different Seasons. While the film retains much of the novella's plot and structure, it nonetheless diverges in key areas, such as by adding, cutting, or conflating characters and scenes. The film makes these alterations for a number of reasons, and by examining the differences and similarities between the film and the novella one will be able to understand how casting decisions, time limitations, and an attention to visual drama unique to the film medium informed the major differences between the novella and the subsequent film adaptation.
Before examining the film and novella in greater detail, it will be useful to first address the critical reception of the novella, both as a means of contextualizing this analysis as well as determining the major details which informed the reception of either text in order to discover whether the initial reception of the book informed the changes which would later be seen in the film. The collection of novellas was reviewed twice by The New York Times, once in the regular paper and once in the supplemental book section. Both reviews consider King's writing to be substandard, or at least unpolished, but they nonetheless give "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" high marks. In his August 11, 1982, review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt calls the novella "a clever and triumphant account of a prison escape," noting that "the first and third stories [of the collection] - that is, the prison escape and the memoir - depend on conventions of horror, yet also transcend them by a considerable margin" (Lehmann-Haupt 1982). (The other story mentioned by Lehmann-Haupt is called "The Body," and was eventually adapted into the film Stand By Me).
The later review by Alan Cheuse notes this same disruption of horror tropes and style, remarking that "the first surprise comes early: the opening prison narrative titled "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" shows us that the creator of such studies of the criminal mind as "The Shining" and "The Dead Zone" can effectively treat innocence as well as guilt" (Cheuse 10). However, Cheuse is not quite as admiring of the story as Lehmann-Haupt, claiming that "the natural narrative force that previously has helped Mr. King overcome his often clumsy prose and sophomoric philosophizing churns through these pages stronger than ever before" so that "it's difficult to imagine any reader feeling a sense of awe at the way Mr. King bullies his way through this tough-guy novella about Dufresne's struggle to establish his innocence and free himself by any means possible," even if the story "does give off a certain warmth" (Cheuse 10). These criticisms are important to note, because some of the most dramatic changes visible in the film serve to lessen some of this "bullying" by altering the character of the narrator and replacing some of the "sophomoric" philosophizing with more emotionally resonant plot developments.
Having noted the criticisms leveled at "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," one may now examine the changes present in the film in order to see how these alterations may be related to the criticisms of the original story. The most obvious difference between the novella and the film is the narrator, Red. In the book, he is a white man with what was once "a big mop of carroty red hair" from which his nickname derives (King 54). In the film, however, Red is played by Morgan Freeman, and he explains his nickname somewhat cryptically by saying "It must be because I'm Irish." However, the change may have less to do with race and more to do with Freeman's particular abilities as an actor, because the casting choice seems to have helped erase some of the "tough-guy," bullying nature of the original novella's narration. As The New York Times noted in its 1994 review of the film, "Mr. Freeman is so quietly impressive here that there's reason to wish Red's role had more range," a role that Variety claims allows Freeman "a grace and dignity that come naturally," characteristics unlikely to be seen in the novella's version of Red, even if he maintains the same role of confidant and friend…