Why is Red’s voiceover in “The Shawshank Redemption” so effective?
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), widely regarded as one of the greatest modern films, brings to life a poignant Stephen King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” about prison inmates and the power of hope. Its central focus is Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker imprisoned with a life sentence for a crime he seemingly didn’t commit. Over time, we see that Andy is a man of integrity and optimism who captivates and enriches the lives of those around him in prison.
Fellow inmate Red (Morgan Freeman) serves as the film’s narrator, presenting the story from his own perspective. Red freely admits he’s guilty. In King’s story, we learn Red killed his wife by disabling the brakes on her car, which led to the accidental death of a neighbor and her child. In both the stories and the film, we’re experiencing the tale through Red’s memories of Shawshank Prison and Andy, and everything we see and feel is through his eyes.
Voiceover narration in cinema can be an enabler for indolent and lazy writing; it lets stories to tell us how a character feels instead of portraying it believably. But when used appropriately, as in The Shawshank Redemption, the effect can be brilliant. Nobody is going to argue that the emotional weight of Red’s character exists only in his voiceover—instead, the device enhances his performance. First-person narration brings a credibility to the character who’s narrating, allows the story to unfold smoothly as it depicts a longer passage of time, and adds extra layers of observation and feeling to scenes. Think of Forrest Gump (1994) or Apocalypse Now (1979): these two classics likewise wouldn’t reach the same heights of artistry without their well-crafted first-person narrations.
Red’s first-person voiceover in The Shawshank Redemption speaks directly to the audience. The first sentence he speaks contains the word “you,” bringing the viewer into the film. He talks about being able to get things for people within the prison—cigarettes, brandy, anything within reason. As he narrates this information, the film shows him slipping a fellow inmate some smokes; it’s show and tell at its most literal, combined with the charming and character-defining voice of Morgan Freeman. That establishment of a friendly tone goes a long way and carries through the film—we sense that, even though we’re entering a maximum sexurity prison, this is not going to be a film that destroys all our hope with a realistic portrayal of all that’s wrong in the US prison system. Instead, we’re met by a guide we introduces us to his world in the spirit of friendship, and from the start we understand that we are going to emerge with something life-affirming and optimistic, if not in the outcome of the plot then at least in some of the human relationships or insights about life.
Red’s words aren’t just convict-talk; they are poetic and eloquent. He’s humorous and serene and paints a picture of prison life that covers everything from the emotional distress of those who first get incarcerated to the opposite difficulties for those who are institutionalized over long sentences. Within this environment, Red shows an almost idyllic appreciation for Andy and his endless maintenance of hope, and what lifts Red up about Andy lifts the audience up as well.
The narration in Shawshank is never a requirement for the associated scene to be understood. It moves the story along, breezing across time gaps and scenarios, but always serves primarily to enrich the already colorful story being told visually and dramatically. It lets Red’s character, a man who initially “didn’t think much” of Andy when he first arrived at the prison, amplify the significance Andy had on his life over time. Red starts the story as someone who feels a life sentence in prison does exactly that—it takes the life out of a man—and ends the film as an old man with renewed hope and enthusiasm. He concludes, “Get busy living or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.”
As Keith Storrier of ShoreScripts puts it, narration “is used to convey important insights into the narrator’s character, insights that may have come across clumsily if relayed via dialogue or visuals alone. Its warm, thoughtful delivery draws the audience into the story world as though they were being told this epic tale by a friendly storyteller. The narration does not tell the story, it merely comments on the story already being told through visuals.”
Red manages and controls the tone of the film, shifting from tension to humor to uplifting spirit. The Shawshank Redemption is a better film because of it, and Frank Darabont made the right decision leaving Stephen King’s original narrative device in the story. Red’s judgment can be trusted, his likability garners sympathy for the other characters, and he simply makes the story more beautiful and enjoyable as a result of his commentary.