“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Do not let the title of this article fool you; when Andy Dufresne speaks those words near the end of the film version of Shawshank Redemption my popcorn spills all over the floor as I cheer. Like the voters at IMDb, I too see this story as one of the best penned or filmed in the last 50 years.
Shawshank Redemption brims over with the basic yearning of man to find freedom: freedom from the past and freedom from what lies in the future because of the past. That yearning for freedom that leads Red to warn Andy, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” The themes of the story are unrelenting and inescapable. When all is said and done, you are more than willing to crawl with Andy through 500 yards of sewage just to raise your arms under the sweet freedom of the falling rain.
Stephen King, the author of Shawshank, swears he only discovered the themes of his story after writing it. In his excellent book for writers, On Writing, King warns fiction writers to be blind and deaf to theme when first writing a story:
Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of sacred cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. (p. 200)
I should close this little sermonette with a word of warning— starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. (p. 208)
What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in the reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message. (p. 214)
On one level, Stephen King is correct to say the story must come before any discovered theme. A compelling story compels readers and listeners to examine themes. Too many writers think the way to get their point across is to poke people in the eye with it. There is a place for the Firepoof’s of the world but it is doubtful many outside the choir will understand the song. Begin with theme and the story is likely to never be embraced.
At the same time, Rebecca LuElla Miller was correct in her response to a fellow writer when she wrote:
Your implication is that an intentional theme, by its existence, is either manipulative or will slap the reader in the face. This is the crux of my argument. Poorly written stories may have themes that do those things. Well-written ones won’t. Probably the most important thing I believe about writing is the need to craft themes as carefully as we do the other elements of fiction, and perhaps more so since theme needs to be nearly invisible. It should be the beams of our dwelling—indispensable and unseen, certainly planned, carefully built, not haphazardly added or left to the whim of the architect, or to his fundamental belief that houses should have beams.
King does his best to distance himself from intentional themes in his stories, but the same ideas crop up all too often for chance. Both The Green Mile and Shawhank resonate with the same undeniable longing – Redemption.
When I asked followers at Dare to Look to name stories that resonate with redemption, their answers were diverse: Les Miserable, The Last Sin Eater, The Cure, Stargate SG-1, Redeeming Love, Groundhog Day. Some of the authors represented, I am sure, were intentional in exploring the theme of redemption. Others probably happened upon it or even missed it all together.
From A Christmas Carol to Shawshank Redemption, one thing is certain, stories have a way of resonating with the lack of, hope for, or discovery of redemption.
Can you think of any more novels or movies that have this theme? Think hard. It may be there with a thunderous resound or a faint hum but its present more than you might think. So why does this theme keep slipping up on writers, sometimes in spite of themselves?