The Essential Voice of Red
I may have previously given the impression that I generally don’t like it when good stories get adapted to suit another medium, such as when a book is adapted for film. If that is the case, I owe you an apology because that is not exactly what I meant and it is certainly not true. Remakes and adaptations often can be very good if they are made by someone who knows exactly what they are doing.
The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont) is, in my opinion, one of the most splendid films I have ever had the privilege of watching, based on the equally splendid Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens (though really, you should have either read it or watched it by now; everyone should have) but suffice it to say that it is set in the Shawshank State Penitentiary and follows the story of a man called Andy (portrayed in the film by Tim Robbins) who befriends a fellow convict called Red (Morgan Freeman) while serving a life sentence for murder. In both the book and the film, Red also acts as the narrator. There are lots of good things about the film adaptation I could focus on, but it’s the narrative voice in the film and the book I want to focus on just now, because it is a prime example of a director demonstrating that he knew exactly what he was doing.
At first, Morgan Freeman might seem like an odd choice to play a character who the book describes as a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. A less skilled director may have been tempted to simply cast a good actor who more or less fitted the physical description. Wonderful an actor though he is, this would clearly not be Morgan Freeman. No accent he could put on would change the fact that he simply does not look like a middle-aged Irish man with greying red hair. But when you read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, it is hard not to hear Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice on almost every word.
Narrative voice is always important in fiction but especially in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. The narrative is more reflective than descriptive, giving us only snapshots of how Red remembers the specific events that occurred in Shawshank during the twenty-seven years of Andy’s incarceration, woven together in such a way as to create a fully fledged description of how Andy arrived at Shawshank, protected himself while there and eventually made his dramatic exit, rather than giving us a blow-by-blow account of everything that happened to Andy or to Red.
It is this, the narrative voice in the book, that makes this role so right for Morgan Freeman. Other very famous and very excellent actors were considered and they might have even been able to do the character justice to some extent but I doubt if anyone else could have pulled off the voice-over narration quite the way Morgan Freeman did. There was a worldly-wisdom about Red in the novella which suits the type of character Morgan Freeman typically plays so well. He observes what is going on around him and he evaluates his own relationship with Andy in that philosophical and darkly humorous way that we have come to expect from Morgan Freeman. Given that the novella is written in the form of Red’s own reflections on his relationship with Andy through-out the course of his sentence, I think it was probably essential that this narrative voice, created by Stephen King in the novella, was maintained for Darabont’s film adaptation.
I suppose it could be because I’ve seen the film that I imagine it in Freeman’s voice but I don’t think so. I’ve seen Live and Let Die more times than I care to number, but when I read the book, the 007 I encountered there was more like Daniel Craig’s Bond than Roger Moore’s. It wasn’t just what he said; it was how he said it. James Bond in the novels is a far colder man the somewhat playful character Roger Moore portrayed, no matter how alike the basic plots may be. Craig’s crisp, masculine voice delivers each short, bitey line in a way which fits the cruel persona we find in the books. The same is true of Red in Shawshank, though Bond gets away with using a wider variety of actors far more than Shawshank would have because the different kind of narrative voice it employs made voice-over narration unnecessary in the Bond films.
Of course, Morgan Freeman does not single-handedly make The Shawshank Redemption the movie it is. There are a million other good reasons to watch this film and all of the actors give a top-notch performance but for me, the actor Darabont cast to play Red was a make-or-break decision for this adaptation on account of that magnificent narrative voice employed in the novella and I’m pleased to say that when it came to casting for The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont chose well.