Two films of similar genre released within a couple of years of each other in the mid 1990s were The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, and Sleepers, directed by Barry Levinson. Both are now regular fixtures on UK television and the former has been for some time the number one film in the IMDB 250.
That these films are heavily influenced by the works of older Hollywood is admitted almost explicitly by their producers through their choices of when the narratives are set. The events of The Shawshank Redemption, based on a story by Stephen King, start in 1947 and last until 1966-1967. This mid-1960s period is coincidentally the setting of the first section of Lorenzo Carccatera’s novel Sleepers, whose second part takes place in 1981. Both films have similar plots where the lead characters endure imprisonment and further physical suffering just as does, for instance, the James Cagney character in Each Dawn I Die in 1939. Among other echoes from the past are that most of the faces in both films are white and that Sleepers is set among New York’s Italian and Irish communities with a Catholic priest playing a key role. One significant difference (unsurprisingly) is that both stories take about half an hour longer to tell than their 1930s-1940s equivalents.
Often in such dramas, the leading characters are imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and therefore their escape and revenge appear perfectly just. However, Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption come from a time when film makers are willing to be more morally ambiguous. The teenage leading characters in the former film are associated with the local mafia boss and are definitely guilty of the killing for which they are sent to reform school. The Shawshank Redemption spends most of its length ignoring the crimes for which all of its prisoners have been jailed, and only half way through does it raise the possibility that hero Andy Dufresne may have been convicted unfairly of the murder for which he was tried.
The explicit literary antecedent of both films is The Count of Monte Cristo. In Sleepers, Dumas’ novel is a favourite of the young narrator, “Shakes”, and later the grown-up Michael adopts Edmund, the first name of its hero, as a code word within his revenge plan. The novel is also mentioned as a notable volume in the prison library at Shawshank which Andy sets up. The novel was filmed at least once during Hollywood’s “golden age” as was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which has a similar plot of suffering and endurance. However, the popularity of Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption may also be connected to that of Nelson Mandela, the most esteemed ex-prisoner of the 1990s, who was widely and deeply admired even by people who would normally disapprove of violence used for political ends.
One modern element of both films is the overt reference to how new arrivals in prison face the risk of sexual abuse as well as physical brutality. Andy in Shawshank is able to defend himself against this, but the young boys in Sleepers are not, and their suffering at the hands of prison guards provokes the revenge depicted in the second half of the film. The scenes are not shown graphically, but the indirect references are chilling enough.
Stories of suffering and endurance usually require some suspension of disbelief from their audiences, but for me each of these films is imbalanced by the implausible ways in which the leading characters develop. While it is certainly believable that a child’s torture in prison might lead to an adult life of crime or addiction, it is not for me believable that the four young boys of Sleepers would remain close friends into adulthood when two have become violent criminals with addictions to alcohol and drugs while the other two are respectable law abiding college graduates, with one actually a district attourney who prosecutes criminals. This inconsistency makes the final scene of a comradely meal of triumph highly fanciful, where social worker friend Carol can even make a joke about whether the two criminal buddies will soon “go and shoot somebody”. The weakness in Shawshank is that the main evidence we are given of how the intelligent and successful young professional Andy changes during 20 years in prison is through regular large-scale (never small or personal!) acts of altruism, despite experience of solitary confinement, brutality by guards and fellow prisoners and routine accommodation in primitively bare and cramped conditions. We see him negotiating beers for one group of prison comrades, helping in the schooling of others, stocking the prison library single-handed, broadcasting Mozart music around the whole prison, and, although his skills are also used in large-scale financial corruption, he is always presented as a figure of nobility, almost of saintliness.
I once read Catherine Cookson say that that she had to set her stories in the past because the reader knew that in the present there were government social services to help people who suffer poverty and unemployment whereas she wanted her characters to succeed through individual effort and courage or through good fortune or the benevolence of others. Sleepers and The Shawshank Redemption will have retained their popularity because they are archetypal stories of endurance, resilience and reward, with only a few knowing modern touches, and audiences find such stories inspiring. You do still hope, though, that modern viewers will discover the older cinema prototypes which were made at the same time as these were set.
Few films are without some saving graces. For me, those of Sleepers are its convincing if idealised portrait of Manhattan at a time when it was home to working-class families rather more than corporations, millionaires and tourists, and the performance of Robert De Niro in the old-fashioned role of the Catholic priest, pillar of his community, one of his last before his film characterisations became more often broad or caricatured. In Shawshank Morgan Freeman’s role as the narrator/friend of Andy Dufresne is probably the one which established his status as the Spencer Tracy of his generation, a man of warm and authentic if hard-won gravitas and authority, which would lead coincidentally to the role of the aforementioned Nelson Mandela.
Present-day Hollywood producers are guilty of typecasting actors just as much as their predecessors from decades past. Some years after The Shawshank Redemption and Sleepers, Tim Robbins from the former film and Kevin Bacon from the latter were among the lead actors in Mystic River, whose plot bore notable similarity to that of Sleepers: an incident of violent abuse which involved a group of childhood friends and also affected their lives as adults.