Shawshank Prison and the art of leading change...

Could the greatest movie of all time hold the keys to inciting and leading your next change project?


In 1994, The Shawshank Redemption was a box office flop. Despite seven Academy Award nominations that year, the creators walked away from Oscar Night empty-handed. 24 years later, Frank Darabont’s uplifting prison drama gets the popular vote as one of the greatest movies of all time. For more than two decades it has dominated IMDB’s prestigious “Top Ten” list, trading places now and then with The Godfather.

I first watched “Shawshank” on a Friday evening after a particularly bad week in another kind of prison, to wit, my place of work. After the film ended, I walked the empty halls of the Pavilion shopping centre wondering if I would ever see my life the same way again. How do you account for such an epiphany after two relatively short hours in a movie house?


The simple answer is “screenwriting”, one of the most persuasive art forms there is. No-one has contributed more to its understanding and practice than Christopher Vogler, author of “The Writer’s Journey” and a story consultant to Disney’s “The Lion King”. The book is a seminal resource for screenwriters and directors. It painstakingly maps the universal story arcs, character archetypes and plot devices that lie behind great films. While the average audience member does not always consciously recognise these elements, something deep within discerns the magic nonetheless.


The great movies, argues Vogler, are great not purely because of acting, direction, and special effects but because their creators have fanatically adhered to story and structure. It is the orientation that these things provide that audiences secretly hunger for. They are, in Vogler’s words, “an antidote to the shapeless, chaotic nature of the world that surrounds them.'' Bobette Buster, another screenwriting guru who has consulted widely with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Pixar, and Disney, agrees: “We live in the most emotionally cluttered time in history. A well-structured story provides clarity amidst the chaos of competing signals”.

That was the secret sauce of The Shawshank Redemption - a work of such screenwriting genius that it took not just its leading characters on a change journey but you the viewer too. Sometimes, much like the film’s brutal prison guard Byron Hadley, the story man-handled you along. Other times it was more winsome. Either way, the process was both cunning in conception and relentless in execution.


If these principles hold true for a movie that changed the way people came to understand hope and freedom, could they also hold true in the real world too? Put another way, could the screenwriter’s touch bring clarity to the chaotic raw materials of your own transformation challenge? Christopher Vogler believes the screenwriter’s toolkit can be applied to understanding almost any human problem. “It is a key to life as well as a major instrument for dealing effectively with any mass audience”. Over the next few posts, I will explore the practical implications of this statement, drawing liberally from my favourite films whilst doing so. It is, to say the least, a very exploratory exercise but I hope you’ll enjoy it.


See you next week...


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