In 1982, Stephen King wrote a short novel called “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” King penned Shawshank along with some other short novels in a collection entitled Different Seasons. In 1994, that short story would come to life as the movie known and loved by many, The Shawshank Redemption. I recently went on a night tour of Alcatraz and it became blatantly clear and incredibly fascinating to me how the plot of The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, and the minor character of Brooks Hatlen, were inspired by the history of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz operated as a prison from 1934 to 1963. A little over 1,500 men stayed isolated in the San Francisco Bay during its 29-year stint as one of America’s most notorious prisons. Among those prisoners was Robert “Birdman” Stroud who got his nickname while in prison at Leavenworth, Kansas (he actually never had any birds while on Alcatraz). Stroud became an ornithologist while at Leavenworth and became very well-known in birding circles, though fans did not know he was a prisoner for much of the time. Stroud was an avid reader and lived much of his life in solitary confinement. Books and birds were his best friends.
Stroud was the inspiration of King’s character, Brooks Hatlen. Brooks Hatlen is an older character who runs the prison library. He befriends and raises a blackbird or crow named Jake that accompanies Hatlen throughout most of the story. After the night tour at Alcatraz, learning the story of Stroud and watching The Shawshank Redemption after, it’s blatantly clear that Stroud is meant to be represented by Hatlen in King’s work.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin escaped from their cells on Alcatraz. They used the handles of steel spoons to chisel away sections of the wall around the air vent in the back of their cells. Disguised by the weekly Alcatraz music hour, where inmates played instruments freely, Morris and the Anglin brothers broke through the backs of their cells and into the utility tunnel. They climbed the pipes and made it to the roof of Alcatraz prison. They launched into the San Francisco Bay later that night and still to this day have never been accounted for. The case on their escape attempts will remain open until their respective 100th birthdays. Some think that one or more of them escaped to Central or South America due to their library records and attempts to learn Spanish.
Anyone who has seen The Shawshank Redemption should immediately be able to tie the Morris/Anglin escape from Alcatraz to the story of Shawshank’s main character, Andy Dufresne. Dufresne spends the 19 years of his incarceration slowly digging out a tunnel from his cell, shielded at night by posters of famous America actresses from the mid-Twentieth century (Rita Hayworth being one such poster). On the night where Dufresne finally does escape, he is shielded by a loud thunderstorm as he beats a sewage pipe with a rock until it explodes, giving him access to the plumbing under and out of the prison. Dufresne escapes to Zihuatanejo, Mexico and his close friend Red meets him there shortly after being paroled.
In researching this post, there were a few who noted that The Shawshank Redemption story and movie were based on the 1979 film, Escape from Alcatraz. It should be noted that both were heavily inspired by the history - and ensuing mythology - of the escape from Alcatraz by Morris and the Anglin brothers in 1962.
I also want to thank Theresa, a historical interpreter for Alcatraz and the National Parks Service who led the night tour that I attended that led me to write this post.
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