Stephen King may well be regarded as the master of horror, but his penchant for gripping thrillers extends far beyond the screaming literary genre. Not confined by style or substance, King’s career is littered with moments that are not only engrossing on the page but have been successfully turned into blockbuster movies too. However, when he was approached by emerging filmmaker Frank Darabont about adapting one of his lesser-known novellas, King was almost certain it wouldn’t take off. The story in question would become the now-iconic 1994 picture Shawshank Redemption.
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t the first title that King had been approached to turn into a screenplay. In fact, King had already encountered success with countless other films based on his work, teaming up with some of the world’s greatest directors, with the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which King hated) and Brian De Palma’s blood-soaked classic Carrie (which he loved) sitting among the most celebrated. It meant that the first-time feature film director Darabont actually had very little to offer in terms of cache. But, what he did have was determination.
In 1976, with a growing estate and seemingly no end to his talents, King decided to open up his work to the wider world as he began his ‘The Dollar Baby’ initiative. The project allowed his short stories to be adapted into screenplays for the price of only one dollar. Darabont became one such baby when he adapted King’s 1978 story The Woman in the Mist into a 30-minute short that would come close to a nomination for an Academy Award.
The opportunity offered a great start for a young director, and it clearly impacted King. He was so impressed with the short film that he allowed Darabont to make a “handshake deal” on adapting his 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. The director approached King about adapting the novella, and the horror hero had a quick and easy way for them to work together.
King tells the story of their meeting as Darabont requested to adapt the story: “I said, ‘Sure, Frank, I’d love it.’ He said, ‘Well, OK, how much?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, man. Send me a cheque for $1,000 and write the screenplay, and if something happens with it, maybe we’ll all make a little money, and if nothing happens with it, I’ll send your cheque back’.”
Darabont was in charge of a huge feature film for the first time, and he had the acting talents of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman to help him along. The film was an arduous process that was shot across 18 hour days, seven days a week, never relenting in pursuit of finding the perfect way to tell King’s story. They achieved their goal and doubled the film’s budget at the box office — but did King ever cash that cheque?
“Everybody made a lot of money, and I had Frank’s $1,000 check framed and sent it back to him,” King revealed. It sparked a working relationship that would see Darabont once again help King, working on The Mist and The Green Mile. But there’s no doubt that Shawshank Redemption ranks as their finest collaboration, and certainly worth the $1,000 it should’ve cost.