As many cinephiles know, the Internet Movie Database has an ongoing ranking system known as the “Top 250.” Now given the nature of user ratings, this list is by no means the definitive source for film rankings, as for instance Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight somehow ranks number four on the list. That aside, the Top 250 is surprisingly diverse and occasionally historically conscious, with films like 12 Angry Men and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly gracing the top ten. More surprising than the appearance of Batman in the top five is the inclusion of two films, numbers one and five respectively, that were not only released in the same year, but were in fact released on the same day. These two films are Frank Darabont’s incarceration drama The Shawshank Redemption and the ineffable Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
As we have just passed the twentieth anniversary of these masterpieces, it is important to pay our respects to the heavyweights of October 14, 1994.
While both are now considered cinematic classics, that wasn’t always the case. At least at the box office. Tarantino’s black comedy crime film, Pulp Fiction, won the box office for the weekend of October 14-16 with a gross of $9,311,882 or £5,761,447, edging out Sly Stallone’s The Specialist. But way down the list, in ninth place, was The Shawshank Redemption, with a measly gross of $2,402,549 or £1,486,505. Now for the nitpickers out there, I feel obligated to acknowledge that Shawshank was released on thirty-three screens September 23, 1994. However, the film, along with Pulp Fiction, went wide on October 14. And although, Pulp dominated the weekend box office, when you consider the lifespan of these films, and the legacy they have left, their respective grosses are comparatively insignificant.
On paper and on screen, these two films could not be any different. Shawshank is an adaptation of a Stephen King short story: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Pulp Fiction is 154 minutes of twisted, impossible to categorise iconoclasm that only Quentin Tarantino could create. Shawshank is a slow building, methodical tale of the perils of incarceration and false imprisonment. Pulp is a non-linear, intersecting, and notably out of sequence genre film. But nevertheless, despite their obvious differences, the films were and are respectively beloved by critics and audiences alike. Each film went on to receive seven Oscar nominations at the 1995 Academy Awards, including Best Picture nods for both films. However Shawshank failed to garner a single trophy and Pulp Fiction only took him one statue, a Best Original Screenplay win for Tarantino and Roger Avary. Famously both films also lost out to Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump for Best Picture.
Despite their respective award season disappointments, both films rose to notoriety in the wake of their initial releases. In the United States, Shawshank was resurrected due to its pick up from the TNT television network, which initially broadcast the film in June 1997, as the first feature in its Saturday Night New Classics series. Due to continued high ratings, TNT has aired The Shawshank Redemption about once every two months since its television début, making it a staple in American households. As a result of its accessibility and its inclusion of a younger Morgan Freeman, Shawshank has carved out a reputation as a must see, a claim supported by its #1 ranking and 9.2 rating on the IMDB Top 250. Additionally, for young adolescents in America, the film has become a bridge of sorts, serving as the starting point and subsequent gateway into more sophisticated, adult cinema.
Further down that journey into cinematic education, but not too far, is Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. While Pulp may be less accessible than Shawshank, due to its non-linear structure, the darkly comic heartbeat set against a noir crime drama backdrop has made Tarantino’s film a pop-culture touchstone. Twenty years later, you’d be hard pressed to enter a university bedroom and not find yourself starring at Uma Thruman’s Mia Wallace or Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield. The film has been credited with creating a Hollywood culture of actors switching back and forth between independent and studio productions, due to the array of movie stars that appear in Pulp Fiction and the success it brought to their careers. By casting Travolta as the notorious Vincent Vega, Tarantino rescued him from the dance floor that was his career and turned him into a staple of 1990s gangster films. Also, unlike Shawshank, or at least to a greater extent, Pulp Fiction has had a much wider global reach. In 2006, the British magazine Total Film ranked Pulp as the number three film in history and a nationwide poll conducted by Channel 4 in 2001 ranked the film as the fourth best film of all time.
It seems almost pointless to try and compare these two master works. But the cultural chord that they have struck over the course of their twenty-year lifespans is obvious and significant and has naturally bound them together forever. To me, these films have become such a big part of global cinematic culture, that if they ever remade The Shawshank Redemption, it might be with the Pulp Fiction cover poster of Uma Thurman instead of Rita Hayworth.