When was it exactly that Morgan Freeman became the “Mr. Narrator” we all know and love? If you give it some thought, he’s been at it a short life or two. Even South Park once took a light-hearted jab at the amount of narration work he’s done and posed the question: “How come every time something convoluted needs explaining, you show up?”
To which the faux-Freeman replied, “Because every time I show up and explain something, I earn a freckle.” Joking aside, it’s no secret that Freeman’s pop-culture status extends to every circle and touches nearly every genre, but where did it start? It all began with 1994’s “Shawshank Redemption”.
What truly sets this role apart is that our narrator, Ellis Boyd Redding, or “Red”, isn’t outright presented as the main character performing an interior monologue, nor is he omniscient or infallible. Quite the opposite actually; our narrator only knows what we know, and we only know what he knows. He’s a man telling us a story – a story about his best friend – to the best of his ability. He manages to tell this story so well in fact, that sometimes we forget he’s telling it. We forget that in this story about a story, our narrator happens to be the main character and our part to play is as his journal.
(And spoiler alert, in case you’ve never seen it or forgot: a man, let’s call him Andy, gets wrongly imprisoned, makes some friends, some enemies, and shocks everyone in the end. His best friend, let’s call him Red – aka Morgan Freeman is the one telling us the story.)
Why Red is the Real Main Character of Shawshank Redemption
On the surface, Andy Dufresne seems the main character of Shawshank Redemption, the beloved, but then again, you might be wrong – it’s Morgan Freeman. While the story itself seems like it’s centered around the life, wrongful conviction and eventual escape of Andy Dufresne, at its core, it’s a story about a story. And more specifically, about a man telling us that story.
His words carry us through the film so blissfully unaware of the fact that the narrator could possibly be the main character that we put all of our attention on Andy; because that’s all any narrator wants- to get lost in their story. He manages to whisk us away to a place where we’re experiencing things and seeing things as he experiences and sees them. In fact, he tells it so well that we forget. We forget he’s a convict. We forget that he’s a character telling us a story – we forget he’s in the same cage as Andy, even when they share a scene.
The Morgan Freeman we see on screen is presented almost entirely from our narrator. He rarely speaks about himself, except in relation to Andy. He tells us he’s the man who can get you things, but we never see how he gets them We know he has other friends in Shawshank, but we never see them unless they’re in the scene with Andy. What’s incredibly clever about this style of narration and storytelling is that the speaker falls into a secondary role.
Why We Love Morgan
While Freeman had done a few voiceover roles in pieces like The Civil War and Glory prior to the big-screen adaptation of the Steven King novella, it was this work on this film that truly put him on the map. It’s with good reason that following his narration in this role, Morgan Freeman secured himself the title of “Mr. Narrator”, only later to outdo himself and be dubbed “The Voice of God”.
Despite only ever winning a single Oscar in a supporting role over the course of his near 70-year career, he’s been nominated five times; claimed two Golden Globes, three Primetime Emmy nominations, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and one Tony nomination. And it’s not hard to see why he’s so beloved – his effortless baritone voice and calmly confident lyrical demeanor have lent themselves to at least 18 critically acclaimed narration projects over the past few decades and inspired countless spoofs, imitations and meta-commentary. He’s become the household gold standard for what a narrator should sound like and a benchmark for even celebrity voiceover actors to aspire to. He’s also the most impersonated voice on the internet; so much so to the point that he’s inspired endless Youtube tutorials on how to mimic not only his voice but method of story-telling as well. Freeman is so good at what he does, in fact, that he’s become one of the most sought-after voice navigation options on the Waze app and even serves as Mark Zuckerburg’s personal A.I. assistant. With a voice larger than life itself, it’s no surprise that Morgan Freeman is a pop-culture icon everyone knows and loves.
The Narrator as an Unreliable Informer
Throughout the film, Freeman gives us his honest, immediate opinion of what he sees and experiences, but what the audience ultimately forgets i that our narrator is unreliable.
“I must admit, I didn’t think much of Andy Dufresne the first moment I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze could blow him over – that was my first impression of the man.”
Among Freeman’s first lines in the film, it set a tone. Even a progression and precedent for what we know about Andy Dufresne.
One of the most fascinating aspects to the film is that it subverts the observer’s expectations by filtering them through the voice of ‘just another inmate’ who doesn’t know what’s going to happen any more than we do. Often, as a viewer, we come to rely on the narrator to shed light and explain what’s going on, but what sets Freeman’s role apart from most character narrations is that he’s just as surprised as we are. His shock is our shock; his questions are our questions – we learn things about the story as Freeman does and grow with him towards the climax and conclusion. Suffice to say, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen until it happens, and even then, it’s unreliable at best. After all, everyone in Shawshank is innocent and the audience only knows what their storyteller gives them to work with.
That’s what’s so incredible about this style of narration; we can’t be sure of a single thing. The first time you see the film, you can be sure that Andy crawled through a sewage pipe after tunneling out of his wall over 19 years. Yet, upon revisiting it with the unreliable narrator in mind, Andy might have left in a very different way altogether. For all the listener is aware, Morgan Freeman could have changed the story to fit a happy ending in order to keep himself going. Perhaps Andy’s dying wish was for Red to find a reason to live after getting out of Shawshank and our narrator is lying to himself out of self-preservation.
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, coach and thought leader in her industry. Her narrations have been heard on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in iMax, the White House and the Smithsonian.