Great Characters: Brooks Hatlen ("The Shawshank Redemption")

July 1st, 2011 by

We may tend to think of Mentor characters as sage men and women, spouting off wisdom in memorable aphorisms. But there are all types of Mentors (as there are all archetypes). And in Brooks Hatlen in The Shawshank Redemption, we have a unique one: What I call a Dark Mentor.

Brooks has been a prisoner at Shawshank prison for over 50 years. Then for no apparent reason, the peaceful old man who feeds birds and tends to the library as his avocation puts a knife to a prisoner’s neck [Heywood]:

BROOKS
But it’s the only way they’ll let
me stay.

Brooks bursts into tears. The storm is over. Heywood
staggers free, gasping for air. Andy takes the knife,
passes it to Red. Brooks dissolves into Andy’s arms
with great heaving sobs.

ANDY
Take it easy. You’ll be all right.

HEYWOOD
Him? What about me? Crazy old
fool! Goddamn near slit my throat!

RED
You’ve had worse from shaving.
What’d you do to set him off?

HEYWOOD
Nothin’! Just came in to say
fare-thee-well.
(off their looks)
Ain’t you heard? His parole came through!

As it turns out, Brooks has been “institutionalized,” five decades of prison life changing the very soul of the man. And this is what happens upon his release from prison.

How is he a Dark Mentor? Because he cuts a trail for Red who when he is released, stays in the same boarding house as Brooks, the same bedroom as Brooks, even the same job as Brooks. And Brooks’ path leads toward suicide.

Red lies smoking in bed. Unable to sleep.

RED (V.O.)
Terrible thing, to live in fear.
Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all
too well. All I want is to be back
where things make sense. Where I
won’t have to be afraid all the time.

He glances up at the ceiling beam. “Brooks Hatlen was here.”

RED (V.O.)
Only one thing stops me. A promise
I made to Andy.

Andy (who is Red’s Attractor) and his offer of hope trumps the dark wisdom of death provided by Brooks:

As Red puts it, the final dialogue of the movie:

RED (V.O.)
I hope I can make it across the
border. I hope to see my friend
and shake his hand. I hope the
Pacific is as blue as it has been
in my dreams.
(beat)
I hope.

The impact of Red’s choice and the satisfaction of his reunion with Andy in Mexico would not mean nearly as much were it not for the Brooks Hatlen subplot, a Dark Mentor who challenges Red… and Red meets the test.

Brooks Hatlen: A great character.

8 thoughts on “Great Characters: Brooks Hatlen ("The Shawshank Redemption")

  1. Phil says:

    Always loved him on the bus, white-knuckled like a roller coaster ride, scared out of his wits.

    Genius, as is "Red was here too."

  2. Peter Dwight says:

    I just got my inspiration for the day! Great post!

  3. Adam Rabasca says:

    I think there is an odd parallel between Brooks and Alan Arkin's "Grandpa" in Little Miss Sunshine. Much like Brooks, Grandpa Edwin becomes trapped by the degeneration of age, dies, and is unexpectedly revived when Olive performs her dance at the pageant. Great blog, sir!

  4. Scott says:

    @Adam: The comparison between Brooks in "Shawshank" and Grandpa in "LMS" is an apt one and goes beyond the surface facts that they are (A) old guys and (B) die. The fact is both provide a Mentor function in their respective stories, Brooks as noted in the OP and Grandpa in teaching Olive her dance routine. And as Brooks' death hangs like a dark shadow over Red, representing the end point of giving into the destructive effects of 'institutionalization,' Grandpa's death also hangs over the group, especially the three figures of Richard, Frank and Dwayne, serving to relativize their seemingly big life-issues, and in so doing helping them to 'claim' life, living in the here and now, and the value of their flawed but finally genuine family.

    Thanks for making that point. I'd never thought of those characters in the same light, but it's a good comparison.

  5. James says:

    What I find most interesting about Brooks is that when he leaves the prison — the scenes shouldn't work.

    The movie literally takes a detour. All forward plot momentum stops. Red, who narrates the movie, stops talking about Andy (the protagonist, who he has been talking about the entire film) and instead focuses on Brooks for about 15 minutes.

    I really find this amazing. It's something that in commonsense shouldn't work. It should knock viewers out of the movie to make such a switch like this.

    I think it works FLAWLESSLY too, which is what I am so impressed by.

    I think it is much needed to show the outside world and the pressures that returning to society has when these men may or may not get released. And it most definitely sets up Red's leaving.

    I also think it is part of what make SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION one of the greatest movies of all time. I think you need to be open enough when writing to write "flawed" if it is going to be better.

  6. Sachin says:

    BROOKS
    But it's the only way they'll let
    me stay.

    The irony of Brooks's life was such, that had he killed somebody he could have lived, but as he himself said "I'm too old for that kind of nonsense" he had to kill himself.

    A brilliant character, true dark mentor..

  7. Rob Rich says:

    I finished King’s version not too long ago. It’s really interesting to see what Darabont created from the source material.

    In the book, Brooks was there for murdering his wife and daughter. The bird, Jake, was a pigeon (not a crow) and belonged to a guy barely mentioned, Sherwood Bolton. Upon his release, Sherwood let Jake go, and a week later, Red finds the bird dead in the prison yard. Brooks, he’s mentioned in just a few paragraphs, mainly to setup Andy’s job as Shawshank’s librarian. King doesn’t follow Brooks outside. Brooks never chisels his name or commits suicide.

    There’s a great line I believe gave Darabont the thread on the character: Red says about Brooks, “they trained him to like it inside the shithouse and then they threw him out.”

  8. […] no exceptions language is completely unacceptable in any hotel not catering to ex-convicts (think Brooks’ first and last stop outside of Shawshank) or drunk college kids on Spring Break. The Motort could […]

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