Top Ten Great Escapes in Novels and Films
I think I’ll be forever drawn to stories about people escaping captivity, no matter their circumstance, because they are fueled by the primal instinct to be free.
The best of these are prison escape stories and if you were going to pull together a list of outstanding examples, it would be a long one. Inevitably, a few will be missed, but for me, the following come to mind and are in no particular order.
The Great Escape is Paul Brickhill’s story, chiefly about British prisoners who, in 1944, tunneled from Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp. This book has to be on everyone’s list for its sheer scope and ingenuity. It is truly inspiring because it’s based on true events.
Staying with stories inspired by real life, you’d have to include Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce, published in 1965. He drew upon his own experiences as a counterfeiter and safecracker and his time spent on a Florida chain gang. Pearce’s story has a sparse, poetic opening: “Every morning we count off through the gate in single file, our voices echoing out into the darkness and into the glare of the spotlights on the corners of the fence.” Pearce went on write the script for what became the classic movie, earning an Academy Award nomination. It’s a great story of the unbreakable human spirit.
Another example of the burning desire to be free is found in Papillon. This global bestseller is the autobiography of Henri Charrière, who escaped from Devil’s Island in 1945. Following the book’s publication in 1965, many observers noted that the story was heavier on fiction than fact, something the publisher acknowledged years later. Still, that does not detract from the engrossing illustration of one man’s determination not to be imprisoned.
Then there are stories that deal with the aftermath and underlying complexities of a prison break. One of the all-time greats is The Defiant Ones. The 1958 film was based on a story by Nedrick Young and set in the Deep South. It concerns two convicts, one black and one white, who are chained together when they escape. It’s a powerful story about racial tension and human dignity, one that stands as a classic.
Another story about the impact of a prison break is The Desperate Hours, a novel by Joseph Hayes, published in 1954. The book was inspired by the real case in the early 1950s of a family held hostage and terrorized in their home by escaped convicts. The story still stands as one of the most compelling tales of psychological tension in the genre.
No list would be complete without mention of the short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, written in 1962 by Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book about the daily survival of people imprisoned in a Soviet gulag was cited when Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This little masterpiece packs a powerful punch conveying the gloomy existence of inmates in a frozen prison where dreams of escape are futile.
On that note, we must also give praise to Night, published in 1960 by the late Elie Wiesel, also a Nobel Prize winner. His brilliant and short memoir about the horrors of life and death in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald should be required reading. The evil experienced there is unimaginable, yet the spirit triumphs and the world is richer for Wiesel having survived to tell about it.
Remaining with short works, Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption has to be included for the masterfully crafted tale on unyielding human determination for justice concerning Andy Dufresne, a man imprisoned for crimes he never committed.
Finally, for the pure delight of it, my vote for one of the wickedest escapes goes to Thomas Harris for the way Hannibal Lecter fled authorities from his temporary cell in Tennessee. That movement in The Silence of the Lambs stands as a work of gruesome, evil genius.