Filmic Context: Print -- Video -- Online
Blake, Richard A. “The Crucible.” America Feb. 1997: 24-27.
Arthur Miller's original play, which he adapted for the screen, was an extended political allegory, a surgical analysis of the anti-Communist hysteria of the early cold war period. Now the play as a film, stands on its own as an incisive examination of the human condition. The results do not always inspire or edify, but they do make us think. How is it possible that the loftiest of human institutions, like religion and the law, can be corrupted by human avarice, or even human ignorance? Why does reason crumble at key moments in history? How can a longing for community in the service of the commonweal, without which civilization would be impossible, be so easily perverted into racial politics, religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and a final solution? And why, conversely, does individual reason become so easily swallowed by mob hysteria?
The girls are given an opportunity to seize the power that has been accidentally handed to them. Others join in the feeding frenzy, as opportunists more than as sharks. The local minister, a Harvard man, has predictably alienated his congregation through his arrogance. His unrelenting zeal to rid the town of Satan and his emissaries might reestablish his credentials as a man of God and, in effect, save his job. A visiting clerical expert, whose competence in such matters is established by the weight of the books he carries, seizes the moment to cultivate a wider reputation for himself by seeing the devil's work where others, less astutely trained, had failed to detect Satan's sooty fingerprints. A local landlord denounces a neighbor so that he can take over the poor man's property as his own. A frustrated mother, embittered by the deaths of her children, accuses other women, who, she spitefully reasons, must have been favored by Satan so that their children survived.
Everyone, save the convicted and hanged, profits from the hysteria, including Magistrate Danforth and his colleagues, who are intent on transforming this howling wilderness in the New World into a second Eden, nourished by God's Ten Commandments and the Crown's swift justice. If they accomplish this, their reputations are secure, both in the rolls of the heavenly hosts and in the history of the colony. One wonders how such men could be so gullible, so impervious to the evidence and yet so convinced of their wisdom.
Coe, Jonathan. “The Crucible.” New Statesman Feb. 1997: 43.
The Crucible is a screen version of Arthur Miller’s witch-hunt drama, adapted by Miller and directed by Nicholas Hytner. Miller was so anxious not to end up with "a static photographed play" that he attempted to "put the play out of mind as much as possible and proceed as though it never existed.” In this he was encouraged and aided by Hytner, who urged a similarly radical rethink on Alan Bennett for his adaptation of The Madness of George III.
As a result, instead of being confined to the courtroom, and to rooms in Proctor's and the Reverend Parris's house -- where the three acts of the play take place -- we get to roam freely around the town of Salem and even to witness the scene of naked teenagers dancing in the forest that instigates the whole narrative. The production design is impeccable, the blue Massachusetts skies and weatherboard houses are striking, but what the film has gained in pseudo-verisimilitude, it has lost in universality.
It's the very theatricality of The Crucible that makes it such a potent and flexible parable of ideological repression. The film-makers talk a good deal in the production notes about its timelessness, not just mentioning the usual parallels with McCarthyism but invoking child-abuse scandals and the "rigid intellectual orthodoxies" of today's American campuses. But what they end up with is a decent, occasionally moving, historically very specific movie about the Salem witch trials. For the only real risk-taking we have to wait until the film's final seconds, which differ from the play's, and are brutally and beautifully calculated.
Decter, Midge. “The Crucible.” Commentary March 1997: 54-57.
As Miller informs us in his preface to the published screenplay of The Crucible, he always believed that films were of a lower order than plays, and so for a long time he successfully resisted translating his dramas to the screen. Although we never really learn what finally convinced Miller to take The Crucible in hand and transform himself from artist to craftsman, from the standpoint of the play his decision has been, to say the least, a salutary one. What is the story Miller wishes to tell, especially in relation to the story Hytner and the actors actually make us see? The ghost of McCarthyism has by now long since been laid.
The fact that Miller's version of the Salem story is inauthentic and that his Puritans bear little resemblance to the genuine article is not really the point. After all, what audiences want is not to be historically informed but to be really engaged and engage us The Crucible does. Still, it remains the case that Miller has something more than this in mind. Though he has agreed to abide by the limiting requirements of filmmaking, he clearly wishes to "show" us more than is on the screen. In particular, he would help us to recognize what he himself has long known to be a reliable truth: namely, that in any conflict, those who abide by the dictates of the on-going system are almost certainly morally compromised, while those whom the system would cast out are almost certainly its innocent victims and martyrs.
In the course of his own introduction to the published screenplay, Nicholas Hytner mentions being struck by The Crucible's "alarming topicality": just as it once spoke to the issue of Joe McCarthy. Hytner writes that it speaks today to such problems as the bigotry of religious fundamentalists and communities torn apart by accusations of child abuse. In other words, now as ever, falsehood has a million friends, the truth but few.
Holt, Linda. “Bleeding Love Again.” Times Literary Supplement March 1997: 20.
Nicholas Hytner’s film attempts to show more and tell less. Showing more is good, but not enough “telling” misses the point and leaves Hytner with flat characters and melodramas. Witch-hunts, with their testimonies and interrogations, are irreducibly linguistic. To be fair, Arthur Miller’s play also suffers from these tendencies. The film exacerbates them by beefing up the sexual conflict between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.
From the start, we share Proctor’s vantage point. To American economic man, ploughing his lonely furrow, Salem’s witchery is little more than a joke, until it touches his household. It engages his, and our, interest only when it kick-starts the romantic plot. But doing so reduces the witch-hunt to a narrative device.
Locations, interiors and costumes may be meticulously authentic, but the paraphernalia of heritage drama reveal nothing significant about Salem in 1692. Hytner’s “whole society” rarely gels into more than backdrop.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “The Crucible.” New Republic Dec. 1996: 30-33.
Presented now as a film, The Crucible is actually helped by the fact that no topical analogy applies. With no need to weather the political-analogy test, freed too of the gratitude of an audience hungry for anti-McCarthyism, the play stands on its own and is better for it.
Miller says that he saw his way into the historical material, as a playwright, when he read in the record about a gesture of Abigail's toward John, a gesture revealing tenderness. Thus the play became possible for him when he saw sex as a motivation for Abigail's charges; to which he added land greediness in others. No one can quarrel with the possible truth of Miller's interpretation, but it's noteworthy that he couldn't envision his play until he saw it in sexual and material terms.
Forty years after it was written, shorn of contemporary "utility," the play stands a bit taller, especially toward the end, where Proctor must make his gaunt choice. When he rips up his false and cowardly confession, thus choosing the gallows, his wife, weeping, throws herself on him. He looks at the judges and says, "Give them no tear. Show honor now, show a stony heart and sink them with it."
Miller made his own screen adaptation, and considerably experienced in this work, did it deftly. He has pruned his play for the sake of cinematic movement and expanded it for the same reason. For instance, to let us see the girls dancing in the woods. Kauffmann doesn't understand why John and Elizabeth have their last private conversation on a beach, with the jailers a hundred yards away, when all they had wanted was to be alone. Miller has clearly had a fresh look at his work and has restructured it as if he had conceived it for the screen; he hasn't been content to saw up his play and re-tack it together.
Morgan, Edmund S. “Bewitched.” New York Review of Books Jan. 1997: 4-5
The film and play are ostensibly about the way mass madness can overcome justice, as it did at Salem in 1692, as it did in the McCarthy hearings at the time Miller was writing the play, and as it has before and since in too many times and places. The theme is universal, and the very fact that witchcraft is so easily discredited today only gives recognition when we watch the otherwise sober men and women of Salem take fright at the Devil’s imagined presence.
In short, this is a powerful version of a powerful play. It successfully overcomes the restraints laid on it in transformation from the stage. John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail Williams, and most of the other characters shown were real people, and much of what they did and had done to the characters has been established as historical fact. The Crucible would lose much of its power if it were not anchored to the notorious witch-hunt already fixed. Arthur Miller was surely entitled to make things up that did not happen because if he didn’t, the film would be a mere documentary.
The makers of the film have recognized that its success depends, at least in part, on the audience’s acceptance of its resemblance to reality. They have been scrupulous in making their Salem look like the real thing. The producers wanted “to make the most authentic film possible.”
Morgan, Marie. “The Crucible.” New England Quarterly March 1997: 125-29.
Comparison of the text of the 1953 play, The Crucible, with the screenplay finds the author opening up his story. How he re-conceives the play is made clear from the outset. Repressed sexuality breaking out of the bounds will drive the action of the film more explicitly than it did the play. A nocturnal gathering of Salem’s adolescent females in the forest sets the tone for the new Crucible.
The intent of the film is to demonstrate the malleability of people in the mass, bent on working off the old grudges of an insular community. This is because the cards are stacked so heavily in favor of rationalism and empiricism, specifically, social psychological models of crowd behavior. We are meant to think not only of the Army-McCarthy hearings but also of the McMartin child molestation trials. Or perhaps the Tawana Brawley incident will come to mind.
The Miller-Hytner collaboration is an absorbing film framed around a whole-souled secularism. We are brought, through the glamour of exceptional acting and direction, to see what a given community, in the throes of a given hysteria, can be cozened into believing, repudiating in the process any notions of propriety, safety, or the right of private judgment. Over against the paranoia, the mob mentality, and the deceptive arguments for perverting justice, Miller and Hytner give us not the redemptive power of faith but the refusal to purchase freedom with a lie.
Weales, Gerald ed. Arthur Miller The Crucible: Text and Criticism. Philadelphia: Penguin Books, 1977.
Provides full text from Arthur Miller’s original play, The Crucible. There are comments and reviews on the production of The Crucible in the theatre. There are also essays assessing the play and the playwright and essays that provide the historical and contemporary context of the play.
The Crucible. CD-Rom. New York: Penguin Books. 1994.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Screenplay. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Indictment, The McMartin Trial. HBO Home Video, 1995. Not Available for Viewing.
Senator Joseph McCarthy: An American Inquisitor.
He hit on a sure-fire way to polish his political star. But the ambitious Wisconsin Senator has gone down in history as the driving force behind one of the most shameful and disturbing eras in American history. Joseph P. McCarthy had one of the most tumultuous political careers of the century. His accusations that communists had infiltrated the State Department kicked off the "Red Scare," and for several years his constant finger-pointing made him the most powerful and feared politician in America. Biography® revisits the McCarthy era for a probing look at the climate of suspicion and paranoia he created and sustained. Through extensive interviews and fascinating archival footage, trace his rise from a small-town Midwestern chicken farmer to the heights of power and his precipitous fall from grace. Stunning footage of the Army hearings that marked the beginning of the end for McCarthy is featured. (Unseen; information from Biography.com.)
20th Century with Mike Wallace: Epidemic of Fear.
The heady glow of victory after World War II was not long-lived. America found itself a superpower in a divided and changing world. China turned communist, Soviet armies gobbled up Eastern Europe, and global nuclear war was a real threat. In this unsettled climate, the spectre of subversives in our midst boiled over into one of the darkest periods in the history of American politics. The House Un-American Activities Committee cut a slash and burn path through the lives and careers of some of the biggest names in Hollywood. THE 20th CENTURY revisits this turbulent era through revealing interviews with people who lived through it, including director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr., two members of the infamous "Hollywood Ten." Journalist David Halberstam and historians David Oshinsky and Joseph Persico offer their insight into how Senator Joseph McCarthy and his cronies were able to carry out their vindictive and misguided campaign for so long, and examine its lingering effects. From the legitimate concern for National Security to the feeding frenzy of paranoia that resulted, this is an unflinching look at one of the low points of American political history. (Unseen; information from Biography.com.)
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction
This web site provides facts and inaccuracies behind the film/play, The Crucible. Some inaccuracies in the play are that there were those afflicted besides the girls, there were important persons not included in the film or play, and there was no wild dancing ritual
The Crucible Project
This web site gives the whole background of the Salem witch trials and The Crucible from the history of the Puritans to McCarthyism and to the recent film. This is a student-based site created by two teachers. They tried to create the web site so that it would stimulate ideas about The Crucible and the Salem witch trials. They also provided questions so it would get students thinking.
Provides many links to learn more about The Crucible and the author, Arthur Miller. The links provide information on the history behind the play, visuals, audio clips, and more links.
World of the Puritans. Peter Brunette. Nov. 1999. http://www.film.com/filma/reviews/quickrev.idc?REV=1418
The Crucible is based on a 45-year-old play of the same name, a historically important drama written by Arthur Miller, undoubtedly America's greatest living playwright. Miller has himself written the screenplay and manages to open up the play to the wider spaces of film in ways that do not seem forced in the slightest. The most important thing about the play, of course, was that its story of a literal witch hunt was meant to be read allegorically, like Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," as a commentary on that other witch hunt of the early 50's, the hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which sought to root out all "subversives" from the entertainment industry.
This story of passion betrayed and standing up for one's principles in spite of the frenzy of the mob is mesmerizing on its own terms, especially as shot by Nicholas Hytner, director (whose handling of sound and silences is equally superb), but the knowing spectator also gets a frisson of allegorical delight when the accused are asked to "name names," as they were asked in the 50's, or when the judge assures them that "no uncorrupted man should fear this court," or when they are forced to lie to save themselves. The only element of the story that doesn't successfully survive the double translation from the 17th century to the 50's to the present is the film's sexual politics. The climax of the plot turns on accusations of "harlotry," and we are asked to condemn Abigail (played by Winona Ryder) ---- for her wanton lust. This is an old story, of course, blaming women for sexual temptation, one that occurs throughout the great classics of the Western world, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve. This undoubtedly played well in the 50's but rings false now.
The Crucible's stirring condemnation of absolutist thinking seems just as relevant today as it must have nearly 50 years ago.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Tina T. Kao, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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