For the most part, this film was well received. Many of the critics thought the director, Nicholas Hytner, and the screenwriter, Arthur Miller, have brilliantly captured the chaos of the witch trials on film. Many of the critics think that the film has a place in any time period and that it speaks a universal theme of the lure of power and the nature of truth. They also spoke about how fear can control people’s lives and push them to do things they won’t ordinarily do. There were mixed reviews about the historical factor of the film. One says there is no historical reference and that the whole love affair between John Proctor and Abigail Williams was made up, while another critic said that the accounts were very similar to what happened in 1692 Salem.
Berardinelli, James. (No date). Newsgroup Reviews. 23 September 1999 <http://imdb.com/Reviews/64/6440>
Arthur Miller's 1953 play, The Crucible, was written during Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (for which Miller was called to testify in 1956). And, although the play is an historical allegory for the McCarthy period, its true power lies in its ability to be re-interpreted to fit any time period. Indeed, its fertile themes--the lure of power, the gullibility of those who believe they have a moral imperative, the need to accept responsibility for the consequences of all actions, and the nature of truth--are universal in scope. Events such as those depicted in The Crucible have recurred with alarming predictability throughout human history.
Miller has never claimed that his story is historically accurate, although many of the broader strokes correspond to events that actually occurred in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692. In that year, a wave of superstitious terror gripped the Puritan town. Nineteen villagers were hung as witches. Four died in prison. One was pressed to death when he refused to answer questions. It was an era, like that in America during the 1950s, when a mere accusation could doom a man or woman, and when justice often became secondary to saving face.
One of the most contemporarily relevant aspects of The Crucible, the ease with which justice can be manipulated and perverted, is what Hytner and Miller have chosen to highlight in this adaptation. A parallel-yet-integral theme relates to the thrill of power inherent in being the manipulator. Williams enjoys playing God until the circumstances she sets in motion gain enough momentum to escape her control. Late in the film, her eyes express the horror that she feels as the crushing ramifications of her masquerade emerge.
Whether on stage or on film, The Crucible is a powerful, thought-provoking production. This version illuminates the story's numerous strengths, resulting in a motion picture of surprising emotional and intellectual impact. By re-interpreting this classic so effectively, Hytner has assured that at least one version of The Crucible will become a part of film history.
Carr, Jay. “‘The Crucible’ Bewitches.” The Boston Globe 20 December 1996, city ed.: E1+.
The Crucible becomes provocatively multi-leveled. Salem witch trial drama is more electrifying than ever, boldly focusing as much on repressed sexuality as on political paranoia and conflagration. With Arthur Miller retooling his play for the screen, hysteria becomes the play's motor as director Nicholas Hytner's camera swirls dizzyingly through the Puritan settlement, making us feel the dislocation.
It's the community that's possessed, not the girls--although they certainly throw themselves into the accelerating frenzy. As old hatreds and land-grabbing schemes surface in the accusations, the camera movements create the force of rage that feeds the madness. Most chilling, scarier even than the power-tripping in the name of righteousness, is the film's view that the ultimate evils here are manipulation, exploitation, and the rigid tyranny of conformity.
The Crucible displays a mighty indignation that the truth won't necessarily set you free. The soul of the community resides in those suddenly labeled witches and criminals, and that by refusing to tolerate even the smallest deviation from their theocratic groupthink, the Puritans stifle the very freedom they fled to the New World to find.
Chang, Yahlin, and David Gates. “One Devil of a Time.” Newsweek 2 December 1996: 76.
In The Crucible the Salem witch trials, with their obsessive fear of conspiracy, their confessions and their rattings-out, play like the army-McCarthy hearings. To the movie industry, the play was at first too hot to handle: in the '50s Hollywood blacklisted actors, directors, and writers, often on evidence of Salem-quality shakiness. By the time blacklisting ended The Crucible had become something filmmakers were even more loath to touch: a classic supposedly bristling with moral and political messages.
Yet Miller built more ambiguity into The Crucible than he's generally given credit for. No character is wholly admirable or contemptible, and its ultimate message may simply be “Watch your back.” In his opening-night review, the influential critic Walter Kerr called it a "mechanical parable," but today it's possible to shrug off the play's allegorical elbows and winks. This pure product of the '50s now seems to allude to all sorts of things that might be on movie-going minds in the '90s: from adults accused of ritual child abuse to 6-year-olds accused of sexual harassment, from fundamentalist dread of the Great Satan to fundamentalist dread of the New World Order, from contamination by the AIDS virus to contamination by illegal immigrants to contamination by second-hand smoke. "There's a kind of floating paranoia in the world," says Miller. "I think that's maybe what makes the play seem to be always topical."
The real-life Abigail was 11 or 12 (not 17), the real-life Proctor in his 60s (not Daniel Day-Lewis); any affair between them was a historically iffy but dramatically visionary inference on Miller's part. And the real-life proceedings in Salem were even more brutal than the film suggests. The harrowing scene in which heavy stones are laid on a stubborn old man named Giles Corey until he dies under their weight is more harrowing still in an eyewitness account: Corey's tongue popped out and "the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying."
Kelley-Milburn, Deborah. (no date). Newsgroup Reviews. 23 September 1999.
The screenplay, written by Arthur Miller, is very close to the original. It retains the language and only adds a few scenes not in the play. Thus the essence of the play is intact. Great pains were taken to ensure the historical accuracy of everything in the film, right down to the actors' clothing. Nicholas Hytner has added a pulsating, dynamic feeling to the film that carries the audience along with the principals as they struggle with the exploding hysteria. Hytner and Miller aim to transcend 1692, and the 1950s for that matter, and they succeed.
In fact, all of the characters are multidimensional; even the accusers are not painted with a singularly dark brush. We learn, for example, that Abigail Williams witnessed the brutal slaying of her parents. One of the women who first cries witch, Ann Putnam, is made sympathetic by the revelation that of her eight children all but one has died. When her last child is "afflicted," she is terrified and desperate for an explanation. Her fear and rage fuel her accusations.
Kelley-Milburn has seen numerous articles which tell how The Crucible is relevant today, focusing on modern day "witch hunts" such as the lurid child sexual abuse cases. She believes Arthur Miller wasn’t writing specifically about anti-communism any more than he was writing specifically about witchcraft. Rather, The Crucible is about human nature -- about fear, pain, and the need for scapegoats. It's about corruption and the abuse of power. And ultimately it's about morality, justice, righteousness, and the power of truth.
Leeper, Mark R. ( no date). Newsgroup Reviews. 23 September 1999 <http://www.imdb.com/Reviews/65/6571>
The Crucible is the story of the Salem witch trials, but it is a lot more than that. It is an examination of a society that through fear gives unquestioned authority and power to a select few supposed defenders. The result is an exercise in power far worse than the threat it was intended to curb. The House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy, were the inspiration for Arthur Miller's original play, but the parallels he draws can be applied to any situation where the public allows itself to be ruled by fear rather than reason.
In some senses this production is a little too polished to feel accurate. The opening sequence shows a voodoo-like ceremony in the woods complete with mystic chalk symbols drawn on ground, and Tituba chanting a perfectly recorded version of the Yanvalou Chant. It was very theatrical but not very realistic. Some may find the film a little hard to follow, particularly in the first half-hour. The viewer is introduced to a large number of characters speaking in the manner of 17th Century English.
A word should be said about the accuracy of this film to the historical fact. It is not much beyond the names of some of the people. Abigail Williams was an eleven-year-old and John Proctor was sixty, so much of the Miller's tale of sexual revenge does not work as history. Miller is a writer who can tell a story of complexity with some profundity, but The Crucible is not historically accurate.
Maslin, Janet. “The Bewitching Power of Lies.” New York Times 27 Nov. 1996, late ed.: C9+.
We've grown so accustomed to seeing classic works transposed to jazzier settings that it's startling to see what Nicholas Hytner has done to The Crucible by playing it straight. Yet it is precisely by leaving Arthur Miller's 1953 play so emphatically in the Salem, Massachusetts, of 1692 that Hytner's vibrant screen version succeeds so well in transcending time and place. Handsome and impassioned, vigorously staged by the director of The Madness of King George, The Crucible is a reminder of the play's wide reach, which goes well beyond witch trials in any century.
As adapted gamely by the playwright into a screenplay that takes advantage of scenic backgrounds and photogenic stars, The Crucible now speaks to subtler forms of dishonesty and opportunism than it did before. This agile film is so simply, abstractly rooted in Salem's soil that it becomes free to suggest anything from the impact of religious fundamentalism on politics to the hysterical excess of tabloid television.
Along the way, The Crucible heats up its dramatic tale of marital betrayal and redemption without losing track of its central concern, the murderous power of lies. It's a long way from the McCarthy era--or from English class in junior high school, where the allegorical bluntness of the play remains evergreen--to the relative delicacy of this.
Millar, Jeff. “The Crucible; Provocative work translates well to the screen.” Houston Chronicle 20 Dec. 1996, D1+.
The facts of Arthur Miller's piece are taken from the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Nineteen persons were hanged for the crime of consorting with the devil. Miller has taken remarkably wise advantage of the film medium to open up his play so that the proscenium all but disappears. Now we can see the genesis of this madness, the scene only discussed in the play, to take our own measure of how huge a horror can begin with so little.
In 1953, Miller used the Salem witch trials of 1692 to provide a metaphor for the political paranoia that swept American during the Cold War. In Washington, those accused of being communists by Joseph McCarthy in the Army hearings or by the Un-American Activities Committee could mitigate their punishment by "naming names''--denouncing those who, twenty years previously, they might have seen attending a meeting of a group labeled subversive. Miller settles the boundless authority of government in the character of Judge Danforth, who arrives to preside over the trials.
The film puts a 500-watt bulb behind the piece's primal complexities of sex and politics. What it says most emphatically to 1996 is "be vigilant.'' When the witch hunters pound on the Proctors' door and say, "We have come to put questions as to the Christian character of this house,'' you would need a spinal tap not to feel the shiver.
Renshaw, Scott. (no date) Newsgroup Reviews. 23 September 1999 <http://www.imdb.com/Reviews/65/6549>
The cast of The Crucible is very strong, and the conventions of cinema give the energy level a much-needed boost. Flawed as it may be, The Crucible still has moments of undeniable power. Arthur Miller's 1953 play is well known as an allegory for the "red scare" and black-listing of the 1950s, but Miller's own screen adaptation attempts to make the story less specific to that era, while also making it more visual. The girls' ritual gathering, only described by other characters in the play, is shown in graphic detail, including blood-smeared faces and nude writhing; an incident where Abigail Williams stabs herself with a needle and accuses Elizabeth Proctor of hexing her is similarly portrayed. The scenes are not meant simply for shock value but to emphasize the active hypocrisy of the accusers.
Under-written characters and under-developed relationships are the main faults of The Crucible as a text; at times, it feels nearly as plot-driven as a Michael Crichton novel. The story is meant to provoke the audience to outrage at the lives destroyed by false accusers and complicit authority figures, but it only takes a couple of scenes to make the point rather than the repetitive structure of the children's accusations. Still, there are a couple of scenes in The Crucible which can get any audience to hold its breath, notably a tense questioning of Elizabeth for which there can be no correct answer. The Crucible is a good adaptation of a good play, which still has the ability to cast its own spell
Rhodes, Steve. (no date). Newsgroup Reviews. 23 September 1999 <http://www.imdb.com/Reviews/65/6554>
Arthur Miller's play was intended to be a denouncement of McCarthyism with the locale changed to Salem so that he could get it produced. The screen version is more obsessed with sexual longing than politics.
After seeing the film version with the screenplay by Miller, Rhodes agrees with the assessment that The Crucible is Miller's most popular play, but far from his best. The first part is a confusing muddle. The second part manages to provide the clarity the first part lacks, and by the end the story's powerful message comes through.
Although the acting in the film is excellent, the direction is aimless. The cinematography by Andrew Dunn is dark and ugly. Combine these with the choppy editing by Tariq Anwar, and the effect is obscure when enlightenment is needed. A little humor would have helped as well. As presented, the material is too unrelentingly and intensely serious.
The excellent composer George Fenton provides us with majestic music. The film builds to a powerful conclusion, and his music adds greatly to its energy. The Crucible is a film that grew on him, says Rhodes, but still left him unsatisfied. The acting is wonderful and certainly worth seeing, but the screenplay is more obtuse than it should be.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Tina T. Kao, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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