film by Nicholas Hytner, screenplay by Arthur Miller
The Crucible Screenplay
by Arthur Miller
Penguin, 96 pp., $12.95 (paper)
To make a successful film from a successful play is probably much more difficult than making one from scratch, just as any carpenter will tell you that it is more difficult to restore an old house than to build a comparable new one. The constraints imposed on the screenwriter, producer, and director by scenes, language, and actions designed for the stage can never quite be ignored, and they can cripple the action of a film. The difficulty is magnified when the play is as familiar as The Crucible, its structure all too firmly imprinted on the minds of those making the film and of the audience they are making it for. Arthur Miller, who wrote the screenplay himself, and Nicholas Hytner, who directed it, knew what they were up against. Miller tried “to put the play out of mind as much as possible and proceed as though it had never existed.” And Hytner, who felt “as if I was asking Shakespeare for amendments to King Lear,” nevertheless found Miller quick to “refashion his screenplay as I strove to visualize it image by image.”
The film, then, is not the photographed play. Hytner has done his best to take it outdoors and offstage, and Miller has cut his own lines, in fulfillment of his understanding that “the more wordless the film the better.” The screenplay is only about half the length of the play. But seemingly nothing of consequence is subtracted or added. Admirers of the play will recognize most of the remaining lines, the sequence of the actions, and the development of the characters. This is still The Crucible, its message delivered intact and in force. Indeed, the clarity of the direction and the quality of the acting make it the best rendition of the author’s work that any of us is likely to see either on screen or on stage.
The film opens with the scene in the forest, only referred to in the play, which drives the rest of the action as it did less convincingly in the play: teen-age girls, half in jest, half serious, dance to voodoo rhythms and cast spells to bring them lovers. Then suddenly we see Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), her face covered with blood from a sacrificed chicken as she utters a shocking curse on Elizabeth Proctor. Abigail has already slept with Elizabeth’s husband John and is the ringleader of the girls, not only in the forest scene but in the later antics by which they send their elders into a hysterical fear of witchcraft. Abigail, more explicitly in the film than in the play, is ready to bring to the gallows as witches a host of innocent people in order to be rid of the woman who stands between her and John Proctor.
What makes the film frightening, as it did the play, is the wholesale success of false accusations, unsupported by any visible or tangible evidence. John Proctor, who knows that the accusations are false and Abigail a …