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 liar, publicly admits to his adultery with her in an effort to discredit her and her followers, but he is no match for her cunning. Her ability to manipulate the other girls prevails over all, assisted to be sure by the foolish insecurity of a minister (Samuel Parris, played by Bruce Davison), by the greed of a large Salem landholder (Thomas Putnam, played by Jeffrey Jones), and by the seeming impartiality of a grave judge (John Danforth,* played by Paul Scofield).
The film and the 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 greater force to the shock of recognition when we watch the otherwise sober men and women of Salem take fright at its imagined presence. Paul Scofield’s brilliant performance makes Judge Danforth so obviously thoughtful and fair, so unmoved by hysteria, that he obliges us to accept the plausibility and thus the horror of the whole thing.
But if madness is the ostensible theme, it is gradually subordinated to the effect of it on the relationship between John Proctor and his wife. Daniel Day-Lewis as Proctor and Joan Allen as Elizabeth create a tension, arising from her knowledge of his infidelity, that comes to dominate the film. Day-Lewis’s Proctor is a man with obvious strength of mind and muscle who does not suffer fools gladly but knows his own weaknesses. The film builds toward the resolution of his guilt in defiance of a society that cannot recognize its greater collective guilt. Along the way we see more casually the courage of the innocent who require no inner struggle in laying down their lives for the truth. The film becomes the story of a man who must reckon with himself before he can join the braver souls who step to their martyrdom without a backward look. Proctor’s triumph in the end, absolved by a wife who has come to a new understanding of herself as well as him, is not a triumph of righteousness or even of rightness but of humanity, a man’s affirmation simply of himself. He goes to the gallows only after he has shown his weakness, only after he has momentarily agreed to a false confession that would have saved his life but dishonored him in his own mind. But he withdraws it and restores his self-respect and his contempt for a world that could do what the people of Salem were doing.
In short this is a powerful version of a powerful play. It successfully overcomes the restraints laid on it in transformation from the stage. But no play or film depicting real people and real events can escape another set of restraints imposed by what is already known about those people and events. John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Abigail Williams, Judge Danforth, and most of the other characters shown were real people, and much of what they did and had done to them has been established as historical fact, insofar as fact can ever be established. A playwright dealing with historical figures can scarcely ignore what is known or knowable about them. The Cruciblewould lose much of its power if it were not anchored to the notorious witch hunt already fixed, however loosely, in the minds of those likely to view it. The only question is how closely a playwright must be tied to what is known, for he cannot be tied so closely that his play or film becomes merely a documentary. He is surely entitled to make up things that did not happen. Indeed he must make them up if he is to give us more understanding of what did happen than historians have been able to do in confining themselves to proven facts.
It must be admitted that in recent years historians have discovered a good deal more about witches and witchcraft in general and about the Salem episode in particular than they had when Miller first wrote The Crucible. They have drawn profiles of the accused and the accusers, both in Salem and in other communities where they have found isolated examples of witchcraft and witch trials. They have uncovered much about the earlier lives and relations with one another of the people involved: where they lived, how much property they owned, their sexes and sexual activities, their ages, occupations, and education.
The result has been a greater understanding of community life in seventeenth-century New England and of the existing social tensions that burst into accusations of witchcraft at Salem once the mass hysteria there began. But I think it is fair to say that no one quite understands the hysteria, how it began or how it could have continued so long. The Crucible tells us how with a certainty that no historian could afford. And the film does it by creating the inescapable reality in which any good film immerses us more helplessly than is usually possible on the stage. The question is, once the projector has shut down and the Dolby is silent, has our experience been one of Salem in 1692 or of some other time and place where things have happened that we have just seen and felt so clearly, but that could not have happened at Salem and so cannot truly explain what we know did happen there?
The makers of the film have recognized that its success depends, at least in part, on our acceptance of its resemblance to reality. They have been scrupulous in making their Salem and our experience of it look like the real thing. They shot the outdoor scenes on pristine Hog Island off the coast of Cape Ann, almost within shouting distance of Salem, and the indoor scenes on a sound stage constructed in nearby Beverly. They chose these locations, the producer says, because they wanted “to make the most authentic film possible.” Authenticity extended to buildings “authentically stained and aged,” to farm animals of the period, to crops of the period growing in the fields, to costumes made by hand (no sewing machines) from antique linens, even to giving the actors an appropriately unbathed appearance, fingernails daily dirtied.
But they did not and probably could not have extended their efforts at authenticity so precisely to the events that make up the film and play. Part of the problem is that the actual events were so complicated that to have reproduced them exactly would have slowed the movement to a crawl. At the beginning of 1692, when the action starts, Massachusetts had been without what we may as well call an “authentic” government for almost three years. Its original popularly elected government (under a royal charter of 1629) had been replaced in 1686 by a dictatorial royal governor. He had been ejected in 1689 in a local revolution coinciding with England’s Glorious Revolution. But by early 1692 England’s new king had not got around to providing the colony with a new governor or frame of government. The new governor did not arrive until May 1692, to find the jails of Massachusetts filled with accused witches. A provisional, peace-keeping government had not quite dared to set up courts to try the accused. Instead, various members of the provisional governor’s council, including the provisional deputy governor, Thomas Danforth, had undertaken to hear and record accusations and testimony and to hold in jail those accused. No trials were held until the new royal governor arrived and appointed a special court of oyer and terminer. It was this court, of which Danforth was not actually a member, that tried and sentenced the witches.
What Miller has done in The Crucible is to conflate the preliminary hearings, of which many records survive, with the actual trials, of which few records survive. Danforth could not actually have signed the seventy-two death warrants that Miller has him say he has done in the play. Nor could the Reverend Hale have signed the seventeen he says he did in the film. And though Parris and other ministers did give and take testimony at the hearings, they could not have participated in giving verdicts or pronouncing sentences. The clergy never enjoyed any political authority in colonial Massachusetts, which was not the theocracy that popular legend has made it.
These are perhaps technicalities. The witches were convicted, and probably on the basis of testimony at the hearings. But the conflation of hearing and trial does make for some confused episodes in the film. Giles Corey in the film and play shows his knowledge of the law when he is cited for contempt of court for refusing to disclose the name of a friend who had made statements favoring the accused witches. When Corey rightly points out that there is no such thing in law as contempt of a hearing, Danforth formally transforms the hearing into a court (which he could not have done). Corey is then pressed to death for contempt of court by granite block weights laid upon him, a scene graphically portrayed in the film. It happened: he was pressed to death for refusing to answer, but under quite different circumstances. Corey was himself accused of witchcraft and at his trial refused to plead, refused to answer either guilty or not guilty. English law provided for pressing under weights (peine forte et dure) as a means of inducing a defendant to plead, and it was this process that the court invoked against Corey; by refusing to plead, Corey, who saw that he would be found guilty if he did, prevented the court from passing judgment and thus from seizing his property, which he thereby saved for his heirs. Danforth at the hearing could not have invoked the process of putting weights on him nor could the actual court have legally used it as a punishment for contempt.
Again, this is a technicality. Corey was judicially killed, and it may have served some dramatic purpose—though it is not clear what—to have it done for the wrong reason. But how far can dramatic license extend? Have Miller and Hytner perhaps stretched it beyond the elastic limits in basing their interpretation of the Salem tragedy on, in Hytner’s words, “the premise that the source of the girls’ destructive energy is their emergent sexuality?” A few of the girls in the bewitched group who demonized their elders were old enough to be driven by emergent or already emerged sexuality. But most of them were probably prepubescent. Abigail, whose age Miller acknowledges he has advanced, was no more than twelve. It seems unlikely that she could actually have had an affair with John Proctor several months or perhaps years earlier.
It certainly helps the film to have Winona Ryder as a palpably nubile Abigail. Indeed neither the play nor the film could succeed without the sexual chemistry between her and Proctor. Does it matter that she could not have played in life the role that Miller assigns her? On the whole, I think it does not matter. It is notable that the principal accusers in the play and film, and so far as I know in fact, were female. But if their behavior originated in sexual energy, that energy is not exhibited in overt display but is sublimated in the film to their imagined terror under Abigail’s direction. Their sexuality, emergent or emerged, is at least as plausible an explanation for their behavior as any that historians have been able to offer.
It does not, however, tell us why the girls of Salem should have expressed their sexuality in so bizarre a manner when others of their age throughout New England did not. We can easily agree with Hytner’s observation that “a community that denies to its young any outlet for the expression of sexuality is asking for trouble.” But there is no evidence that the young of Salem endured a stricter supervision of their sex life than was common elsewhere. Moreover, though premarital sex was probably a little less common in New England than in old England at the time, seventeenth-century New Englanders were not nearly as squeamish or repressive about sex as is often supposed.
Whatever the role of sexuality may have been, it can hardly explain the readiness of judges, juries, and the people of Salem generally to believe the wild accusations of young girls. And despite Hytner’s designation of sexuality as his premise, he and Miller have given us an historically valid and wholly convincing depiction, without sexual overtones, of the way the court supported the girls’ accusations by its perverse use of confessions. The court took a confession as evidence of contrition, as the cancellation of a supposed contract with the devil, and therefore, in a species of plea bargaining, as sufficient cause for acquittal. But the devil supposedly made his contract at gatherings where a number of his devotees paid him homage. The court would therefore accept a confession as proof of contrition only if the confessor identified the other persons present at the vile ceremonies, who would now be at large, doing the devil’s bidding. The pressure was enormous not only to offer a false confession, but to validate it by false accusations that continually widened the numbers of the accused, who could save themselves only by similar confessions.
Some of those who confessed may have actually thought themselves to be witches and may have practiced the rituals that witchcraft required. But if so, they were the ones acquitted, while their imagined accomplices who refused to confess were hanged. It is under the pressure to offer a false confession with false accusations that John Proctor, in the stunning climax of the film, finds himself, finds who and what he is and what his judges are, taking us into the heart of the matter as no recital of historical facts could ever do. History can demonstrate clearly enough that the innocent were hanged for refusing to confess. What the film shows us in Proctor is an ultimate human dignity that transcends the human folly of a deluded court.
As a postscript, a statement placed on the darkened screen tells us: “After nineteen executions the Salem witch-hunt was brought to an end, as more and more accused people refused to save themselves by giving false confessions.” The statement diminishes Proctor’s contribution by seeming to magnify it. His refusal to confess did not serve as an example for others. Multiplication of refusals did not stop the witch hunt. The way it ended was almost as unsavory as the trials themselves. The ministers of the colony, who properly figure as less than admirable in The Crucible, recognized the irregularity of the judicial procedures in the trials and should have done what they could to stop them sooner. They knew that “spectral evidence,” the kind the girls offered in their supposed sighting of spirits in the shape of someone they accused, the kind offered also in some of the confessions, was legally insufficient. Early in the proceedings, as acknowledged experts in knowledge of witchcraft, they warned the court, too feebly, of its errors. Their warnings became stronger only when the circle of the accused widened to include more and more people of social prominence. The warnings then proved more convincing to the governor and his General Court because they saw the whole structure of Massachusetts society, with themselves at the top, threatened.
In October, with the Salem court in temporary adjournment, they ordered an end to the prosecutions, dissolved the court, and left the disposition of the many remaining accusations to a new court that had plenty of confessions at its disposal but followed the approved rules for collecting and assessing evidence in witch trials. Under proper procedures it acquitted all but three persons, whom the governor promptly pardoned. It was not the stubborn dignity of people like John Proctor but political expediency that ended the terror.
The concluding statement of the film is superfluous and ought to have been cut. We should be left with Proctor’s enigmatic self-discovery as our ultimate insight into what happened at Salem. The film itself never departs far enough from historical fact to weaken its impact, and in Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Proctor’s ordeal it reaches the point where dramatic truth eclipses history. Shakespeare’s Richard III has all but erased the real Richard. Arthur Miller is not Shakespeare, and he takes fewer liberties with the past than Shakespeare did, but with this film his Salem has become irresistibly our own.
January 9, 1997