By Pauline Donders, MA
|Country of Production||United States|
|Lead Actors/Actresses||Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen|
|Awards/Nominations||4 wins and 29 nominations|
|Runtime||2h 4 min|
The Crucible is an adaptation of Arthur Miller's play by the same name from 1953. Miller adapted the play for the screen himself. It tells the story of the Salem witch trials, which took place in 1692 and 1693. The events in Salem, Massachusetts, are perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the witch hunts that took place all over Europe and America between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. In just over one year, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem, of which twenty were executed. It all started when two young girls began having violent and unexplained fits and accused three townswomen of having used witchcraft on them. Soon, more and more people (many of them young girls) started claiming to have been victims of witchcraft. Only after twenty innocent people had been put to death were the trials and executions stopped.1
Miller used the actual names of the people involved in the witch trials for his characters, and his play mostly stayed true to the historical events. However, he has made some changes to better fit the story he wanted to tell. The most important thing that Miller has changed is that he has added a cause for the events,2 something which has never become clear from the historical sources. In Miller's play, one of the two young girls that started the accusations, Abigail Williams, used to have an affair with a married man, John Proctor, when she worked as a maid for his family. She tries to get revenge on his wife Elizabeth (who threw Abigail out of the house when she found out about the affair) by accusing her of witchcraft.3
As The Crucible was originally conceived as a play (and an allegorical one at that), it inevitably had a theatrical quality to it. In adapting his work for the screen, however, Miller has attempted to get away from the play as much as possible.4 Director Nicholas Hytner has also insisted on taking a naturalistic approach, and he has filmed much of The Crucible on location. In fact, the village of Salem was painstakingly reconstructed on uninhabited Hog Island, just off the coast of Massachusetts. There, Hytner and Miller found the unspoiled wilderness they needed to faithfully recreate the surroundings of seventeenth-century Salem. On top of that, filming close to the site of the historical events provided the film with added credibility.5 The film, furthermore, pays great attention to historical detail in its use of period-appropriate costumes, artefacts, etc.6
The film is not devoid of theatricality, however, as we can see for instance in Hytner's use of the camera. He uses movement of the camera to underscore the emotions on the screen, having it race through town to express the hysteria that has taken a hold of Salem.7 In another instance, the camera circles one of the girls as she is being questioned by the judges to show her confusion and despair.8 Hytner also uses the absence of camera movement and close-ups to great effect, for instance, in the first scene in the Proctor household, where the staid and still shots convincingly evoke the iciness between Proctor and his wife. Additionally, Hytner very often films his actors from below, suggesting the oppressive mood of Salem. In general, he pays great attention to character study, using frequent close-ups to show the characters' facial expressions.
When Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953, he did not intend it to be a historical play but rather an allegory for his own time.9 Against the background of the Cold War, the 1950s in America were characterised by a culture of fear and panic as many people believed that communists had infiltrated American institutions and were working to overthrow the free world from within. This period is now known as McCarthyism, named after the Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, who in 1950 claimed to be in possession of a list of communists working at the State Department and who, subsequently, conducted investigations into several government departments.
Even though this era is named after McCarthy, Miller personally experienced this war on communism through the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. This committee also conducted investigations into suspected communist activities. Its (often televised) hearings inspired fear throughout the country, as having to appear before the committee could not only result in imprisonment or the payment of a fine but would almost always do irreparable harm to a person's reputation, career and personal life. Those that were investigated would be asked not only to declare whether they themselves had ever been involved with the communist party but also be instructed to 'name names', or, in other words, to implicate anyone they had ever known to have had expressed an interest in communism. Failure to appear before the committee would often be seen as an admission of guilt. In short, there was no way out.10
It was the appearance before the committee of his close friend and colleague, director Elia Kazan, in 1952 that inspired Miller to write The Crucible, as he saw many similarities between the HUAC hearings and the Salem witch trials. In 1956, Miller himself was called before the committee. He refused to name names and told the committee, echoing his protagonist John Proctor's final words: "I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him."11 He was convicted of contempt but later cleared on appeal.
Considering the allegorical nature of the play, one could ask why Hytner and Miller decided to adapt the play for the screen in 1996. After all, would the material still have something left to say to a 1990s audience? As it turned out, yes, as for many it seemed to evoke the day care sex abuse hysteria that grabbed the United States in the 1980s and 90s, in particular the controversies surrounding the acceptance of the testimony of very small children accusing adults of sexual abuse.12
Within the context of the Salem witch trials, Miller has chosen to focus specifically on the 'human factor', as the play (and the film) attempt to find an answer to the question: How could an atrocity such as the Salem witch trials have happened? As noted earlier, Miller has introduced the badly ended affair between Abigail and John Proctor as the immediate cause of the witchcraft persecutions, but it is the mass hysteria that takes hold of the village that is truly responsible for the horrific outcome of this episode. We see this mass hysteria play out on two different levels. First of all, there is the group dynamic between the accusing girls. Fanned on by Abigail, they start to exhibit traits of being bewitched, shivering and fainting in court. However, while the hysteria might have started with the teenage girls, it is only once the wider village community becomes involved that it takes a deadly turn. During the first executions, we are shown the bloodlust and frenzy of the townspeople. However, when more and more people are arrested, this hysteria seems to burn itself out. In the end, the villagers realise what they have done, and during the final executions, the atmosphere has changed completely. Sad and quiet, the villagers watch on as the mass hysteria that overtook Salem claims its final victims.
A second theme that Miller has attempted to examine in his play and film is power, specifically the way in which the girls gain power through their accusations. It is telling, in this regard, that the accusers are teenage girls, as they would have been at the bottom of the power structure in Puritan society and, therefore, would have had most to gain.13 Throughout the movie, Hytner has attempted to visually represent the girls' increase in power. Whereas at the beginning of the film we literally see the girls in the background, for instance during the first community meeting where they are seated in the back row, they gain a much more prominent position as their accusations take hold.
The ever-present subtext is the relationship between sex and religion in this Puritan society. The emphasis on repressed sexuality is markedly stronger in the film than it is in the original play and is present from the very beginning of the movie, as the opening scene quickly sets the tone.14 In this scene, we see how the teenage girls of the town take to the woods to engage in an illicit 'love ritual'. In this strict religious community, where dancing in itself is seen as a sin, their (naked) frolicking in the woods is so alarming that it is immediately identified with witchcraft.
However, all of this is offset by the power of the individual to speak up. This saving grace comes from none other than the morally complicated character of John Proctor. When he tries to convince the judges that Abigail and the other girls have been lying, he is forced to disclose that he has had an affair with Abby. Against the hysteria and religious hypocrisy that have just caused several 'god-fearing' men to condemn dozens of innocent people to death, John, who is a sinner in the eyes of the religious authorities, is the one who dares to speak up, even when it might cost him his reputation.
The Crucible is not technically an 'inquisition film'. After all, the Salem witch trials took place in what was to become the United States, not Europe, far away from the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church's Inquisition. In fact, even though the trials were somewhat similar to those of the Inquisition because of their investigative nature, they were conducted by secular judges (as were most of the witch trials in Europe). It is important to remember, however, that in early Massachusetts the separation between church and state was not clearly defined. In the film, the judges are portrayed as stern, authoritarian and ultimately unwilling to admit they may have been wrong in their prosecution of the villagers. As they are very clearly motivated by their religious convictions, they are not that dissimilar to the stereotype of the religiously fanatic inquisitor.
On the other hand, many of the victims in The Crucible do not conform to the stereotypical image of a witch: an old, poor woman, often a widow.15 The victims in The Crucible are both male and female, though mostly female, consistent with both the historical reality of Salem and of the witch hunts in general, as women made up approximately eighty per cent of the people tried for witchcraft.16 In accordance with historical fact, those first accused in The Crucible are women on the outskirts of society, though the accusations quickly also claim more prominent members of society.17
As the film shows us, after the first accusations of witchcraft spread through Salem a special Court of Oyer ('to hear') and Terminer ('to decide') was instituted.18 The role of this court was not only to prosecute, but also to investigate and 'find out', or discover, the crime of witchcraft, thus blurring the lines between the roles of investigator, prosecutor and judge. This is reminiscent of the witch trials in Europe, where the inquisition process, originally invented to combat heresy, had been used to prosecute and convict witches. If an accusation was deemed credible, the accused would be required to appear before the court, without the help of a lawyer or other representative, and submit to (often public) questioning. Refusing to testify could be taken to signify your guilt.
In the Salem witch trials, furthermore, the burden of proof lay not with the accuser but with the accused. As witchcraft was considered to be an invisible crime, evidence could only come from the victims. This evidence often included so-called spectral evidence, the testimony of a victim that the accused's spirit visited them in a dream or vision.19 Due to the acceptance of spectral evidence by the Salem courts, defending oneself in court against accusations of witchcraft was an almost impossible task, as we can see clearly in the film. For those that were convicted by the courts, the punishment would include excommunication from the church, the forfeiture of their land, and, eventually, execution. Contrary to the burning at the stake that we automatically seem to associate with the execution of witches, the convicted of Salem were hanged according to English law.20 Overall, the film's depiction of the trials and subsequent punishments is mostly historically correct.
In conclusion, it has become clear that even though Miller changed some of the historical details to better fit his narrative, The Crucible as a whole is mainly historically correct and largely stays away from the stereotype of the Black Legend. We need to remember, however, that Miller's aim was never to show history as it was, but history as it might have been. After all, he intended his play to be an allegory of 1950s McCarthyism. Largely due to the directorial choices of Hytner, who chose a naturalistic depiction, aided by some instances of theatricality, the 1996 film adaptation speaks to a more widely relevant human condition in which a combination of power struggles and repressed sexuality runs amok to create a deadly case of mass hysteria. This, then, is the film's contribution to our topic, as it provides us with an insight into the human dimension of what we know about the witch hunts and the Inquisition. We can understand the dynamics within The Crucible to have worked in similar ways, approximately, in the witch hunts of Europe, or perhaps even in cases of suspected heresy in earlier centuries.
1 Jess Blumberg, "A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials," Smithsonian Magazine, October 23, 2007, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
2 In this essay by Margo Burns, you can find out all the other ways in which the play is different from the historical events: Margo Burns, "Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Fact & Fiction. (Or Picky, Picky, Picky…)," accessed January 12, 2020, https://www.mercerislandschools.org/cms/lib3/
3 Whereas the historical Abigail Williams was eleven at the time and John Proctor was in his sixties, making an affair highly unlikely, in the play Miller has made them seventeen and mid-thirties, respectively. See Arthur Miller, "A Note on the Historical Accuracy of this Play," in The Crucible (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 2.
4 Edmund S. Morgan, "Bewitched," The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997,
5 Andrew L. Urban, "The Crucible," Urban Cinefile, accessed January 12, 2020, http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=23&s=features.
6 Susan C.W. Abbotson, Critical Companion to Arthur Miller: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (New York: Facts on File, 2007), 126.
7 Christopher Bigsby, Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 169.
8 Abbotson, Critical Companion, 127.
9 Read Arthur Miller's own explanation: Arthur Miller, "Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artist's Answer to Politics," The New Yorker, October 21, 1996, http://www.plosin.com/beatbegins/
10 "HUAC," History.com, last modified June 7, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac.
11 Andrew Glass, "Arthur Miller Testifies Before HUAC, June 21 1956," Politico, June 21, 2013, https://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/this-day-in-politics-093127.
12 Miller, "Why I Wrote."
13 Christopher Bigsby, introduction to The Crucible, by Arthur Miller (London: Penguin Books, 2003), xviii.
14 Abbotson, Critical Companion, 126.
15 Marcus Hellyer, trans., introduction to Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials, by Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), xix.
16 Edward Bever, "Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern Community," Journal of Social History 35, no. 4 (2002): 956, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3790618.
17 Bever, "Witchcraft," 957-58.
18 Jeff Wallenfeldt, "Salem Witch Trials," Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed January 12, 2020,
19 Wallenfeldt, "Salem Witch Trials."
20 Evan Andrews, "Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials?" History.com, last modified September 1, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/were-witches-burned-at-the-stake-during-the-salem-witch-trials.
- Abbotson, Susan C.W. Critical Companion to Arthur Miller: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007.
- Andrews, Evan. "Were witches burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials?" History.com. Last modified September 1, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/were-witches-burned-at-the-stake-during-the-salem-witch-trials.
- Bigsby, Christopher. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Bigsby, Christopher. Introduction to The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, vii-xxv. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Bever, Edward. "Witchcraft, Female Aggression, and Power in the Early Modern Community." Journal of Social History 35, no. 4 (2002): 955-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/
- Blumberg, Jess. "A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials." Smithsonian Magazine, October 23, 2007. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
- Burns, Margo. "Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction. (Or Picky, Picky, Picky…)." Accessed January 12, 2020. https://www.mercerislandschools.org/cms/lib3/WA01001855/Centricity/
- Glass, Andrew. "Arthur Miller Testifies Before HUAC, June 21 1956." Politico. June 21, 2013. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/this-day-in-politics-093127.
- Hellyer, Marcus, trans. Introduction to Cautio Criminalis, or a Book on Witch Trials, by Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, vii-xxxvi. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
- History.com. "HUAC." Last modified June 7, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac.
- Miller, Arthur. "A Note on the Historical Accuracy of this Play." In The Crucible, 2. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
- Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Screenplay. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
- Miller Arthur. "Why I Wrote The Crucible: An Artist's Answer to Politics." The New Yorker, October 21, 1996. http://www.plosin.com/beatbegins/archive/millercrucible.htm.
- Morgan, Edmund S. "Bewitched." The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1997/01/09/bewitched/.
- Urban, Andrew L. "The Crucible." Urban Cinefile. Accessed January 12, 2020. http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=23&s=features.
- Wallenfeldt, Jeff. "Salem Witch Trials." Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed January 12, 2020.
All material from The Crucible: © Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.