Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has been a classic of the American stage since it won Best Play at the Tony Awards in 1953; the play even made another comeback just last year, receiving a nomination for best revival of a play (tonyawards.com). Miller supplied the screenplay for the well-known screen adaptation of the same title from 1996, directed by Nicholas Hytner. In this version, Winona Ryder plays the sickeningly manipulative Abigail Williams, a young woman in Salem at the onset of the infamous witch trials. Abigail once worked for John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife, but was dismissed by Mrs. Proctor after having an affair with John. Her lust for John Proctor leads her to accuse his wife of witchcraft, but her accusations go farther than she intended.
Like many of the roles that he chooses, Daniel Day-Lewis took on a well-known role that takes a serious actor to portray. As an actor does who well with accents, he also took on a convincing American accent for the role. His character progresses from one of calm reserve to one who makes impassioned speeches and delivers memorable lines. While Ryder shone in the first half of the film, her character slowly fades into the background as John Proctor takes center stage. His internal conflict is the main conflict of the film. He slowly learns that the decisions of the judges and town officials are already made, and he can’t change their minds. He can only control himself and preserve his own moral dignity. He must decide whether or not to confess to crimes, ones that he has committed and ones that he hasn’t.
The story is just as interesting as the character conflict, and it’s hard to determine which one is more influential to the film. Abigail Williams and her hoard of “possessed” girls are a fascinating force that create a web of accusations, jealousy, and paranoia in a single town. The story hooks the audience in the first part of the film, but it’s the moral conflict that keeps the film going in the second half. The film definitely sends a message about justice and mercy, as the original play did, and how accusations can get out of control.
As with many adaptations, the film’s focus was bringing the stage play to life and adding elements that could not be done on stage. The cinematography was unique, adding to the frantic scenes where characters may or may not have been seeing spirits and witches. Along with Day-Lewis and Ryder, the film also had a supporting cast worthy of a classic play, including Paul Scofield and Joan Allen. Sound effects and music were also a noteworthy technical aspect of this film; the use of silence in tense moments and sound effects like wind emphasized the frantic, suspicious mood.
The Crucible is a drama, and maybe something of an emotional thriller. We might know the witches aren’t real, but we are thrilled nonetheless by the tension of the trials and Abigail’s haunting influence over the town. The film will please literature lovers, theatre lovers, and anyone who enjoys a good moral drama. Especially with the convincing cast, the film succeeds as a play adaptation.