The Crucible (1996)

Dir. Nicholas Hytner. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen

I always get nervous when writers get to redo their own work. George Lucas is the alpha and omega of this model, but fans of Amadeus or The Crucible or Doubt must know that even when excellent playwrights turn into screenwriters, they find themselves touching up scenes or changing emphases. We assume that because the guy wrote the play, he knows it best, or understands it best, or can do with it what he pleases. We are told that we have to see his vision as the definitive one, as if such a definitive version could actually exist.

Sometimes, a playwright has a sense of pragmatism concerning his own work, honestly recognizing where the adaptation needs to diverge from the original. And sometimes the playwright sees the film as a way to tell the story he wishes he told, even if that story, frankly, isn’t as good. This is not a post about “the book is better than the movie,” but a post about “the author has imperfect judgment.”

For example, Doubt was written as a stage play by John Patrick Shanley and then turned into a film which he both wrote and directed (which adds a whole new layer of self-aggrandizement to the story, but it still works as an example.) In the play, there are only four characters who appear onstage: Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, Sister James, and Mrs. Muller. Of course, in a film this would look ridiculous, and so we add in Donald Muller himself, and a student who knows how to mashed potato, and a congregation for Father Flynn to rail against gossip in front of. (The last line of the play – quite possibly the worst last line of a play in the history of the medium – alas, exists in the film as well.) The play and the film, short of these additions which are necessary for a movie, are basically identical.

Amadeus might, of the three plays I named above, feature the largest number of changes between the stage and the film productions. For example, the film gets rid of Salieri’s wife, the connection between Cosi fan tutte and Mozart’s dalliance with a pair of sisters, Mozart’s entrance and expulsion from the Masons, etc. The venticelli disappear. They are replaced with more scenes of Vienna, more emphasis on broken relationship between Leopold and Wolfgang, and it makes Salieri into the strange costumed visitor rather than some random nobleman trying to make himself feel special. These differences work. Amadeus the play is recognizable in Amadeus the film, but one doesn’t get the sense that the film needs our knowledge of the play to function. (Indeed, more recent revivals of Amadeus the play change – and improve on – the version of the play that was so well received in 1982; even the play doesn’t need the original play to work.)

Between these two roads, one of almost total fealty to the original text and one where the original text is like a blank coloring book, lies The Crucible. Arthur Miller’s screenplay, when implemented as film, shows the problem with the middle road: it wants to tell the same story but also show you everything. Amadeus, which tells the same story about forty-five degrees off, doesn’t have that problem. Doubt, which needs to show you more for you not to be a little weirded out while watching, doesn’t have this problem. (If Doubt were to show you any more than it does, it would defeat the point of the film entirely – its limits are much more set than those of Amadeus or The Crucible.) But when you show everything in The Crucible, you lose a little mystery. You lose a little fear.

The beginning of the play is, surprisingly enough, relatable. A man prays over his daughter in a stark room, sick with despair and fear. Slowly, the details are revealed. The man is a Puritan minister, Samuel Parris. The girl, Betty, in the parlance of the time, cannot wake up. (Those of us in a more advanced time who recognize the psychosomatic nature of fear, might say she will not wake up.) The blame falls first on Abigail, Parris’ dangerously pretty niece, an “expert dissembler,” who we find out went to the forest the night before with some friends. We find out that they danced there, that one girl was naked, that Abigail drank a bloody charm to kill a local woman named Elizabeth Proctor (who used to employ her), that the Parris’ slave, Tituba, was there and helped Abigail concoct her chicken-blood potion. All of this, and more, occurs in a single location; the upstairs room of Parris’ house.

In the film, we are treated to a group of girls, on some shadowy dark night, going into the woods together, giggling, their hair rebelliously down. They gather in a circle. They place herbs and weeds and flowers into a cauldron after saying the name of a man they want to marry. Tituba’s chicken, seized magically, revolves in the air. Parris (Bruce Davison) wanders in and the girls scatter, but not before Betty passes out. Then – the upstairs room of Parris’ house, a close-up on Betty seemingly asleep. And then…the accusation of Abigail, the scathing of Tituba, etc.

One of these is much more effective than the other. In the film, watching all of the witchy doings is underwhelming. (Watching Winona Ryder smear blood around her mouth is pleasantly B-movie, and she plays it off as best she can, but Meryl Streep couldn’t have made that not-cheesy.) Allowing the viewer’s imagination to take control – to let us imagine Abigail cover her mouth with blood, or to imagine Mercy Lewis running around naked, or how Parris broke in on the scene – is more effective than watching it happen. In the play, these revelations come as a surprise. (Don’t believe me? Get in a room with thirty kids who have never read the play before and let them read it in order. Trust me, it gets people to learn the little details.) Depth is lost in Abigail’s lying as well. Watching Abigail lie to her uncle in the film looks lame, and sounds lame as well. Watching Abigail lie to her uncle in the play allows us to build on the question of just how far Abigail’s deception will run.

Evelyn Waugh didn’t exactly disown Brideshead Revisited in the decades after he wrote it, but his statement that the “gluttony” of the novel, written in spare times, he found “distasteful” in richer times. The story of The Crucible is one that is told frequently. It is technically about Puritans during the Salem Witch Trials, but wink wink, it’s actually about McCarthyism; after all, it was written at its height. This is the worst-kept secret, perhaps, in literature, and it’s been talked about so frequently that it doesn’t actually mean anything anymore. In the past year, I’ve actually stopped teaching McCarthyism alongside The Crucible; the message is the same regardless of what you know about a corrupt senator from the ’50s. At any rate, the root of the problem of The Crucible as an adaptation is its existence in richer times, before the Patriot Act and nearly forty years after the death of McCarthy himself. It was made and released in Bill Clinton’s 1990s, when Whitewater was the scandal du jour, when the Internet was beginning to boom, when Jordan had just come back to basketball, five years before 9/11 and five years after the first Persian Gulf War. For goodness’ sake, Friends and Seinfeld were both airing. 1996 was a far cry from Korea, the fear of the atomic bomb, and red hunting. In an easier time, a less dangerous time, you start to think that John Proctor is the play’s most interesting character and not John Hale.

John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), of course, is the lead role in The Crucible, and the play circles around him and his menage a trois. While Abigail was his maid, he carried on an affair of indeterminate length with her. His wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen) suspects. She asks if he’s been unfaithful. Proctor, who “must have mistaken [her] for God that day,” confessed “like a Christian.” Abigail is discharged. No one contacts the authorities; these guys have all read The Scarlet Letter, and they know what happens to adulterers.

Proctor’s moral dilemma is the keystone of the play, and the film respects that keystone. Proctor knows from the beginning that the only witchcraft anyone can be said to have practiced was done by the girls who went out into the woods; those girls, as we all know, are the ones who begin accusing others of witchcraft. Proctor knows this because he saw Abigail, alone, began flirting with her, and then realized that was maybe not so smart. “Whatever sin it is, you love me yet,” Abigail retorts. Proctor tells his wife. His wife pressures him to go to the authorities. He holds back. He tells another character, “I never knew until tonight the world is gone daft with this nonsense.” This is a flat lie; he’s been protecting a girl he was supposed to have “forgot” months ago. By the time he is prepared to fight the court and defuse the situation, he has lost his opportunity. Abigail is entrenched and the girls know they’re in too deep to waver. The court, led by Deputy Governor Danforth (Paul “Have you ever seen the Devil, Mr. Proc-tah?” Scofield), is also in too deep to change. If they were to change tack – and they very nearly do – they would lose face. How could the second-most powerful man in the colony, and the other judges, say in company that they were fooled by a bunch of teenagers? Proctor hangs, and all of his friends die, but at least he keeps his dignity.

Congratulations, now you can pass American Lit.

Proctor’s troubles dictate the play’s direction, but in the play, he is not the most interesting character; in fact, for long stretches I am not sure he is even the most important. It is John Hale, the minister who is supposedly an expert on witchcraft who gets duped into believing his government is doing the right thing, and then makes a turnaround which shudders him. In the play, Hale is the one whose change of heart – a total 180 – is most affective:

Hale: Goody Proctor, I have gone this three month like our Lord into the wilderness. I have sought a Christian way, for damnation’s doubled on a minister who counsels men to lie.

Hathorne: It is no lie, you cannot speak of lies.

Hale: It is a lie! They are innocent!

Danforth: I’ll hear no more of that!

Hale: Let you not mistake your duty as I mistook my own. I came into this village like a bridegroom to his beloved, bearing gifts of high religion; the very crowns of holy law I brought, and what I touched with my bright confidence, it died; and where I turned the eye of my great faith, blood flowed up. Beware, Goody Proctor – cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice. Life, woman, life is God’s most precious gift, and no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it. I beg you, woman, prevail upon your husband to confess. Let him give his lie. Quail not before God’s judgment in this, for it may well be God damns a liar less than he that throws his life for pride. Will you plead with him? I cannot think he will listen to another.

Elizabeth: I think that be the Devil’s argument.

Hale: Woman, before the laws of God we are as swine! We cannot read his will!

In the play, Hale’s transformation is particularly tragic. John Proctor is executed, and a lot of bad things happen to him and his family and his friends yadda yadda yadda, but Hale has to live with it. Proctor manages to maintain his dignity; Hale is a broken man, a minister who barely believes in God, who has to deal with the fact that his signature is on the death warrants of the people who were hanged. In the McCarthyist world, Hale is the government official who realizes only too late that maybe the International Communist Menace was overstated, someone who believed in the boogeyman into adulthood, and that he bears some measure of the collective responsibility for the Hollywood Ten or the Rosenbergs. In the film, this is lost, and it’s not hard to see why. John Proctor’s sad and foolish misconception of just how deep his sin runs is more relatable after insider trading and just before Monica Lewinsky. Hale is a useful character – sort of a sidekick to Proctor in the back half, trying to intercede for him with Danforth, coming back to give that monologue which I’ve excerpted above – and yet that’s all he is. Rob Campbell is capable, but he is not given the opportunity to resonate in the film. He is simply there, like Giles Corey or George Jacobs, an especially loud piece of scenery. The nuance and tragedy that Hale contributes to the play is missing in the film.

Yet this is far from the film’s only issue. We began with a discussion about how rewriting your successful stage play into a film can be a dicey proposition if you want to make changes without changing your original text significantly. And  where The Crucible makes those changes is in the Proctor-Abigail relationship.

In the play, the illicit ties which bind Proctor and Abigail are provided early and mentioned often without much of the two appearing together at all. They have, all things considered, a short scene in Act One in which they meet for the first time in months, Proctor appeals, Abigail pines, and Proctor ultimately rejects her. They do not meet again until Act Three, where Proctor speaks to her, by my count, once: “How do you call heaven! Whore! Whore!” When John Proctor is dragged off by the officials at the end of Act Three, Abigail is there; it’s the last time we see her on stage.

In the movie, Proctor and Abigail are thrust together like pre-teens playing Seven Minutes in Heaven. Abigail kisses Proctor, he kisses back, and he has to push her away. This is a largely harmless addition; in some sense, it’s actually a good improvement in the moment, showing how thorough Proctor’s lust is. An Act Two, Scene 2 that you can see in some editions of the play is adapted to the screen, in which Proctor threatens to destroy Abigail’s pretense if his wife is condemned.  Too much is being made of Proctor’s underlying desire for Abigail here; at this point, he has chosen his wife over her, and that’s a decision he made before this forest meeting.

Worst of all, the film offers one last meeting between the two: Abigail sneaks into Proctor’s jail cell, tells him that she’s bribed the guard, and that he can escape with her on a ship if he so chooses. “It’s not on a boat we’ll meet again, Abby,” Proctor says, “but in Hell.” This scene does nothing for me. I don’t understand, exactly, why we need Abigail to tell us that she regrets the witch trials, that she began them as a way to gain John Proctor’s affection – and legal status as his wife. If we paid attention, we would know that already, would have known it from that ill-begotten first scene in the woods. It’s simply not well done; it’s clumsy and doesn’t give the audience any feels they didn’t already have. Instead of making Abigail a malevolent spirit, a whirlwind of lies that sweeps up an entire province, it makes her a teenager. Truth-to-life is pleasant enough, but The Crucible is Orwellian allegory, not Zolaesque realism. Somewhere along the way, The Crucible as a film lost its edge. A story of mass hysteria that nearly eliminates the humanity of its victim turned into a teen love story gone awry.

4 thoughts on “The Crucible (1996)

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