A Better Film Than Adaptation

by Paige Lurie

Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams threatens her cousin in a chilling scene.

Anyone who knew me between the ages of six and eighteen would have one phrase to describe me – theater nerd. I filled my afterschool, weekend, and summer time with different ways of being involved in all things theater. I was equally happy to be on stage, off stage, or in the audience. I have strong memories of doing summer theater at my then future school as an eleven year old performing in The Pied Piper, but constantly spying on the high school class rehearsing their scenes of The Crucible outside the too hot theater. These were girls I would come to admire and even hoped to become the same type of in-school celebrity. I still get shivers as I hear the voice of one such star delivering the lines of the villainous accuser, Abigail, when she said in a stony tone “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you”.  Not knowing a thing about the Salem Witch Trials or McCarthyism, I felt the threat of the lying teen and her wicked ways.

In the 1996 film adaptation – that very scene failed to match my childhood memories. While Wynona Ryder was able to bring a sensual, lasting, and memorable performance it was still missing something from the stage – intimacy. The attic room where the scene takes place was crowded with numerous girls, rather than the few in the stage. Increasing the number of hysterical girls served well for the large courtroom scenes, but the emptiness and space in a staged version allows the audience into the room, to become one of the girls falsely claiming witchcraft or feeling persecuted as fingers start to point. The theatricality of the script was left – unsurprising as Arthur Miller adapted his own work – but did not translate to the filming. At times it seemed that director Nicholas Hytner was unable to put his own mark or view into the film, and just tried to make it more, rather than his own. He left no clear demarker as to why this story needed to be brought to screen, but lost the magic (pun intended) that is creating a world on the stage. The major benefit to having a filmed version is allowing numerous more locations and sets, but the film still kept a limited perspective and did not explore locations outside the Parris house, the Proctor house, and the courthouse nearly enough. Possibilities of exploring more of the town of Salem, were missed. While we saw glimpses as accusations of witchcraft started, much more could have been used in an adaptive medium.

However, much of the film thrived when you look at it as a work of its own, and not as an adaptation. The high point is clearly the acting. In one memorable scene the Proctors (Daniel Day-Lewis and Joan Allen) are visited by Reverend Hale (Rob Campbell) and have a very stilted conversation about their role in witchcraft and the bible. The couple has been accused by Abigale due to her desire for John Proctor and her envy of his wife. The strength in this scene is not in the dialogue – but all that is not said. Knowing he had cheated on his wife, Day-Lewis avoids talking about the commandment against adultery. His stumbling of bible quotes make his shame of his actions and his love of his wife crystal clear. Allen projects worry for her husband’s life as she simply watches him in his struggle. It is a memorable moment where the thought process of the characters is projected to the audience and the subtext reigns super. Once again these two actors prove why they are masters of the craft in a courtroom scene where the test of Elizabeth Proctor will admit her husband’s infidelity. The long pauses, close up of eyes, and trembling nature of the scene makes the audience feel their pain. Despite history telling us John Proctor was executed, the audience is given a shred of hope – while knowing all along nothing good will come of it.

Another strength of the film is the production design. Dark settings match the mood of the movie. Even in the opening scene of glorious debauchery of teenaged girls – we feel as if it were light only by the moon and we feel more dread and despair than frivolity. Nothing in the movie is bright because there is no glimmer of goodness. The oppression is as Puritanically and the characters and we know there is no escape. The sets are often claustrophobic with actors falling on top of each other with nowhere to go. As mentioned before, this works particularly well in the court where the gaggle of teenaged girls move as one unit and hardly have room to make space for an imaginary yellow bird. The tightness of the space makes it impossible to separate one girl from another – and we see them as the unit of destruction they are. While I wish Hytner allowed empty space to be used to the same effect as silence was, it is overall an impressive feat to have the look of the movie encapsulate the mood in every shot.

The courtroom serves judgment for Abigal William (Winona Ryder), Elizabeth (Joan Allen) and John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis)

This is a strong movie that I would recommend to anyone with a passing interest in theater, history, or witchcraft. 

39/50 Stars

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