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"The Crucible" Is Just About Witches

The Tony Awards are this Sunday, so all week we’ve been talking stage-to-film adaptations. Here’s Goody Jorge with the mother of all allegorical plays… 

At this point everyone knows that The Crucible is not about the Salem Witch trials.

Arthur Miller’s 1953 play is a very straightforward and less-than-obvious allegory for the McCarthy era and the prosecution of believed Communists in the U.S. It has become a staple of American theater and inspired dozens of generations to think twice before finger-pointing. 

Underneath even its Red Scare themes, the play is about much more...

It’s about mob mentality, and blind belief, the fickle emotion of authority, and how you should never spite a teenage in love. The play is timeless and does not need its specific setting to resonate (as evidenced by the 2015 Tony-nominated Broadway revival with it's boarding school set).

By adapting it into a period movie, thus grounding its specificity even more, some of its universality gets lost.

One of the trickiest elements about adapting a play into a movie is how to translate the “boxiness” of the stage (both literal and conceptual) into the endless location possibilities of the screen. Sometimes the physical confinement is not necessary to the story (see The Sound of Music or Hairspray), while in other cases it has a vital thematic resonance (Cabaret or Fences). 

The four walls in a stage production of “The Crucible” definitely and intentionally add to the sense of entrapment and paranoia of a small town that feels it’s been persecuted by the Devil. The film version expands its confines further to the whole (thus still very small) town, and its forests and its attics, and its courthouse. Escape is somewhat more possible there.

But it finds itself entrapped in another way. The movie is indubitably about the town of Salem and the chorus of girls that cry witch. It’s about a particular place in a particular time. The period costumes, and the rolling fog, and the impeccable diction leave little room for else. The Hollywood filter permanently printed these characters and stories as a 1600s Massachusetts town. The collective audience knowledge of the play and its intentions are assumed, and removed from any cinematic subtext.


It is so widely known that the play is about so many things that it feels like the movie wanted to make it about a single thing. The Crucible (1996) is just one interpretation of “The Crucible,” a very straight-forward and impeccably acted but less than imaginative version.

Somewhere out there is the version set in a boarding school, or an HIV ridden New York City, or the Chinese dynasties, or the United States government.

Previously on stage-to-screen week
Crimes of the Heart (1986) -Eric
Six Degrees of Separation (1993) - Spencer
The Madness of King George (1994) - Daniel
Bug (2007) - Dancin' Dan
Recent Tony Nominee Reviews - Nathaniel and Dancin' Dan

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Reader Comments (6)

Great article Nat.

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSean casey

V good,I would like to know how you feel about Winona in it,I know how you feel about Allen.

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I did this play in high school, and it really was an incredible experience.

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterConMan

Dogville is a better adaptation of The Crucible than the actual movie. Anyone want to fight me on that?

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I liked Ms Ryder's performance. I enjoyed that she chose to play Abigail as a a still very young child but a child that acted like a grown adult and considered the true adults around her either equals or inferiors she could manipulate. It seems similar to Sairose Ronan's performance in Atonement.

June 9, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Ryder was good, but the real standout was Allen.

June 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterferdi

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