While there are various opinions and attitudes towards the Salem witch trials, these hearings that took many lives and occurred between 1692 and 1693 should not be neglected. Nowadays, it is easy to read books or articles to improve one’s understanding of the trials or even watch movies to get a vivid representation of the situation. However, in the majority of cases, the films are not always accurate in their interpretation of the events. In this paper, the task is to evaluate the historical value of the movie The Crucible and clarify if inaccuracies may mislead the audience, provoke biases, or raise questions. What was meant by witchcraft in Salem was unclear in the 17th century, and the theme is also ambiguous today. The Crucible is another attempt to investigate certain aspects of religion and politics through Arthur Miller’s play, personal imagination, and various film-making details.
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The Crucible is a 1996 movie directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, and Joan Allen. It is an adaptation of a well-known play written by Arthur Miller about witchcraft and the Salem trials. The story begins with a group of young girls meeting in the woods and participating in a bewitching ritual that is guided by a black woman named Tituba. When their activities are discovered, the girls use an incomprehensible disease that causes hallucinations and seizures as an excuse for their behavior. To obtain redemption and avoid suspicion, they begin accusing the devil and reveal the names of people who had become his cohorts. Hysteria, panic, and chaos are all but inevitable, and the Salem villagers begin holding trials at the end of which suspected citizens are imprisoned or hanged. The time when “the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law” has come, and no one is able to improve the situation (The Crucible). The Salem trials changed many lives and played a crucial role in American history, raising such themes as public respect, reputation, deceit, religion, and justice.
It is impossible to understand the internal motivation that Arthur Miller and Nicholas Hytner had for creating the movie The Crucible. However, it is also wrong to neglect this film’s historical impact and the possibility of educating people about the peculiarities of the Salem trials. Witchcraft was a serious accusation in the 17th century, and citizens were confused and terrified by the possibility of living close to witches. The people of Salem believed in witches, and although it was a terrible “part of a complex tradition,” it was defined as “perfectly normal superstition” (Le Beau 1). The representation of Salem society developed by Hytner and Miller seems to be accurate to the real events discussed by Le Beau in his Story of the Salem Witch Trial. Still, there are certain unclear points and inaccuracies that may be explained as necessary film-making techniques.
The conditions and lifestyles of people in the 17th century can be examined using different works of art, historical documents, and illustrations stored in local museums and libraries. As a rule, witches were pictured as women “rising from their beds in the dark of the night to attend their Sabbat” who “went on foot” or “flew on animals, brooms, or stools” (Le Beau 1). In the movie, young girls met at a symbolic Sabbat when other people were sleeping. No flights were introduced in the movie, but this act was mentioned in several speeches during the trials.
All the names and the majority of the characters in the movie belonged to real people in 1692. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams were the first girls who demonstrated odd behaviors and said that they had visions in which Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good were the devil’s followers (Reed 76). In the movie, the same names were used, and the accusations follow the same order. However, that young girls were dancing in the woods or that Proctor had an affair with Abigail have not been historically and documentarily verified. Therefore, the beginning of the movie could be explained as an opportunity to strengthen the image of witches and share the incident’s prehistory.
The outcomes of several accusations were terrible because it was easy to say that a person was a witch. Before the accusations fell on a family, its members agreed with the idea of witch-hunting and the possibility that the girls could recognize the devil. However, when a family member was suspected, the situation changed, and people began dreading the girls and preferring isolation to public meetings. One of the girls, Marry Warren, tried to recant the accusations, but shortly after she withdrew her recantation because she was afraid of her own arrest, loss of reputation, and death (Reed 76). This situation was also used in the movie, with some details being added or removed to comply with time limits and not confuse the audience.
Other differences between reality and the movie can be considered errors. For example, Rebecca Nurse was hanged on July 19, and Martha Corey was hanged on September 22 (Reed 77). In the movie, all these strong characters, including John Proctor, were hanged on the same day. Still, this should not be treated as a mistake, but as an effective ending, a scene to emphasize the importance of other serious topics such as public respect or reputation.
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Public Respect and Reputation
The Crucible is a movie that introduces and discusses a number of themes such as respect and reputation that shape human behavior and decision-making. As with Miller’s play, the movie aims to “reckon the price of free conscience confronted by ecclesiastical authority, an authority abhorrent to the contemporary audience” (Anderson 329). It is difficult to respect people who accuse each other without any reason beyond personal revenge or people who passed judgment and sentenced others to death without conducting an investigation or having enough evidence. Reputation is another factor that helps us understand the characters and their decisions to confess or to reject accusations as the only way to save their names. “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Proctor begs before the trial (The Crucible). The ending scene with the hangings shows that respect and reputation could be easily lost or gained forever, although at the cost of human life.
Movies are an important part of a modern culture whose goal is to entertain, educate, or persuade. The Crucible has several strong and weak points as a historical source about the Salem witchcraft trials. Certain inaccuracies may challenge or confuse the audience from a historical or political point of view. However, it is necessary to remember that The Crucible is not a documentary movie. It is a historical drama in which real facts and fiction are intertwined to attract people’s attention and make the story interesting to watch even several times.
Anderson, Michael. “Arthur Miller and the Politics of Reputation.” The Hopkins Review, vol. 9, no. 3, 2016, pp. 325-338.
Le Beau, Bryan F. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials: We Walked in Clouds and Could Not See Our Way. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2016.
The Crucible. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.
Reed, Isaac Arial. “Deep Culture in Action: Resignification, Synecdoche, and Metanarrative in the Moral Panic of the Salem Witch Trials.” Theory and Society, vol. 44, no. 1, 2015, pp. 65-94.