Although the playwright Arthur Miller was also the screenwriter for this production starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis, the film bears little resemblance to the play in tone and impact. Director Nicholas Hytner has abandoned the intimate, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the dark, interior scenes in the play, in favor of an expansive setting, with many scenes set outside, including panoramic shots of Salem in 1692, full of costumed "citizens." The expanded setting makes the psychology and motivation of the witchcraft hysteria more difficult to determine, since the intensity of the settlers' repressed, interior lives is not obvious. The explanatory notes which Miller incorporates into the play about land disputes, religious controversies, and personal animosities, which led to specific individuals being accused and arrested for witchcraft, are seen only peripherally.
As a result, we see Winona Ryder, as Abigail Williams, and her coterie of bewitched girls, screaming hysterically and accusing innocent women of witchcraft without the background which would make these accusations plausible. Her previous relationship with John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), in the absence of other motivations, seems to be the primary reason for her behavior, but this thwarted love does not explain the extent of her rage and, especially, the involvement of the other girls. Day-Lewis is reduced to the role of victim, and one of the hallmarks of his acting, his subtlety, is absent here, except in a wonderful final scene with his wife, played by Joan Allen. Details of the scenery also ring false--houses in this period were very small because of the difficulty of heating, one third the size they are here, and the church/meeting houses were modest in accordance with religious restrictions against unnecessary display.
This is a Hollywood version of the witchcraft trials, capitalizing on the sensational at the expense of the complex and subtle forces behind the accusations of witchcraft--the Indian wars which were just ending, the growing independence of individuals, the increasing resentment of hard-line theocratic rule, the abolition of traditional property laws, and most importantly, the lack of any societal role whatsoever for young women, who were not old enough to assume a woman's role and who, bored and left out of decision-making, were on their own in dealing with their adult feelings. The film is beautiful, and the acting, though one-dimensional, is as effective as it can be in the absence of fully-developed motivation for the girls' hysteria. The "witches" are reduced to cartoons here, and Miller's parallels between these trials and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, which give the play a modern context, are missing. Mary Whipple