As you may know, I studiously avoid reading the summaries of movies before I watch them. If I can at all help it. In this case, I was successful. I read a vague description of the film, but it was missing the major literary connection (which I am about to discuss, so if you too want to avoid plot giveaways and intend to watch this one, stop reading now). The connection, when I made it, was a surprise to me and I wondered why it wasn’t made obvious upfront. When I finished the movie and saw the summary, it was right there.
I do have a suspicion that Netflix has some different descriptions that it shows under various contexts, so it might be true that what I read before the movie was very different from what I read after.
The film is about a trio of teenage girls who are engaged in some kind of a secretive activity. Secretive in that we, the audience, are shown only hints of what they might be doing (some of them suggestive) and secretive in that what we are shown is that they swear to each other to keep the secret between themselves. The girls are in high school in Kingston, NY and each are show as having a troubled background.
At this point, I began to suspect a connection with actual events. There was something about the details of the location (it was, indeed, filmed in Kingston) that made me think it wasn’t pure fiction. I was right but, at the same time, way off.
Another major character, Emily Parris*, feels left out of the high school groove and attempts to fulfill her need for attention by writing a blog (which, we are told, nobody reads). Due to a fight with the leader of the trio (Mary Warren), she indirectly inspires the “Sisterhood” by driving Mary off of social media. She then discovers the Sisterhood’s existence and wants desperately to belong. Instead, she outs them on her blog, instantly making the blog popular. When confronted in real life, she faints.
That’s when it hit me. It isn’t a ripped-from-the-headlines current story, but a ripped-from-the-headlines 300+ year-old story. It is a modern retelling of The Crucible. Without that link, I was having a harder and harder time placing it. While the references to Facebook and blogging suggest a present-day (it is a 2014 film), one girl’s mother drives a vintage Volkswagen Beetle, in excellent condition. To me that suggested a 70s or 80s setting. Indeed the assumption that the girls had formed a “Satanic cult” and the religiosity of the town in general seem to be about a generation off, at least for coastal “blue state” America.
Now, the movie isn’t simply The Crucible in a modern setting. The story, the characters, and the morality tale are all changed a bit. It is no longer an allegory about Cold War relations, it is now an allegory of social media. Ironically, I think the it was the fact that it meant, not just to reimagine (as they say) The Crucible, but to reach for something greater prevented it from achieving something greater.
The movie could have just been satisfied with retelling The Crucible for the internet age, which is a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition. It also might have tried to put its own twist on the story. Done right, this is probably the best chance for success. This seemed to be the direction it was taking up until about the last half hour. But then, it seemed to shift gears and try to become some kind of spiritually-uplifting story of – well I don’t know what. We are shown how each of the characters gets what they’ve wished for in a series of rather drawn out epilogues. For me, it took what was looking to be a pretty good movie back down into so-so territory again.
And all of this after I was expecting a vampire movie. Go figure.
*I did not make the connection between the characters’ names in the movie relative to the play until well after noticing the connection via elements of the story. Honestly, I don’t remember the play well enough that any of the characters names would have tipped me off. Maybe John Proctor, but that’s it. A couple of funny things though. The film is based on a short story. It’s a short story that I haven’t read, nor have I found a synopses of it to tell how much the film deviates from the original material. However, I do see that there was an earlier (2006) short film also made from the book. In that version, the names of characters do not match those from The Crucible.
Furthermore, the names in The Sisterhood of Night do not line up with their roles in The Crucible. The Wikipedia entry draws connections between the Sisterhood characters and the Crucible characters – not very accurately, in my opinion. Point is, Mary Warren in The Sisterhood of Night is by no means Mary Warren in The Crucible.
This leads me to wonder how much more the film version tried to tie the story to The Crucible versus what was in the original story. The only way is to read the story, but I just don’t see myself doing that.