Upton Sinclair’s Oil! is a great book and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a great film, but they’re different in many ways–in tone and themes, their views of the characters, even the basics of what happens in the story.
There Will Be Blood is racking up the award nominations, and as an added bonus, Oil! is back in print and easy to find in bookstores. That’s a good thing in today’s world of war and corporate greed and worsening poverty–because the book and the film, despite their differences, do share one important thing: a revulsion at how the system of capitalism crushes what’s most human out of people.
Anyone who’s read Sinclair’s most famous novel, The Jungle, about the meatpacking industry in Chicago, will recognize this subject. The book was commissioned by the socialist newspaper The Appeal to Reason, where it premiered in weekly installments in 1905. To write it, Sinclair lived in the stockyard district in Chicago, soaking up the reality of work and family life for immigrant meatpackers. Published in book form, The Jungle had a huge impact–the creation of the Food and Drug Administration to monitor the food industry was a direct result.
Sinclair’s use of naturalistic detail and weaving of real-life events and people into his stories links him to other great writers of the era, such as John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck. A member of the Socialist Party for much of this time, Sinclair wrote with an explicitly political agenda, and this comes across loud and clear in Oil! which was published in 1927.
The book tells the story of self-made oilman J. Arnold Ross, through the eyes of his son Bunny. At first, the setting is the oil boomtowns of Southern California, but the scope broadens to the whole globe. Early on Bunny meets 16-year-old Paul, who has run away from his desperately poor family’s farm. Much of the rest of the book revolves around these characters’ experiences of the world from their different vantage points–Bunny’s world of wealth and Paul’s world of work.
To show the conflict between capital and labor, Sinclair depicts one of the many oil strikes of the 1910s, with Paul as a union supporter; Ross as an up-and-coming independent operator, concerned for his employees, but driven by the competition to take a hard line; and Bunny caught in the middle, loyal to a father who lives for his happiness, but sympathizing with Paul and the struggle of labor.
When the U.S. enters the First World War, both young men go into the military. But Bunny becomes an officer and never leaves the U.S., while Paul is drafted and ends up serving in Russia, where the U.S. Army covertly aids the counter-revolutionary White armies threatening the new workers’ state established by the 1917 revolution.
Paul returns from the war a socialist, and Bunny is won over to his ideals, but the two get different treatment during the post-war Red Scare–the Ross family lawyers protect Bunny, while Paul spends more time in jail.
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Oil! IS as much a social history of the U.S. during the early decades of the 20th century as anything else. Sinclair uses a fictional story to cast a light on the forces at work behind the non-fictional crimes–both great and small–of capitalism.
Because he is so intent on drawing the bigger picture, the plot of the book often feels one step removed from the human drama–sometimes literally, like when Bunny is whisked away for a vacation among Manhattan’s high society as another strike by oil workers begins, leaving him to get news of the struggle and offer his sympathy at a distance.
On this point, the contrast with There Will Be Blood is striking. The movie focuses on the micro level–the details that make up the big picture–in a way that gives it an immediacy and gut-level emotional power the book doesn’t have.
Some of the main characters and the southern California setting are the same, but that’s about it. J. Arnold Ross becomes Daniel Plainview, and he has no soft spot at all, for his son or anyone else.
We see him first down a cramped hole, bent over a rock face and pounding away with a pickax in search of oil shale. The symbolism is obvious–Plainview’s humanness has been stunted by the ambition for wealth that drives him to spend his days in the shadows, underground. There are almost no crowd scenes in the movie–the largest groups at any point number no more than three dozen–which underlines the desolation of the landscape, both natural and human.
Plainview’s one connection to the world of other people seems to be Bunny, but when a freak accident puts a barrier between them, he cuts this last tie. The most wrenching scene in a movie filled with them shows Plainview walking away from this one last social relationship.
This is no less a critique of capitalism than Oil! but rather than show how the forces of a system built on greed cause monstrous events to take place in society at large, There Will Be Blood shows how they turn one man into a monster. In the process, the character of Bunny recedes into the background and his friend Paul disappears altogether–which means, sadly, that the strikes, the political debates and the Russian Revolution end up on the cutting-room floor.
Interestingly, one character gets more prominence in the movie: Eli, Paul’s preacher brother. In the book, a cynical Ross makes peace with Eli, and uses him as a kind of social support for his oil operation. In the film, Plainview and Eli are fierce enemies, mutually dependent on one another, but constantly in conflict.
It’s like watching a war from some past life between the hostile factions of the present-day Republican Party, the big-business schemers vs. the Religious Right–and as far as this movie is concerned, if anything is as bad as the crimes committed in the name of business, it’s the lies and moral corruption of Eli’s snake-oil version of religion.
Judged by the standards of moviemaking, There Will Be Blood is magnificent. As Plainview and Eli, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano give performances that people will be talking about years from now, and even after two-and-a-half hours, you won’t be tired of Anderson’s incredible visual images.
So There Will Be Blood would be a must-see anyway for anyone who likes movies. And if the film draws more attention to the politically committed novels of Upton Sinclair, so much the better. Together, they make a critique of a capitalist system that worships at the alter of greed and power.