Book Vs. Film: Oil!

 

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who've already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

 

 

 

Book: Oil!, Upton Sinclair, 1927

Film: There Will Be Blood, adapted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007

For me, one of the biggest similarities between Upton Sinclair's Oil! and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood was that I seriously enjoyed them both, and yet I haven't recommended either one to anyone I know, because both are slow, grim, and difficult, the kind of things that would make my friends and family come back to me afterward, ranting "What the hell were you thinking?"

Admittedly, I enjoyed them in pretty different ways, because they're wildly different artistic artifacts: Both are sprawling and ambitious, but the film is lean, driven, and intense, while the book is baroque, broad, and stylistically dense, but packed with crowd-pleasing fluff. They're also vastly different in content. It's important to note that Anderson didn't set out to put Oil! on film. In his A.V. Club interview with Josh Modell earlier this year, he likens the book to a "really good collaborator" rather than a source. Examining the two versions side by side, it's easy to see what he meant: It's like the book occasionally chimed in as he was writing, suggesting a character name or a scene, but otherwise leaving him alone to work from historical sources, current events, and his own imagination. While it's possible to read Oil! and see where some of Anderson's ideas originated, the two works don't have all that much in common, and weren't meant to. In fact, on the broadest conceptual level, I think they wind up as precise, mirrored opposites. But we'll get to that later.

Upton Sinclair is often referred to as a muckraker, and not just because of his most popular, widely read book, The Jungle—though that book is an excellent example of his advocacy writing, with its harrowing accounts of gross, unhygienic practices in the meatpacking industry (which did prompt government investigation, public outcry, and lasting change) and equally harrowing accounts of the toll the industry took on its workers (which did not). It's sensationalist and manipulative, throwing readers into extreme situations in which beleaguered good fights entrenched evil, with all the melodramatic emoting of an early silent film. Sinclair wrote for the working class, and while his writing style is complicated, his characters generally aren't. They're Heroes or Villains, and they're trapped in provocative situations that stridently demand sympathy or condemnation. And those situations are heavily based on research and reality.

Oil! is cast in the same mold as The Jungle. It starts out by introducing readers to the oil industry, circa the dawn of the 20th century, and winds up introducing them to socialism, by showing them exactly how flawed, corrupt, and evil capitalism is, in scene after scene after preachy-ass scene. Sinclair knew his audience wouldn't sit still for a 550-page sermon, so he works the sermonizing into a story full of violence, movie stars, sex, emotional travails, and nonstop villainous evil. Possibly the biggest surprise for There Will Be Blood fans who haven't read the book, though, is that the film's protagonist, oil man Daniel Plainview, isn't the villain. In fact, while Sinclair shows him to be as bad as any in the oil trade when it comes to stifling the workers, buying off the government, manipulating and browbeating the media, and bribing everyone in sight, he's left as a somewhat baffled and sympathetic figure, wily as hell but forced to such awful measures by a corrupt and corrupting system. Over and over, he points out that while he might like to be more honest, he just can't afford to be. If he doesn't mirror the behavior of the big oil conglomerates, they'll eat him alive. Try to imagine the film's protagonist (played by Daniel Day Lewis, in a larger-than-life, Oscar-winning performance) offering up such excuses for his behavior. Or any excuses, really.

In brief, There Will Be Blood is the story of Daniel Plainview, a self-made oil millionaire who fights all his life to get everything he wants—oil, money, power—and in the process, breaks all his human ties, discarding everyone and everything in his way. In other words, it's the Great American Capitalist Success Story, but it points out that financial success may mean utter personal and moral failure. After a long, wordless sequence covering the decade in which he goes from solo silver prospector to small-time oil prospector to independent, successful oilman, the dialogue finally kicks in with Daniel addressing a meeting of small landholders who want to lease their tracts to him for oil drilling. They argue virulently, and he walks out with his 7-year-old son H.W., telling the locals' spokesman that he wouldn't take their lease as a gift.

This scene comprises one of only two direct parallels between the book and the film. The movie version of this scene is brief and to the point; Daniel gives a speech about his qualifications (which is taken almost verbatim from the book), listens to them fight for a minute, and then walks out. The book version of the same scene is a 25-page side trip that explores many of the specific characters involved, and lays out what they want, and what all the issues are in their arguments. They fight before the oilman (in the book, his name is J. Arthur Ross) arrives, they fight in front of him, they fight after he leaves. And eventually, their arguing results in delays, and their land being split up and exploited, and no one making a profit at all on what could have been a huge payout. Conveniently, Sinclair brings that scene up again more than 400 pages later, and has a character explain, in detail, that it's all symbolic of the way countries squabble among themselves in world affairs: How lack of cooperation over petty greed results in no one getting anything, because more money winds up being spent on the competition for resources than is actually made on gathering those resources.

And this is pretty much how the book goes. A fun game to play while reading Oil! is "What Does This Symbolize?" Or more sarcastically, "What Is This Scene Telling Me About The Glories Of Socialism And The Evils Of Capitalism?" Like so many puzzle games, Oil! conveniently has the answers located right there in the book: Sinclair tends to eventually explain, directly and pointedly, what many of his sequences really meant. For instance, a big chunk of the book is given over to a strike among the oil workers at the Ross family's Paradise oil field. J. Arthur Ross sympathizes somewhat with his workingmen, in part because he was once one himself, and in part because he's a bridge character between the workers and the bosses, someone meant to illustrate how hard it is to buck the system. But in particular, he sympathizes because his son (in the book, J. Arthur Ross Jr., generally known as "Bunny") makes him sympathize.

Where the movie is largely about the oilman, sometimes seen in relationship to his son, the book is largely about the son, sometimes seen in relationship to his father. Bunny—whom Sinclair tells us over and over and over is a naïve young man, not versed in the ways of the world, and still trying to figure it out—is the audience avatar, the one who needs to be gradually brought around to understanding just how bad capitalism is, and who needs Sinclair's symbolism explained to him. For instance, when his old friend Paul comes back from a harrowing stint working for the U.S. Army in Siberia, and reports on his experiences, and explains what that whole long business earlier in the book about the strike was supposed to teach all of us:

 

 

 

 

 

All this was so different from what Bunny had been taught that it was hard for him to adjust to it. He would go off and think it over, and then come back with another string of questions. "Then Paul, you mean the Bolsheviks aren't bad people at all!"

Paul answered, "Just apply the rule—remember Paradise! They were workingmen, like any other workingmen on strike. A lot of them have come from America—got their training here. I used to meet them and have long talks—all kinds of fellows, that had been all over this country. They are people with modern ideas, trying to dig the Russians out of their ignorance and superstition. They believe in education—I never saw such people for teaching; everywhere, whatever they were doing, they were always preaching, having lectures, printing things—why, son, I've seen newspapers printed on old scraps of brown butcher paper, or wrappings our army had thrown away. I learned Russian pretty well—it was just the sort of thing our strikers printed at Paradise, only of course these people have got farther in their struggle against the bosses, they see things more clearly than we do."

Bunny was staring, a little frightened. "Paul! Then you agree with the Bolsheviks?"

Paul laughed, a grim laugh. "You go up to Frisco and talk with the men on that transport! That army was Bolshevik to a man—and not only the privates, but the officers. I guess that's why they brought us home. There was mutiny in Archangel, you know—or maybe you don't."

"I heard something—"

"Let me tell you, Bunny—I've been there, and I know. The Bolsheviks are the only people in that country that have any faith or any solidarity; and they're going to run it, too—mark my words, the Japs will get out, the same as we did. You can't beat people that will die for their cause, the last man and the last woman."

Said Bunny, timidly, "Then it isn't true what we've been told—I mean about their nationalizing the women?"

"Oh, my Lord!" said Paul. "Is that the sort of rot you've been thinking?"

"Well, but how can we know what to think?"

Paul laughed. "Come to think of it, I met some women that had been nationalized by the Bolsheviks—as school-teachers. They taught the men in their armies to read and write, and made every man swear to teach ten others what he had learned. I saw a couple of dozen such women, in a cattle-car on the trans-Siberian railway, without a single blanket, nothing but blocks of wood for pillows, not even a bucket to serve for a toilet. They had several cases of Asiatic cholera among them, and they'd been that way for ten or twelve days—prisoners of war, you understand, waiting until they got to Irkutsk, where they'd be shot without a trial. And on the other hand, Bunny—here's the truth, I was in Siberia eighteen months, and never saw an atrocity committed by a Bolshevik, and never met a man in our army that had seen one. I don't say there weren't any; all I say is, I met men that had traveled all over Russia, our people as well as natives, and the only Bolshevik atrocity that anyone knew about was the fundamental one of teaching the workers they had a right to rule the world. You can set this down for a fact about the Russian Revolution, all the way from Vladivostok to Odessa and Archangel—that where the 'reds' did any killing or executing, the 'whites' did ten, and a hundred times as much. You never hear about any 'white' atrocities, because the newspapers don't report them—they are too busy telling how Lenin has murdered Trotsky, and Trotsky has thrown Lenin into jail."

 

 

 

 

 

Incidentally, that blatant sarcasm at the end, underlining just how much the media sucks, is one of the things I enjoy about reading Sinclair. He's just so outraged. And he's so delightfully snotty about it. He's constantly pointing out one facet of society or the other, in increasingly mocking, derisive terms, and then snorting over it—as when Bunny grows up and spends time as "the young oil prince," hanging out with other members of his social class, who are so bored and jaded with life that they spend all their time not just playing golf and polo and tennis, but studying those sports, and organizing tournaments and leagues, "and talk[ing] about their play just as solemnly as if it had been work." Ultimately, Bunny dismisses the idle rich, given the ridiculous amount of care and effort they put into "all sorts of complicated ways of hitting a little ball about a field!" Sinclair loves his exclamation points mightily, and he generally uses them at the end of paragraphs and chapters, to indicate how ridiculous the world is. His shocked amusement is meant to be contagious, and it largely is, though it's a little harder to get into it when it comes in blatant bursts of propaganda—or counter-propaganda—as in the excerpt above, which is meant to help deprogram all those poor American-media-fed bastards who have been hearing bad things about the Bolsheviks.

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In that excerpt, the person doing most of the talking is Paul—the same guy who only appears in a single scene of There Will Be Blood. In the film, shortly after the scene with the squabbling lease-holders, a gawky teenager named Paul Sunday comes to Daniel to sell information about his home ranch, where he says there's oil. Daniel Plainview and H.W. investigate and meet the Sunday family, including Paul's religious-fanatic twin brother Eli. (Both Paul and Eli are played by Paul Dano.) Daniel buys the land fairly cheap and goes into business there. He also manages to start a feud with Eli, by publicly and purposefully snubbing him after Eli attempts to insert himself into the well-opening ceremony. The rest of the film veers into a lot of areas—particularly Daniel's relationship with H.W., with other oil companies, and with a long-lost brother who turns up unexpectedly—but it keeps coming back to the enmity between Daniel (who seems to represent capitalism in its rawest, most eye-gouging form) and Eli (who represents religion, in its most hypocritical, self-serving form). And the film concludes with the decisive end to that enmity.

In the book, Bunny first meets Paul during the squabbling-leaseholders scene. When the film begins, his character hasn't been born yet; when the book begins, he's 13 years old and eagerly learning his father's trade, largely by observation. So he comes along and witnesses his father's meeting, but is lured away by Paul, a boy about his age, who has run away from his religious-fanatic family, and is off to make his way in the world. Bunny is hugely impressed by his pride and independence—he refuses to take money from Bunny, because he doesn't want charity—and when Paul leaves, Bunny prevails on his father to go up to the boy's family farm and look around. Paul had suggested that there might be oil on the land, and Bunny has an idea that if there is, Ross will buy the land, and Paul's poor family will live rich and content and happily ever after.

So eventually they check out the land, which leads to the one other scene in the film that comes directly from the book—the first meeting between the oilman and the rural, backward family living on the oil-rich land he wants. Again, here, Anderson takes his dialogue directly from the book, as Ross/Daniel takes his son up to the farm, asks about local conditions, pretends to be hunting quail, pretends to be religious in order to avoid uncomfortable questions when Paul's brother Eli starts asking if they're saved, and generally buffalos the family into giving up their land cheap.

And from that point on, the two works pretty well part company completely. Just a few specifics:

• The film largely centers on the conflicts between Daniel and Eli. In the book, Ross and Eli remain relatively cordial, at a distance. Eli rises in the world in the book as well in the movie, becoming a popular and successful preacher, but there's no bad blood between him and Ross in the book. At one point during a recession, he even turns up to ask for some money, which Ross cheerfully hands him, thinking that Eli may come in handy politically in the future. Eli in the book is clearly meant to symbolize religion as another corrupt institution—he's clearly preaching abstinence, yet fucking around on the sly with his parishioners—but while he turns up repeatedly throughout the book for a paragraph or two of updates, he isn't much of a character.

• Paul shows up for one scene in the film, sells out his family, and is gone for good, to who knows what fate. In the book, Paul remains an active and central presence, and the face of Socialism—and later, Communism, as he becomes radicalized. While Bunny remains naïve and soft-hearted throughout much of the book, Paul becomes more and more vociferous, and more of a teacher of truths, as he's portrayed in the book excerpt above. He's frequently jailed and assaulted throughout the book, as an illustration of how hard unionizers and reformers have it in our corrupt America; Bunny spends a good chunk of the novel defending him, bailing him out, and listening to his tragic stories about how everyone's being duped about what's really going on in Russia—and in America as well.

• The business about Daniel's brother in the film has no parallel in the book; in the book, he has an extended family, including a dotty mother and a selfish high-society daughter who's always scolding Bunny for being social poison by going on and on about "the workers" instead of quietly enjoying the comforts of high society. Ross isn't nearly as vicious a character as Daniel, and his inability to get along with people, even his kin, is never a factor.

• In the film, Daniel eventually tells H.W. that he's "a bastard from a basket," unrelated to Daniel, and only adopted to evoke people's sympathies. It's one of his last breaks from humanity. In the book, Bunny is clearly Ross' son. The mother is even alive, though she's a selfish, grasping bitch whom Ross has divorced; Bunny occasionally, uncomfortably visits her, and she tries to get money out of him, but she's only mentioned a few times in the book.

• In the film, H.W. is deafened as a child, leading to his break with his father. This doesn't happen in the book; they remain close throughout their lives, though he's constantly trying to redeem his wily capitalist dad. H.W. eventually marries Mary Sunday, whom he grew up with; Bunny remains deeply attached to Paul and Eli's sister Ruth Sunday, but it's never a romantic relationship. Her first concern is always for Paul. Bunny instead marries a good Jewish Socialist, a girl who's furthered the cause for hundreds of pages of hardworking dedication, while he himself has been off learning about the world by having an affair with a Hollywood starlet and plumbing the depths of the movie industry's prejudices against the working class.

Incidentally, H.W. Plainview in the film is one of its big mysteries. He feels more like Paul Thomas Anderson's weapon against Daniel and tool for revealing his nature than like a character; he rarely speaks throughout the whole film, and he rarely betrays what's going on in his head. Which makes it more than a little baffling when he takes extreme actions like trying to set his uncle on fire. By contrast, the book mostly takes place inside Bunny's head. It's written from a third-person semi-omniscient perspective, covering a lot of ground in broad strokes, but it sticks fairly close to Bunny and what he knows and feels and thinks. As the audience avatar—the naïve kid who just wants everyone to be happy, and doesn't understand why workers and bosses can't just cooperate and get along—he's a nice guy, emotional and empathetic and kind, and he gives the book most of its shape, as he tries to educate himself in the miseries of capitalism and the intricacies of socialism, and find a middle path everyone can agree on. Again, compare this with Daniel's uncompromising straight-ahead charge in the film, which feels more like a cautionary tale than a cooperative educational one.

All in all, most of what Anderson takes from the book is some character names; a certain amount of Daniel/Ross' snaky, determined, driven smarts; a time and setting and a lot of detail about the oil industry; and a couple of specific scenes, with dialogue attached. (He takes some of the imagery, too; the oil-well fire is in both versions, and is fairly similar in both, except that Bunny isn't hurt in the book.) The film goes on to follow Daniel's increasing degradation and desperation as his emotional life falls apart. The book goes on to educate Bunny—and the reader—in World War I history and the ways of the capitalist world, with reams of specifics about how capitalists manipulate the government and shut out the little people, manipulate the media and shut out the truth, and manipulate the workers by force-feeding them propaganda about the evil Commies who are coming to steal everything they own.

But in the end, the two versions have something in common: They both stand as symbolic attacks on capitalism as a corruptor, and on the pursuit of money without morals as a sure way to destroy your soul. There Will Be Blood has been widely read as a very current analysis of the relationship between Dubya-era government (as represented by a profiteering oilman) and religion (as represented by an alternately meek and greedy, corrupt sellout)—how the two have used and abused each other, and how the current administration has ultimately made its hypocrisies clear. But if it's meant as metaphor, it's broad enough to be interpreted in other ways, and there are arguments going on all over the Internet right now about which of those ways is best…

…or, alternately, whether its meant as metaphor at all, or it's ultimately meaningless. Some of the essays I've been reading about it recently are highly suspicious of Anderson's skills and his motives, because he's been so opaque in the past, with things like the rain of frogs in Magnolia. I've seen a number of suggestions that There Will Be Blood is an emperor with no clothes, and that Anderson is just making up shit as he goes along. Which would make the movie fairly uninteresting to me, actually. Which is why I haven't done too much digging into what Anderson has had to say about it. I enjoyed Magnolia until I watched a making-of documentary where Anderson flat-out admitted that he didn't have a plan, or a complete script, when he started shooting, and that he only wrote as much of it as he did because he'd exiled himself to a remote cabin, and then got trapped inside it for days, hiding to avoid a snake outside sunning itself on a path. It's hard enough to trust a filmmaker who wants to take you down weird roads without explaining himself; it's harder to trust one who freely admits he has no damn idea where he's going.

But that brings us back to where we started, with the way in which Oil! and There Will Be Blood are, to my mind, exact opposites: I think Oil! works better as narrative than as metaphor. Sinclair wants for every bit of it to function as a teaching tool, getting across a frightfully important (and generally stridently underlined) message. And yet it's at its most interesting when it at least seems to just be telling a story about people—specifically, people in the oil industry at the turn of the century. It's packed with fanatical levels of detail about oil prospecting circa 1910; it's similarly detailed about the lives of the rich and hateful in that era, and how they amused themselves through Prohibition, and how government and business were run. Sinclair is a funny, barbed writer, and an excellent storyteller, and Oil! was, for me, a lot of fun to read. And yet he keeps spoiling it by saying "By the way, the strike? A parallel for the Russian Revolution. Get it now? Do you get it now? DO YOU?"

But the exact opposite holds true for There Will Be Blood; it works better as metaphor than as a literal story. As narrative, it's often mesmerizing, in large part because of Daniel Day Lewis' snarling, vivid performance. But it's also lumpy and uneven, exquisitely slow and measured toward the beginning, and abrupt and lurching toward the end. As a story, it's more than a little baffling; as metaphor, it's viciously incisive, and every scene seems meaningful. In the end, both versions are saying similar things. But Sinclair might have done better to tone down the preaching, and Anderson might have been better off putting the attention into his characters—all of them, not just the brilliantly rendered Daniel Plainview—that he put into the political imagery hidden under his literal story.

Next week in this space: The launch of Nathan Rabin's new monthly book feature.

And in two weeks in Book Vs. Film:

More Book vs. Film