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January 8, 2008

Oil Into Blood

oil_novel.jpgWhatever problems one might have with the narrative construction of There Will Be Blood, they're very assuredly not the result of Anderson's compression of Sinclair's 548 page Oil! into less than three hours of cinema. Indeed, this is less a case of adaptation than of inspiration; Anderson's taken certain
tenets of the text and refashioned them into something that is entirely his own.

Which is fine, because with Oil! Sinclair was using the petroleum boom of the early 1920s as grounds to declare his own socialist ideals, and to pit them against the wheels of a capitalist economy. Oil and capitalism, he posits, are avariciously linked, and he's referring to both when he writes, quite nakedly, of "an evil Power which roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women, and luring the nations to destruction by visions of unearned wealth, and the opportunity to enslave and exploit labor." The book is so earnestly polemical, in fact, that it makes overt what is merely allegorical in Anderson's film; written in 1927, it remains a sharply prescient political tract.

But all screeds aside, the book is also a melodrama about a father and a son; or, rather, about a son growing into a man and leaving his father behind. Anderson recapitulates this into a story about a father leaving a son behind - along with everyone else. Indeed, what will be most surprising to those who pick up the novel after seeing the film is that Daniel Plainview is not a character in it. His literary counterpart is J. Arnold Ross, who, aside from being an oil baron and having a young son, could scarcely be more different from Anderson's protagonist. The closest the characters come to dovetailing is in a scene that occurs early in both works, in which the simple townfolk gather to hear the oilman's proposal. Here's the beginning of Plainview's monologue as it exists in the final shooting script, and as it is heard in the film:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I've traveled over half our state to get here this evening. I couldn't get away sooner because my new well was coming in at Coyote Hills and I had to see about it. That well is now flowing at two thousand barrels and it's paying me an income of five thousand dollars a week. I have two others drilling and I have sixteen producing at Antelope. So - Ladies and Gentlemen - if I say I'm an oil man, you'll agree.

And here's how Sinclair put the same introduction:

Ladies and gentlemen, I traveled over jist about half our state to get here this evenin.' I couldn't get away sooner, because my new well was a-comin' in at Lobos River, and I had to see about it. That well is now flowin' at four thousand barrel, and payin' me an income of five thousand dollars a day. I got two others drillin,' and I got sixteen producin' at Antelope. So, ladies and gentlemen, if I say I'm an oil man, you got to agree." (37)

The scene in the film occurs just as it does in the book, and the body of the speech is lifted nearly verbatim; but Anderson is not quite following the letter of Sinclair's work, nor is he after quite the same spirit. Gone from Plainview's dialogue are the congenial, good ol' boy affectations that endear Ross to his audience. The two characters are alike in their pursuit of wealth, but the degree to which their greed defines them is starkly different. To wit, another comparison between the script -

We've got an ocean of oil under our feet and no one can get at it except for me.

- and its source:

"Why, boy, we got an ocean of oil down underneath here; and it's all ours - not a soul can get near it but us!" (163-64)

Notice that attribution! The scene in which this dialogue occurs - the eruption of the oil derrick - is a significant turning point in both book and film, and once again, but for a tiny detail, Anderson hews closely to his source. That single alteration, though, takes the film in a completely different direction. To return to the notion of greed: J. Arnold Ross seeks his fortune out of an undying love for his son. Plainview loves his son, but uses him as a tool in pursuit of his fortune. The conflagration brings together in the book what is driven irreparably apart on film.

In an interview with the Onion AV Club, Anderson notes that "the book is so long that it's only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using." That derrick burns to the ground, after which there are nearly 400 pages that have no bearing on the movie whatsoever. They constitute a coming-of-age story, following young J. Arnold Ross, Jr. (affectionately referred to as Bunny) as he grows, matures, falls in and out of love and, is taken advantage of and, most importantly for Sinclair, becomes enamored with the Bolshevik Revolution. It's Paul Watkins, the socialist brother of the boy preacher Eli, who introduces him to these causes; the character who appears in just one brief scene in the film is a major dramatic fulcrum in the novel, whereas Eli and all he represents gradually recede into background texture after adding a burst of initial fuel to Sinclair's fire.

Anderson drags Eli out of the woodwork. He's the one major character in the novel who's carried over wholesale into the film, and while his fate in the book isn't quite the same, that climactic scene does have a precedent in an early meeting between Ross and the young preacher's family (the Watkins in the book, the Sundays in the script). As Ioannis Mookas puts it in his excellent review of the film, "In adapting Sinclair's novel, Anderson eighty-sixed whole continents -gone are World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, American communism, any shred of sex - and rethought characters, plotting, and tone from the ground up, in order to keep in his crosshairs two of Sinclair's biggest game, our homegrown oil plutocracy and evangelical hucksterism."

Readers who pick up the novel after seeing the film may spark upon other correlations; the pretense of quail hunting to survey land, for example, or the death of a worker named Joe Gundha, or fathers beating daughters. The shooting script actually maintains a closer parallel to the novel than the finished film, as if Anderson realized in making the film that he needed even less of Sinclair's support than he thought, but even there the similarities soon vanish. Ultimately, these are two entirely unique works. Rather than the mutual diminishing that adaptations share with their source texts, Oil! and There Will Be Blood provide a unique sort of dialectical insight. Neither one sheds light on the other, but in concert they expose something of the inner process by which Anderson created such a formidable, unwieldy and wholly original piece of work.

Addendum: Filmbrain kindly wrote to let me know that "another book Anderson read that was an influence was 'The Dark Side of Fortune,' a bio of Edward Doheny who began as a poor, failed silver miner andeventually became California's first big oilman. Interesting bit of trivia -- H.W.'s father (who dies) has a character name of H.B. Ailman. H.B. Ailman was a famous silver miner, and is featured in the Doheny bio. Geeky, yes, but interesting."

In the Onion AV Club interview linked to above, Anderson does indeed mention that he started to deviate from Oil! as he began to research Sinclair's own sources - the life of Doheny in particular. He gave Plainview the same hometown as Doheny - Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin - and of course filmed the climax in the mansion he built for his son in Beverly Hills.

Posted by David Lowery at January 8, 2008 12:02 AM


Thanks for this post, David. I now love the film even more and am intrigued by the creative decisions PTA made alternative to the novel. I still find myself watching the chilling trailers and shudder as Plainview speaks... Or laughs... Or whatever.

Posted by: Adam Donaghey at January 10, 2008 8:26 PM