Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Written Word Wednesday - Also, Not a Single Milkshake Reference

Following the great love I felt for P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, I decided to read the book which was its nominal inspiration, Oil! by Upton Sinclair. I knew from interviews with Anderson that the film was anything but a faithful adaptation of the novel; according to Anderson, he really loved the first 150 pages or so of the book, but felt like it veered off course after that, so his script took the kernel of the idea of that first section of the book and ran with it. This led to me being quite curious about the source material, and whether or not cutting the other 300 pages of story from the novel out of the screenplay was a good decision or not.

Oh, boy, was it ever.

Now, this is one of those rare cases where the screenwriter was very upfront about the fact that, while his film was "inspired by" another work, that it was very much its own beast; in point of fact, he even renamed the protagonists, transforming Arnold and "Bunny" Ross into Daniel and H.W. Plainview. TWBB and the first third of Oil! share some of the broad strokes: both are concerned with an independent oil man who carts his son along on business trips; the two find out about a possible oil-rich tract of land and investigate it under the guise of quail hunting, and then purchase the land from the poor but highly religious family that lives there, one whom, Eli, becomes a powerful preacher. But whereas the film places the spotlight on the father and his monomaniacal competitive nature, the novel is told from the P.O.V. of the son, a tender-hearted lad who tries to reconcile his hero worship of his father with his growing realization that his father's success often comes at the expense of the less fortunate.

There is a pretty big gulf in the characterization of the father in the two works as well; in the film, Daneil Plainview is a man obsessed with winning at all costs, and demonstrates a violent temper and what is practically indifference to his adopted son. In the book, however, Arnold Ross is a mildly unscrupulous businessman, but only because, from his P.O.V., that's the way the world works, and he comprises again and again his own capitalistic drive to assuage the guilt that consumes his son, whom he loves above all other things.

And then, around the 150 page mark, Bunny goes off to college, and the book suddenly turns from a sly look at inner workings of big oil and their corrupt practices to what amounts to out-and-out Socialist propaganda and screed against capitalism and the corruption it breeds. While interesting at first, for the snapshot it gives of the Red Scare in the early 20th century if nothing else, as the book plods on with Bunny vacillating between the views of his father and the views of strike-leader and rabble rouser Paul Watkins, and then later vacillating between the views of Socialism and the views of Communism, and then vacillating between his desire to promote social reform and his desire to make his class conscious movie star girlfriend happy, and then vacillating between . . . well, you get the idea. Again, as a historical snapshot, the book held my interest to some degree, and you have to applaud Sinclair's desire for an end to the corruption of big business, but after 300 pages of "big oil bad, common man good," I was more than ready to bid the book adieu.