During a career that encompassed over 90 novels, a failed bid to launch a utopian community in northern New Jersey and a quixotic 1934 run for the governership of California, Upton Sinclair repeatedly aimed for but never quite achieved success with Hollywood. There were a few brushes with filmdom: after a silent version of his most famous novel, The Jungle, Sinclair befriended Charlie Chaplin and lost a lot of money backing Sergei Eisenstein’s never-completed documentary about Mexico. It’s a little startling to realize that this arch-socialist’s last nod from Hollywood came a year before his death, when arch-reactionary Walt Disney made a film of his children’s book The Gnome-Mobile.
This short piece by Sinclair biographer Anthony Arthur naturally focuses on There Will Be Blood, which is so loosely based on Sinclair’s novel Oil! that one could make a separate version that would hardly overlap its story. The odd thing is that the film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, almost complements Sinclair in its vision of oilmen and evangelists cynically clawing wealth from both the land and the soul of America:
Anderson’s self-sufficient and misanthropic Daniel Plainview (as he renames Dad Ross) has no truck with Sinclairean theories of cause and effect. “I don’t like explaining myself,” says Anderson’s Plainview, perhaps reflecting the director’s own wish that his poetic and ultimately rather cryptic film speak for itself. Upton Sinclair, to the frequent detriment of his novels, loved explaining himself, especially his ideas about what was wrong with capitalism. Although “Oil!” is one of Sinclair’s better novels, it still suffers from the author’s insistence that literature should lead to the solution of social problems. Less interested in human psychology than in ideas, he blamed the capitalist system for all social ills and directed his literary and other energies (he ran for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934) toward changing that system to socialism. Sinclair’s critics gibed that he had sold his birthright for a pot of message, and even his admirers wished that he had paid more attention to his art.
By contrast, “There Will Be Blood” is ingeniously artful in many ways, not least in its enthralling re-creation of the oil-boom era that Sinclair evoked in his novel. But where Sinclair could be overly didactic, Anderson’s film suffers from a lack of thematic clarity, compounded by some of his shifts in emphasis. Paul, the avatar of honor in “Oil!,” appears in the film only briefly, selling the secret of his father’s oil to the rapacious Plainview before disappearing entirely. Eli the evangelist, who is presented satirically and largely fades from view after the novel’s opening section, becomes Plainview’s primary antagonist, and a wholly unredeemed villain, in the film. Sinclair would hardly have objected to the punishment Anderson ultimately inflicts on this charlatan — just a few years before “Oil!” he wrote “The Profits of Religion,” a scorching broadside against organized churches, which he saw as “a source of income to parasites, and the natural ally of every form of oppression and exploitation.” But for Sinclair, the problem was not with outright villains, of which there are few in his work, but with the system itself, with the false beliefs that cause people to behave badly.
I’m glad to see that, thanks to the movie, Oil! is still chugging along nicely on the Times’ trade paperback bestseller list.