Wednesday, February 27, 2008

There will be kvetching

  • Upton Sinclair scholar Anthony Arthur examines the differences between Oil! and There Will Be Blood in The New York Times.
The film bears little more than a passing resemblance to the novel -- Anderson has stated that the book was mostly just a jumping-off point -- so a nitpicky blow-by-blow on the inevitable differences would be an exercise in futility. Arthur predictably takes Sinclair's side in terms of the dimensions given to the story's main character (only elliptically referred to in the film), but on the whole it's an interesting examination. Sinclair's work is always worth reading, film adaptations be damned.
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.

No comments: