Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oil!, refined

The tranformation of an Upton Sinclair novel into There Will Be Blood

The following post is part of a larger work in progress about Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.

At first glance, Daniel Plainview, the fourth figure in Daniel Day-Lewis’s American gallery, marks a return to the fierce intensity of John Proctor in The Crucible, Nathaniel Poe/Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, and William Cutting/Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. He is, moreover, a bona fide westerner – about as western you can get: a Californian (the genuine frontier article, which is to say a transplant).  In this movie, he arrives after the frontier in 1898, five years after Turner delivered his famous “Significance of the Frontier” address, and almost a decade after the frontier was declared closed. But starting out in the rocky desert of the Golden State, he is a pathfinder nonetheless, the prophet of a new frontier who connects a promised land to the Pacific. His name is deceptively simple in its remorseless clarity: Daniel Plainview. His rise – and, significantly, his fall – is charted in the 2007 film There Will Be Blood.
Like most Day-Lewis projects, this one is grounded, albeit loosely, in on old literary source, the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil! Sinclair (pictured above left) first came to fame on the strength of his 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle, which detailed the often appalling state of the meatpacking industry and led a reluctant President Theodore Roosevelt, who preferred to lead than follow in forcing social reform, to sign the Pure Food and Drug Act the same year. Sinclair had a very long and commercially successful career that stretched well into the 1950s, but The Jungle is the really the only novel for which he is remembered today. (“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach,” is his famous line on the book.”) Actually, Sinclair could write prose of riveting social realism, but tended to undercut it with a didactic impulse that often veered into propaganda. That’s what happened in The Jungle, which ends as a virtual Socialist tract – Sinclair ran unsuccessfully for governor of California as a Democrat in 1934, with a platform to End Poverty in California (EPIC) – and these traits are evident in Oil! as well. The novel tells the story of James Arnold Ross, a fictionalized composite character partially resembling Edward Doheny through the eyes of his son, Ross Jr., nicknamed “Bunny.” A former teamster and merchant, we meet the Ross and his son in 1912 as he gets his start in petroleum drilling. Over the course of the next fifteen years he becomes a major operator, reluctantly drawn into a cartel whose illegal activities culminate in the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which naval oil reserves in Wyoming were leased to private operators in exchange for a bribe.[1] The scandal did much to tarnish the administration of President Warren Harding, whose reputation waned rapidly after his unexpected death in 1923.
Oil! had been culturally dormant for decades when it was discovered by Eric Schlosser, a modern-day muckraker whose expose Fast Food Nation garnered a good deal of attention when it was published in 2001. (Schlosser in effect did to French fries what Sinclair did for ground beef.)[2] Not surprisingly, Schlosser was asked a lot about Sinclair, who he knew chiefly from The Jungle. Schlosser was nevertheless curious about his polemical godfather, and dipped into Sinclair’s vast body of work. He was particularly intrigued by Oil!, which he thought could make a good movie. So he optioned the rights from the Sinclair estate. At the same moment, it turned out there was someone else interested in the novel: the screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson had discovered Oil! in a used bookstore in London, where he was struggling with a screenplay, and was captivated by it. He contacted Schlosser and the two met to discuss the project. Although initially skeptical, Schlosser was impressed by Anderson’s vision.[3]
When Anderson began working on the project circa 2004, he was still only in his early thirties. He had made four of relatively small movies that were nevertheless hailed for their striking originality, among them Boogie Nights (1997) a surprisingly loving portrait of a group of pornographic filmmakers and Magnolia (1999), a sprawling family saga with seemingly disparate characters whose lives converge. The screenplay that Anderson eventually produced, renamed There Will Be Blood, would only use a sliver of Sinclair’s novel, principally the father-son relationship in the oil business and a clutch of incidents like the death of a worker on an oil derrick.
But the difference between novel and screenplay are about more than plot details. Oil! is at heart a story of labor. The main narrative line is that of Bunny’s gradual radicalization and the need to break free of his father’s loving but misguided hopes. Ross Sr. is certainly an arch capitalist, but one whose love for his son leads him to make allowances and tolerate people far different from even plutocratic allies to whom he tends to defer. In Anderson’s screenplay, however, the Ross character, now renamed Daniel Plainview, is a ruthless independent operator who proves as hostile to bigger operators as he does smaller ones. But his primary adversary in the movie are not workers or even fellow oil titans, but instead an evangelical preacher named Eli Sunday, a minor figure in the novel clearly patterned on the somewhat dubious preachers of the twenties like Aimee Semple McPherson (whose extramarital affair and claims of being kidnapped became a national joke). This is, in my view a mistake, and perhaps an illustration of the way that neoconservative politics and economics have impoverished our imagination about class conflict, which was much more vivid and urgent then than it is now. Philosophically pure plutocrats have always a bigger problem than hypocritical preachers, and Anderson’s elevation of Eli Sunday to a major character says more about the politics of the Bush era than it does the Harding era.[4]
Certainly the Daniel Plainview of Daniel Day-Lewis would have been as capable of staring down a labor leader as anybody else. Actually, Anderson wrote the screenplay with Day-Lewis in mind. Day-Lewis, for his part, had seen and liked Anderson’s 2002 film Punch Drunk Love, an unusual love story starring the unlikely figure of Saturday Night Live alumnus Adam Sandler. He signed on to the project even before the screenplay was finished. And as was true with his previous characters he made this one wholly his own – and indeed won his second Academy Award for it.

[1] Upton Sinclair, Oil! (1927; New York: Penguin, 2007). We learn of Ross’s background on p. 14. On Doheny, see Margaret Leslie Davis, The Dark Side of Fortune: Triumph and Scandal in the Life of Oil Tycoon Edward L. Doheny (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
[2] Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Chapter 5 deals with the fries – or what passes for fries.
[3] Eric Schlosser, “’Oil!’ and the History of Southern California,” The New York Times, February 22, 2008. Accessed via
[4] My thinking on this matter has been influenced by Timothy Noah; see his piece “What’s Wrong with ‘There Will Be Blood,” Slate, January 3, 2008, accessed at (Dec. 17, 2010). Noah says at the outset that he had not read Sinclair’s novel; as I hope my remarks above make clear, I have.