Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blood and Oil

Beware of judging a book by its movie ...

It's always dangerous to see a movie before reading the book it's based on, but in the case of There Will Be Blood I did it anyway, compelled by my admiration for Daniel Day Lewis and the critical acclaim the film had garnered. This is not to say I'm sorry, but it's a case where the film turns out to bear little resemblance to the tale told by the novel.

The dark, brooding portrait of a monomaniacal "oil man" in Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic fantasy is a study in cold calculation. Lewis's restrained anger, which is destined to burst forth into violence, contrasts dramatically with the raving Evangelical foil of a self-declared preacher. The story comes to be a wrestling match between good and evil. The oil man's obsession with the dark fluid under the earth makes him satanic -- particularly so when lit by the flames of his burning well. The character is deepened by his adoption of the orphaned son of one of the oil field workers. This gives him a human side that would have been lacking otherwise, and makes him more complex.

The movie piqued my curiosity about what Upton Sinclair might have had in mind when he published Oil! back in 1926. Unlike some of his other works such as The Jungle and Metropolis, which are available from public domain sources like Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, OIL! was only available in traditional print form, so I ordered one from Amazon and plunged in.

How to catalog all the differences? To begin with, the "adopted" son of the film turns out to be a plot device to eliminate a whole range of characters. In the book, the "oil man" is known as Dad from the beginning, with the story told from the POV of his natural son and heir. Rather than the solitary loner of the film, Dad is replete with an estranged wife, a daughter, a sister, and mother, all of whom relocate with the father and son to be close to the latest oil field.

Early on Dad delivers a sales speech to a group of hopeful property owners on whose land he hopes to drill. The speech is repeated nearly word for word in the film, and sets the tone for the methodical nature of this entrepeneur. He's a man who can level with you while stealing the ground from under your feet, and not think any the worse of himself in the process. Once this quotation is over, however, the plots diverge immensely.

The chief victim in the wholesale character eliminations of the film is Paul, the brother of Eli, the preacher. Both are portrayed by the same actor in the film, and they never appear together, so we are led to believe they are a case of split personality which adds to the maniacal character of the "healer" as he strays predictably from the straight and narrow path. But in the novel Paul becomes one of the principle characters, the very embodiment of the workers struggling for justice.

What? Workers? Justice? Right. You'd never guess it from the film, but Sinclair created his Capitalist anti-hero in order to advocate his destruction. The genius of this is the way he gets you to like and admire him first. He's portrayed as the model self-made man, parlaying his gut feelings and street sense into a growing fortune while enriching his country by developing its natural resources. He's seen through the halo of his son's admiration, and in the beginning he's even a boss who treats his employees with decency and respect.

This sympathetic treatment continues throughout the story. Even as Dad is called upon to participate in ever more dastardly deeds to protect his growing empire, it is continually shown that even he is a victim of the system forced to comply with the demands of big business even when it goes against his grain as a compassionate human being.

The son goes by the nickname of "Bunny," though he is also "Jim Junior," sharing his father's name. As he grows up, the story continually broadens in reflection of his widening horizons. Early on he forms an attachment to Paul, Eli's secular brother, who impresses him as someone of complete honesty and lack of interest in money.

Paul goes to work for Dad, but soon takes the side of the oil workers as they organize themselves into a union. Then when World War I breaks out he joins the army, only to end up as part of a contingent of US soldiers guarding the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia.

Where? The book is an education on this chapter of our history, which has been largely swept under the rug. During the civil war that raged after the Russian revolution, the US and its allies actively took the side of the Whites against the Reds, aiding and abetting anyone who wanted to fight them, occupying territory, and supplying arms and troops. This foreign counterinsurgency effort continued long after the armistice that ended the war in Europe. (Any wonder why the Soviet Union was so paranoid about the West?)

Paul returns from this duty thoroughly radicalized, having seen the lengths to which the established powers would go in order to curtail the threat that their own workers might rebel in the same way. From then on he takes up the cause of American workers in this global struggle for rights and dignity, with Bunny following eagerly in his wake.

The scope of the story has gone from the personal to the community -- with Dad greasing the wheels of local politics to get roads built where he wants them -- then to the state and the nation -- as Dad, now a member of a powerful association, plays kingmaker in the Presidential election -- and finally to the global scale of worldwide economic oppression of the masses.

Through all this Bunny is the pivot point, his sympathies for Paul and the workers always at odds with his loyalty to his father and his own inherited wealth and position. As we know, it is not possible to serve two masters, at least not for long. The tension between the two builds as the characters continue to become ever more symbolic of the struggle they are acting out.

The conclusion will be familiar to any student of recent history. Because when faced with the choice between comfort and freedom, which one do we always choose? Yet still we are left with hope, because Bunny -- Jim Junior, his father's son -- was born with a conscience, and the will to exercise it.

Yes, there will be blood, plenty of it, and there's still oil in it.

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