There’s no getting around the issue of talking about this book and not mentioning the film There Will Be Blood, so let’s just get all that out of the way: they have very little in common and the film is far, far superior to the book.
Anderson, who directed the film, has gone on the record saying he only really adapted about the first 150 pages of the novel before taking the story in his own, darker, more realistic direction. Anderson wisely focused his attention not on the son but on the oil baron father and not on the older brother Paul, but on the preacher boy Eli. Basically he fixes everything that is wrong with the book but manages to tell very much the same story but injects nuance and rejects the politics of Sinclair.
And the politics really are the issue and date this book so terribly. We live in a post-communist world and so all the naive ideals of Bunny, all the agonizing contortions of Paul at the end -mimicking the holy-rollers with his own language (Russian) and “shivers” – has been proven to be no better than the capitalism they were fighting against. Communism fell apart because it was just as corrupt as capitalism – capitalism has lasted only because it’s managed to “own” so much of the world.
Yet how Sinclair couldn’t see that another form of government was just as bad as any other, why he thought the Russians were onto some grand experiment destined to change the world for the better is just beyond me. Why he didn’t apply a rational, critical analysis of the Russian system, or even the socialist system that he applies to capitalism is the one (and major) bit of laziness in an otherwise very well researched and thought out book.
Sinclair does do a lot right in this book, however. He knows how the oil business works from the ground (literally) on up to the banks and on to Congress. He understands every handshake between oilman and banker, between every banker and political boss, between every political boss and campaigner, between every campaigner and newsman, between every newsman and socialite … and so on. No relationship in capitalism is left unexplored and all the ugly, dirty warts are examined. And while the book is horribly outdated concerning communism, that’s about the only thing out of place because nearly everything else he talks about here is a problem we still deal with in America.
The biggest issue that hasn’t changed since the book was written is the relationship between labor and management. Yes the Unions are nearly all gone thanks to the relationship between church and the republican party (a theme fully explored here in the book written 80 (yes, that’s right, 80!) years ago. Yet people are still struggling to make a decent living at the hands of rich big business – today we call them the 1% and the protesters are occupying Wall Street.
And I could go on about what hasn’t changed but that brings up an interesting dilemma: things haven’t really changed. The system is still pretty much the same and though it hasn’t gotten any better, it really hasn’t gotten any worse, either. While capitalist watched as communism rose and then fell, they kept on keeping on. Yes there is a helluva lot of inequity, a lot that isn’t fair, a lot of good people who should be doing better, a lot of corruption, but it hasn’t in the intervening 80 years fallen apart.
Now I’m not apologizing for capitalism, but it is an interesting issue to think about nonetheless because of this book that goes into such detail, drills so far down into the problems, but actually works as a better history lesson looking back on how the world was compared to now than it does as a book trying to tell a story.
And as a book, well, it’s not that good. It gets off to a great start but it falls apart at just about the point Anderson stopped adapting it for his brilliant film about greed and at what cost greed takes on a man. First of all the characters are flimsy – they exist just to get to the next journalistic expose masquerading as fiction. Ross Sr., is a nice guy and is all-together too nice to have ever been a successful oilman who can ruthlessly “play the game”. Bunny is so thin as to be transparent – he has no personality because Sinclair is too busy writing his as being objective long enough to become a good, pure, and honest socialist of the bright future for mankind and all civilization. Paul exists just for convenience sake and keeps showing up at just the right time to move the story along and teach us how terrible we are to the workers and the Russians.
In fact, Sinclair does a disservice to very important issues by writing such a flimsy book full of preaching and slanted points of view. There Will Be Blood does a far better job of showing us how greed infects a man and ruins his soul and even if that isn’t a financially satisfactory comeuppance, it’s at least realistic and might actually make a very wealthy man rethink his own life in a more contemplative manner than this book which would just cause a wealthy man to dig into his trenches deeper and fight against the working man harder.
But Sinclair wanted to bring to light EVERY issue and so the book had to suffer between laughable scenes so contrived and silly as to make you laugh between cringes and other scenes which are quite insightful and interesting. And I won’t fault Sinclair for at least trying to uncover all the problems because he does expose everything wrong with our system of economics and politics, it’s just too bad he couldn’t have been more artful about it because he only manages to make the characters he sympathizes with look weak and foolish and naive. In short, he hurts the very cause he believes in and wants to fight for.
This could have been a great book if he trusted his characters, if he didn’t lead them around the plot by the nose, if he trusted we the audience to get through to the deeper meaning by digging between the lines. Yet he treats us as uneducated boobs who know no better than to fall for a swindler preacher and don’t know any better to take care of ourselves under the thumb of a corporate oppressor.
Yet there is a lot of good going on here in the ideas of the book. Just because it’s bad art does not mean the ideas are all bad or what he exposes as corruption is false or invalid. Sinclair knew there was (and still is) great injustice and that our system is far from perfect. In a way his book is as flawed as our system.