In a March truthout editorial, writer David Bacon attacked Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil!. In There Will Be Blood, Bacon writes, Anderson evacuated the film of radicalism and the labor movement in early Southern California surrounding the big capital of the booming oil industry.
Anthony Arthur, author of the 2006 biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, commented in the Times on the absence of the young radical character, Paul, in the movie version. He suggests that both the quest for oil riches and the business of saving souls offer less social commentary in Anderson’s adaptation, which he regards as “misanthropic” in the depiction of Daniel Day Lewis’s character, Daniel Plainview. Nowhere, as in the novel, suggests Aurthur, appears the historical backdrop of Bolshevism, WW I, the Red Scare, Teapot Dome, and the evangelical movement in Southern California epitomized by Aimee Semple McPherson.
Spencer Dew, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote in The Dallas Morning News about Anderson and Sinclair’s take on the relationship between capital and religion: in the movie and the novel Plainview and Eli are salesmen. Between the lines the film may contain Sinclair’s social commentary, but Dew writes that the novelist’s vision of Eli puts more light on wealth’s corruption (or perversion) of the socialist project of Christian spirituality.
In The New Yorker David Denby gave an exuberant endorsement of the film and offered stylistic commentary on the differences between Oil! and There Will Be Blood. “[T]he young writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has now done work that bears comparison to the greatest achievements of Griffith and Ford,” writes Denby. Instead of giving Anderson demerits for his bleak vision of Plainview and Eli’s project, Denby gives him credit for re-visioning the novel by collapsing the mythic and the socio-historical. “‘Blood’ has the pulse of the future in its rhythms. Like the most elegiac Western, this movie is about the vanishing American frontier. The thrown-together buildings look scraggly and unkempt, the homesteaders are modest, stubborn, and reticent, but, in their undreamed-of future, Wal-Mart is on the way . . . . Anderson has set up a kind of allegory of American development in which two overwhelming forces—entrepreneurial capitalism and evangelism—both operate on the border of fraudulence; together, they will build Southern California . . . ” In August 2006 Denby wrote in the magazine a lengthy review of two biographies of Sinclair, one by Anthony Arthur and the other by Kevin Mattson.
In Religion Dispatches, S. Brent Plate, a professor of visual studies and religion at Texas Christian University, regards There Will Be Blood as a mythological origin story, and compares Plainview and Eli to Cain and Abel. He draws the title of his essay, “There Will Be a Nation,” from D.W. Griffith’s own origin story.
The Economist remarked on the American progressive tradition of railing against oil interests, using Sinclair and Anderson as vehicles for the discussion.
Though he admits to not having read Oil!, Slate’s Timothy Noah says that Anderson’s film should have taken a social cue from Sinclair’s didactic strategy, and adopted an overt critique.
A few sources for studying Upton Sinclair:
The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco has some information and primary documents available on Sinclair.