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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
I had never read this book before, though I had heard of Upton Sinclair. When I was a junior in high school we read a section of his book The Jungle because it talks about what life was like for factory workers. Similarly, Oil! talks about what life is like for oil workers, through the perspective of a rich oil heir.
The book and movie are quite different. Which I’m actually glad about, it felt like all the movies I’ve talked about so far stayed pretty true ot the book! So kind of nice to cover one that doesn’t. Director Paul Thomas Anderson says he based the movie on the first 150 pages or so of the book. Therefore, this synopsis covers the whole of Oil!, and we’ll talk about the movie later.
The book is from the perspective of James Arnold Ross Jr., nicknamed Bunny. His dad is an oil man, and he takes his son to see how the oil business is run. Bunny loves going to the oil derricks and learning all about the process; his sister teases him and calls him an “oil gnome”. During a meeting, Bunny meets a boy a few years older than him named Paul. He helps Paul, who has run away, get some food, and offers him money but Paul won’t take it. Paul tells him about his family, who are religious fanatics who “roll” and talk in tongues; about his brother Eli who claims to be able to heal people with his hands. When he hears that the meeting was about a new oil tract, he tells Bunny that he has seen oil sitting on top of the ground at the Watkins ranch.
Paul disappears, but Bunny can’t stop thinking about him and his family. He tells his dad that they should go on a camping trip up where their ranch is, and as a way to convince his dad, he tells him that Paul said there is oil. They go up there to go quail hunting and meet the Watkins. Then while hunting, Bunny steps in oil and shows his dad. The dad then goes to the Watkins and offers to buy their land and lease it to them. They were in debt, and by agreeing to this, are put in a much better financial situation.
Bunny feels bad about his dad tricking them and paying so little when he will be making so much money off the oil. The dad goes about buying all the surrounding land, however they just sit tight for a couple years. When they hear that one of the big oil companies-Excelsior Petroleum, has bought land and is drilling, they use that as an excuse to start drilling on the Watkins ranch. Bunny is relieved that thanks to Excelsior Pete, it no longer looks like they bought the land to drill.
Fast forward, Paul comes back home and Bunny looks up to him and as time goes on considers him his best friend. Though Paul can sometimes be condescending towards Bunny.
Eli starts a church (we’ll get into the details of that); the well on the Watkins ranch is bringing in a lot of money; World War I happens (though they don’t call it that of course); Paul becomes a communist and once in college Bunny becomes one too. The second half of the book then becomes mainly about Bunny’s struggle of being a communist/socialist, while also being the son of a millionaire business man and living off his dad’s money.
By the end of the book, the Dad dies of natural causes; Paul is killed when a communist meeting gets raided, and Bunny starts a socialist colony leaving his dads oil business behind.
Thoughts on the Book
I was in love with the first half of this book, then around the time Bunny goes to college it gets considerably less interesting. His relationship with his dad, checking out the oil derricks, his imagination, his desire to understand and get know everyone he meets, all made the first half interesting and invested in the characters. The second half becomes too political, though still interesting enough that I finished it and it didn’t feel like a total chore. Though I did get tired of hearing the term “young idealist”, which was used about a million times to describe Bunny.
Sinclair was a socialist, and actually ran for political office. Throughout this book he says (through his characters) what a great thing Russia was doing and how inspiring. I can’t help but wonder what his thoughts were as the years went on, because things clearly haven’t quite worked out over there.
His book does give a look into the corruption that goes on within our own government and furthered my own existing opinion that all (or at least most) politicians are crooked and all about the money. Though I would rather live here than in Russia.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Daniel Plainview (J. Arnold Ross) and gives an absolutely incredible performance. He won an Oscar for best actor (his third Oscar, which is very rare) and well deserved. The movie is 2 hours 40 minutes, and Day-Lewis is in all but five minutes of the movie. (Which by the way, even though it’s a 2 hour and 40 minute movie-I never found myself looking at the time to see how much was left, I was so engrossed the time flew by). Also, totally random side note, in the 90’s he moved to Italy and was a cobbler! Also, as of 2017 he says he is retired from acting.
Paul Dano plays both Paul and Eli, who they have as identical twins. (In the book their last name is Watkins but in the movie the name is Sunday). He was originally cast to play just Paul (Daniel Day-Lewis actually recommended him to the director because they had previously acted together in The Ballad of Jack and Rose and Lewis was impressed with Dano), and an actor names Kel O’Neil was to play Eli. However, O’Neil found working with Day-Lewis to be far too intense, and had to quit. They say that the experience was actually tramatizing enough that he quit acting because of it. His last IMDb credit is from 2010, three years after the release of TWBB. Honestly though, I can totally see how Eli would be tough to play, he and Plainview are always finding ways to humiliate and abuse the other. Maybe O’Neil just didn’t realize just how intense their scenes would be. After this though, Anderson decided to have Dano play both brothers, making them identical twins. Shooting with Eli began just four days, not giving Dano much time to prepare! He gives an such an amazing performance. As you know from my 12 Years a Slave podcast, I think Dano is such an underrated actor! So glad Anderson cast him as Eli as well, it would have been sad to see him only play the very small role of Paul.
Dillion Freasier is the young H.W. (Bunny), this was his first, and as of right now, only role he has ever had! His mom was a traffic cop who pulled over one of the guys working on the film. Somehow her son came up and they convinced the mom to let her son be in the movie. He is a cute kid, and does a good job playing the son. He doesn’t have much dialogue, due to him going deaf, but even when he just uses his expressions, he gives a convincing performance. The adult H.W. is played by Russell Harvard and this was also his first film, though he had had a minor part in a TV show before this.
As said above, the director only based There Will Be Blood on the first 150ish pages of the book and created his own idea as to how these character would end up. The fact that they didn’t even keep the same names for the characters is sign enough that you shouldn’t go into this expecting the same story.
Saying what is different would take too long, so instead I am going to focus on the things they kept the same, even while tweaking those a bit.
A huge change is the relationship between father and son. In the book, the father loved his son and was proud of him, even when Bunny was doing some political thing that could jeopardize the family name. They had a very open relationship and communicated well. He was also his biological son, in the movie he’s his “adopted” son. In fact, he not only had a son, but a daughter who was a few years older than Bunny. He also had an ex-wife whom Bunny would go see every six months. The fact that the dad is the one who got custody of the children shows he was more invested in them and more responsible. The dad also has his mom and sister in-law living with him (her husband-his brother had died).
Bunny dreams of one day finding oil on new land. His dad’s oil wells up until that were on leases that were still owned by other people and he shared the profits, so none of them were completely his. Bunny knows his dad wants oil land that he has full control over and hopes that one day he can be the one to find it and make his dad happy. This is what ends up happening, and it was just cute and sweet to see into Bunny’s desires.
Once scene in the book that was brief, but I loved because it shows the difference between father and son is, “Out of the clouds overhead a great bird came sailing…’Was that an eagle?’ asked the boy. ‘Buzzard’ answered Dad, who had no romance in him.” I wish they would have included this scene in the movie, because even with changing the dynamic, it still would have been fitting.
The movie had Plainview be the silent type that didn’t express himself, and the son mostly follows suit. The movie also has the son go deaf fairly early on. This puts a strain on Plainview, who may not have been the fatherly type to begin with. He seems to struggle between loving his son, but while not knowing how to be a good father (or even a good person). That last scene between the two, Plainview has just gotten worse and worse, and his very cruel to his then adult son.
Speaking of him going deaf, when the derrick fire happens, in the book Bunny is uninjured. That tract is called Jim Junior, after the son since he is the one that found the oil. When the explosion happens, Bunny is feeling distraught. His dad notices and says, what are you sad about? This means there’s a whole ocean of oil below us! In the movie this line is said, but to Plainview’s partner while the son is inside.
With this tract, in the movie Paul comes to Plainview and tells him about the oil on his parents land in return for $500. Plainview is skeptical, but Paul tells him Standard Oil has been buying in the area. With the book, the big oil companies didn’t start buying till later. In the movie we never see Paul again after this. As you can tell from the book synopsis, this is very different. Paul had a bigger role in the book than Eli did, whereas with the movie it is reversed.
Eli and Ross didn’t have the relationship they do in the movie. In the book, he doesn’t trust Eli and thinks he’s full of it, however, he isn’t malicious towards him nor Eli towards Ross. Before drilling, Eli pulls up in a fancy car and does an impromptu blessing on the well. In the movie, he talks to Plainview the day before telling him he wants to bless it, then Plainview snubs him the day of and Eli never says the blessing.
In the book synopsis I mentioned that the Watkins family are “rollers”, which means when they were seized upon by the spirit they would seizure like movements and the older ones would talk in tongues. As Eli became more prominent, he had influential people tell him to stop with the rolling, cause it was too weird. However, he still has members who like to do it and so he sets up a noise proof room in the church where people can go do that.
There is one point where Eli comes to Ross for money, and Ross gives it to him without a fuss. In the movie, we all know what happens when Eli approaches Plainview for money. With Mr. Bandy, he does hold out in the book, and then he eventually dies or something and the son sells it to Ross. In the movie, Bandy says he won’t sell the land, but will allow Plainview to build his pipeline through it if Plainview gets baptized. Then when old man Bandy dies, Eli goes to Plainview to try and get money from him using the Bandy land oil. But we learn that Plainview already drank his milkshake!
(Which, another side note, SNL did a skit in 2008 called ‘I Drink Your Milkshake’ and it is hilarious! They include the character Anton from No Country for Old Men and if you have seen both movies you will love it!)
Anyway, one more think about Eli, in the book he was successful and was on the radio (which they do mention in the movie) and only asked for money that one time early on.
In both the book and movie, the girl (in the movie her name is Mary, in the book her name is Ruth) tells Bunny/H.W. that her dad beats her. In the movie, the way Plainview tries to help, is naming the well after her. Then commenting about how her dad shouldn’t beat her anymore, while the dad is sitting in earshot. In the book, when the Watkins family ask if he belongs to a church, Ross doesn’t want to get into it, so he says yes and that he belongs to a church called the True Word. He has some discussions with Abel Watkins about this and they come to an understanding. As a way to get him to stop hitting Ruth, he decides he is going to say that there is a revelation against beating kids, while also standing up for Paul who the family thinks is damned.
He starts out saying that Paul is a chosen prophet of the Third Revelation (something he claimed his church of the “True Word” believed would happen). He goes on a bit about this, but then Eli stands up and is upset and says that he’s the chosen one, not Paul. Eli goes on a rant and pretty soon he and the parents are “rolling” and speaking in tongues. So that is basically what sparks Eli and his church of the Third Revelation. The movie has Plainview mention that Paul is the chosen one, but not till right at the end when Eli comes to him for money. And at that point he’s just saying it to spite Eli. In the movie, before we even meet Eli, he already has plans for a church which he will lead. The movie also makes Eli more in charge of the family than Abel is, and there is a scene where he even beats Abel.
The scene where Joe Gundha dies in the well does happen in both the book and movie. Once again though, unlike the movie, Eli was not involved at all. In the book, when going through Gundha’s things, he finds letters from his wife back home. He shows Bunny these, to help him feel the sadness of the mans death and not to think of him as some random worker.
Speaking of death, in the movie a man shows up claiming to be Plainview’s brother, when he realizes the man was lying and isn’t his brother, he kills him. This betrayal just further proves his opinion that, ‘ (he) looks at people and sees nothing worth liking’. )The scene where Plainview realizes the man isn’t his brother is just a great scene by the way.) The book, as I mentioned, talks about his brother briefly but he had died by the time the story starts. There Will Be Blood ends with the killing of Eli, but this of course doesn’t happen in the book because the two characters aren’t at odds. The movie shows Plainview getting crazier and crazier, while simultaneously drinking more and more. In the book, the dad doesn’t hardly drink, and is not at all unstable the way Plainview is.
In the movie, an oil worker’s strike is briefly mentioned but, in the book, this was a much bigger deal. Paul wanted to help form a union and was a big part of the strike. Bunny was in the middle because he was on the side of the workers, yet he was the owner’s son.
In the end of the movie, we see an adult H.W. marrying Mary, the sister of Paul and Eli. In the book, he considers marrying the sister, but ends up marrying a girl he meets in college instead. Ruth ends up dying of a broken heart basically, when Paul is killed, the two of them were very close and his death ruined her. In the movie, the son goes to Mexico to start his own oil business. As said in the synopsis, in the book, once in college he loses interest in the oil business and spends his time and money working towards socialism.
The movie and book are very different. There is so much in the book that is never even touched on in the movie. Even after reading this blog, you could go read the book and the story wouldn’t be ruined by what I tell you here because there is just so much. The main difference though is they made Eli and Plainview the focal points and made Plainview much more extreme. I don’t know if I would say they made Eli more extreme. They made his character bigger, and added the feud between the two, but his character was pretty out there in the book as well as the movie. The role of H.W. was also much smaller, but still an important character and the one ray of hope throughout.
Book vs Movie
Between the book and the movie, even though I would definitely recommend the first half of Oil!, the movie is still far superior.
It had been 12 years since I last saw it, and I don’t know why I hadn’t watched it more! It was nominated for best picture, but No Country for Old Men won, and at the time I thought that was the better movie. Now I think There Will Be Blood definitely should have won. Granted, No Country is a great movie, but this one is just so perfect in every way. It did win the Oscar for cinematography, thank goodness. Every shot is just beautiful. The acting by everyone, large and small roles are perfect. Even the scenes that make you feel awkward, like when they are in the restaurant and the guy from Standard Oil comes in. You know Plainview is going to make a scene, and it’s so uncomfortable, yet so perfectly done. Not to mention Daniel’s baptism, showing he will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Followed later by Eli denouncing his religion in order to get what he wants from Plainview. There are so many scenes I could mention, but as I’ve said, the entire movie is once giant masterpiece.
When the credits started rolling, I just felt the euphoric high I get after watching a great movie. Movies like There Will Be Blood are the ones that inspire me, not because it is an inspiring story, but because the director and everyone involved is clearly doing something they love and have worked hard at and have truly put all of themselves into. People that are truly dedicated to their craft.
If you haven’t seen this movie, or if its just been a long time since you have seen it, I urge you to go out and rent it! Then come back here and tell me if I hyped it up too much or not. And let me know how you like that SNL skit!