There Will Be Blood (2007) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Scoop's notes

Warning: nearly complete point-by-point spoilers

Quick: name the most influential fiction book of all time.

Before you begin, two rules:

(1) No religious books allowed. Some people believe they are all fiction. Others believe that they are all fiction except their personal favorite, which is so non-fictional that it is literally the revealed word of God himself. Since that is a debate for another forum, we will exclude them all from the fiction category and award them their own genre apart from both fiction and non-fiction.

(2) When I say "influential," I don't mean "had the most impact on other works of literature," but rather "had the most impact on human behavior or society." Works like Romeo and Juliet or The Iliad spurred thousands of derivative works, but outside of the ethereal realm of the arts, human life would have proceeded more or less unchanged without Homer or Shakespeare.

And, of course, since I have restricted the debate to fictional works, you may not submit answers like Darwin's Origin of Species, Newton's Principia, Plato's Republic, or Paine's Common Sense.

There is no one set answer to a speculative question like this. You might, for example, choose Uncle Tom's Cabin, which spurred a generation of abolitionists to a degree of activism that heralded the beginning of the end of slavery. After having given the matter some thought, I think I'm casting my ballot for "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel which exposed the horrors of the meat-packing industry. The public was shocked by Sinclair's terrifying accounts of abused children laboring in unwholesome conditions, and of workers falling into meat processing vats and being ground, along with animal parts, into sausage and lard. The resulting outrage reached all the way to the president, Teddy Roosevelt, who read the book and wrote Sinclair a multi-page letter in response to what he had read.

Boy, was that ever a different time!

After Sinclair exposed the abuses, everyone had a motivation to make some changes. Roosevelt was motivated by compassion. The meatpackers were motivated by an economic crisis: foreign sales of American meat fell by one-half. Feeling the pressure from the public, the President, and the industry, Congress responded with the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration. A single novel had struck a genuinely important blow against some of the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution, and had instigated sweeping reforms, laws, and agencies that are still with us today.

Sinclair would go on to write umpteen gazillion more books in a long life, but for all that duration and far beyond, every educated American was taught to make an instant mental association between Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle," and knew very little more about either the man or the book. In the overachieving prep school I attended, we were required not only to learn that knee-jerk association and its importance, but also to read the actual book. That was not an easy assignment. Important books are not necessarily interesting ones, and even the importance of the book was lost upon us sixty years after the fact, when the  problems had been corrected. We were left reading a dry, humorless, pedantic, entertainment-free book that was only marginally more readable than Moby Dick.

When I was studying "The Jungle" in high school it had seemed like an ancient artifact, about equivalent to those Egyptian sarcophagi, and I assumed that Sinclair had been long ago buried. That turned out to be incorrect. Although I began my university studies in 1966 and "The Jungle" had been written 60 years earlier, the young socialist had been only 28 when he had written his magnum opus, and he had not only lived into the 1960s, but he was still feisty then and making a public comeback after having been ignored for two decades.

Sinclair's form of pessimistic socialism had fallen out of favor in the twenty years after WW2. My parents' generation of Americans was weary of the great war and the great depression which had dominated sixteen years of their lives. That same generation could see that socialism was a doomed system, at least within the Soviet bloc, so they were ready to enjoy the fruits of capitalism: to have babies, buy cars, take their kids to Disneyland, and watch a new-fangled contraption called television. In the heady swirl of post-war prosperity, Americans had no interest in crabby old socialists like "Uppie." But the New Left movement on America's campuses in the sixties, which became a significant political force in opposition to the military draft and America's involvement in Vietnam, resuscitated the careers of some anti-Establishment figures who had formerly been blacklisted or forgotten. Some of the old lefties like Pete Seeger and Upton Sinclair were dusted off and given their microphones back. Sinclair was especially iconic to the participants in America's second flirtation with socialism because he may have been at that time America's oldest living bona fide socialist. Eugene V. Debs had founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901, and Sinclair didn't waste a lot of time before joining up in 1904. He had become a socialist when my grandmothers were in second grade, before Ty Cobb's rookie year, and more than a decade before the Russian Revolution. Yet, miraculously, Upton Sinclair was still alive and relevant again when I was in college.

He was a prized campus lecturer in the sixties. We students, even the Young Republicans, viewed him with awe, as living history. Every single one of us in college in that era had been taught in high school what a great and positive impact he had made with "The Jungle," and he remained a prized campus speaker almost until his death in 1968 at the age of 90.

Of course the war ended, the draft was abolished, and the country got fat and content again in the feel-good eras of the Reagan and Clinton years, so Upton Sinclair was forgotten again.

Until now.

Here I am in 2008, writing about Upton Sinclair again.

How did this happen?

An ambitious young filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson has brought Uppie back to prominence by building his latest project on the shell of an Sinclair novel named "Oil!" Despite my earlier career as an instructor in American Literature, I had never read this obscure work, but I resolved to do so before writing about the film. When any significant film is based upon an earlier source, I have resolved to read the source work or to re-read it freshly, just as I always research the historical evidence behind any film which purports to be in any way historical. I do not claim that this is a technique which is useful to evaluate a film. It is possible to make a good film from a bad novel, even when faithful to it. It is also possible to make a bad film while being faithful to a great novel, because some things that work in books do not work equally well on screen. Similarly, historical inaccuracy has no real impact on the quality for a film. Amadeus is historical nonsense and a great film. So I have to admit in advance that my obsession with these sorts of things is not based on any theory of how to critique a film. Indeed, I have no such theory. I just write about what interests me. If you don't share these interests, you might be better off reading someone else's ruminations about the films.

As it turns out, my meticulous research was more or less a waste of time in this case. Anderson's film script and Sinclair's novel are virtually unrelated. They have in common that they are both about the interactions between an oil man, his son, and two brothers whose family sells its ranch to the oil man. Apart from that tenuous correlation, there is really nothing significant in There Will Be Blood which is derived from "Oil!", to wit:

(1) The characters have different names. The novel's J. Arnold Ross, Sr. has become Daniel Plainview. The Watkins family has become the Sundays, although the brothers are still named Paul and Eli.

(2) The characters have different relationships. The oil man's son in the film is not his biological offspring. The brothers in the film have become twins, or at least I suppose they have since they are both played by the same actor.

(3) The characters have different personalities. The oil man in the book is a hard-working entrepreneur. While he has not had the benefit of an education, he is obviously very intelligent, albeit unsophisticated. He is also a good and honest man who lives to a ripe old age and often demonstrates compassion and a great generosity of spirit. The movie's Daniel Plainview is a loner and a cynic who becomes ever more misanthropic until he degenerates into a feral madman.

(4) The foci of the book and the movie are completely different. The book centers on the oil man's son, "Bunny," who stands as our open-minded surrogate as he evaluates the competing historical forces around him. His father represents the old-fashioned spirit of capitalism. Older brother Paul Watkins represents author Upton Sinclair's socialism. Younger brother Eli Watkins, who develops into a prominent radio evangelist, represents the pernicious new force created by the combination of ignorant religion and modern technology. The central relationship of the book is the one between the oil man's son and the socialist brother, both of whom are minor characters in the movie. Because the book is really about the joint coming-of-age of the socialist and the oil man's son, it devotes a great deal of ink to the Bolshevik Revolution, the war in Europe, the American Communist movement, campus life in the 20s, and so forth. The movie has no interest in any of that. It is focuses on the struggle between the arrogant plutocrat and the religious huckster.

(5) The characters go through completely different experiences. The oil man of the book never meets an alleged long-lost brother, nor beats anyone to death. He does not begin as a silver miner. His son never loses his hearing nor his father's devotion. Some of the minor elements of the book are retained in the film, like the oil man's using quail hunting as a pretext to scout potential oil fields, and Eli's sister having been beaten by their father, but There Will Be Blood is really not an adaptation of "Oil!" at all. It is a completely original work by Paul Thomas Anderson, inspired by some thoughts he had whilst reading "Oil!"

The time I spent reading the book wasn't a complete waste of time because I enjoyed "Oil!," which is a much livelier story than "The Jungle." It is fascinating to see how the people who actually lived in the twenties portrayed the mores, the campuses, and the intellectual movements of that era, as well as the emergence of radio as a force for education and manipulation. Although "Oil!" is polemical and almost humorless, it does use some dramatic irony and it establishes surprisingly complex characters. While the views of socialism are espoused in earnest, the oil man is given a multi-dimensional personality and is presented as a bright, decent, open-minded man who happens to have some of the wrong ideas. Frankly, Anderson could have used some of that subtlety in his script.

Rather than to describe There Will Be Blood as an adaptation of "Oil!" it might be more accurate to say that "Oil!" inspired Anderson to research the events and times upon which the book was based, and to consolidate some of the era's prominent figures into his two central figures, Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview, who stand as symbols of the three major forces which have shaped modern America: capitalism in Plainview's case, religion and the mass media in Eli's. Parts of Daniel Plainview's biography are based quite distinctly upon Edward Doheny, like Plainview a failed silver miner from a poor family in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin who eventually became, with nothing but an indomitable will and the sweat from his brow, California's first and most prominent oil baron. Doheny gained a measure of Hollywood-style fame by constructing the most expensive home which had ever been built in California, and the second largest behind Heart's castle at San Simeon. Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills was a 55-room home with 46,000 square feet of living space and a two-lane bowling alley in the basement. The film's director, Paul Thomas Anderson, linked the Plainview character directly to Doheny by using the Doheny family's bowling alley as Daniel Plainview's own in the film's final scene. While Doheny himself never killed anyone in that mansion, it was the place where Doheny's son was the victim of a famous murder/suicide.

Daniel Plainview's behavior, however, is not based on Sinclair's fictional Arnold Ross or on Edward Doheny. Daniel may have some items from their résumés, but his personality bears no resemblance to either of theirs. It has been cut from whole cloth by two tailors with day jobs in the film biz: an audacious screen auteur named Paul Thomas Anderson and a brilliantly eccentric actor named Daniel Day-Lewis.

Ol' DDL seems to be the current consensus choice as the greatest living film actor, and that he may be. Or he may be the worst. It all depends on what exactly an actor is supposed to accomplish with his performances, and there are no official criteria for that. Let me approach that subject obliquely, by discussing authors rather than actors. What makes a great writer? Is it the ability to represent reality fairly and accurately, or the knack for creating large, memorable, original stories and characters and presenting them in eloquent ways? If it is the former, then Charles Dickens is a hack of the lowest order, for nothing he ever wrote rings true, or even close to true. His characters are cartoons with cartoon names. His plots are riddled with improbabilities made ludicrous by the frequency with which they occur. But if the latter, then Dickens is a great writer. The general consensus seems to be that Dickens is a reasonable choice as the second-greatest writer in the history of the English language (for surely Shakespeare has no real rival as #1), and therefore the tacit criteria for greatness are originality, memorability, and eloquence rather than consistency, plausibility, subtlety and truth. It seems to me reasonable to argue that Daniel Day-Lewis is the Charles Dickens of actors, at least in his most recent performances. Nothing he does seems remotely credible. No character he creates seems to remind one of any known human being. Daniel Plainview would seem to be an extreme personality type even to those who felt Stalin was a regular guy. But one cannot question that Day-Lewis's characters are original and memorable and eloquent and highly entertaining. If the criteria for performers are like those for authors, Daniel is one for the ages. I'm pretty sure that's the way it will work out. Do you remember the dueling Wyatt Earp movies of about a decade ago? Which had the better Doc Holliday? Was it Dennis Quaid, who created a character that could plausibly have been a lot like the real man, or was it Val Kilmer with his larger-than-life portrayal which skirted the edges of high camp? I don't know the "right" answer, but I know which of the two performances are still remembered, loved, and mimicked. Let's face it, you probably don't even remember that Quaid played that role, do you? He did a good job, but that sort of performance is soon forgotten. Val Kilmer's is the one for the ages. To cite another example, who was the best Captain Bligh? Who knows? But Charles Laughton is the one we remember, not any of those subtle ones. Daniel-Day Lewis is that kind of performer. He takes very few roles, but when he decides to commit to one he does so with a monomaniacal energy and focus like no other actor. When DDL is working on a character, you won't catch him schmoozing it up at Hollywood parties or charming the talk show hosts. He's in character and he stays in character, so bother him at your peril. Quick, somebody remake The Master of Ballantrae while DDL is still working. He was born for that role.  (For further reading about this fascinating man, here's an interesting article about how he blurs the metaphorical line between genius and insanity.)

Frankly, DDL carries this entire movie on his back. It's an interesting script, a good script, but it would not be a great movie with Harrison Ford or Dennis Quaid in the lead. It required DDL to push it from good to great.

And even with him it has some problems:

(1) Paul Dano was asked to do too much for a young, inexperienced actor. Essentially he was asked to play three parts: Paul Sunday, Eli Sunday as a teen, and Eli Sunday in his 30s. I don't know if any actor Dano's age could have pulled that off, but it was too much for Dano. All three characters seem exactly identical. Eli even looks exactly the same after a 15-year time lapse. One can see the passage of time in the physical and psychic evolution of DDL, but Dano seems not to have aged at all. Perhaps the problem was that Dano just had no time to prepare for the role of Eli. He had been hired to play Paul, and another actor named Kel O'Neill was to play Eli. Something happened which nobody wants to talk about, and O'Neill left the project just as filming was to begin. The director was in a real bind. He had sets built, locations reserved, and specific schedules carved out for his cast and crew. It was not reasonable to postpone the film, but the role of Eli was critical, the second lead, and one does not just summon a Shia Lebeouf with the wave of one's hand. What to do? The director felt that the logical way out of his quandary was simply to make Paul and Eli twins and to have Paul Dano, already under contract, play them both. That decision ended up causing a vast amount of confusion for viewers, partly because it lends the early scenes a subtext that turns out to be a red herring. Paul and Eli are never seen together. Is Eli just pretending to be Paul? (To see just how confusing this is, check out the discussions of this matter on the IMDb board for this film.) The confusion does get resolved by some later dialogue, but not before the audience is misled unnecessarily. That confusion would have occurred even if a master actor, somebody like Branagh or DDL himself, had clearly demonstrated that the brothers were two different people, but the problem was exacerbated by Dano's lack of preparation time. Both Sunday brothers seem to have identical personalities and inflections, even though the roster of their deeds reveals them to be quite different.

(2) Paul Thomas Anderson lost one of the best aspects of the book when he created his script. It is not appropriate to evaluate the quality of a film by its degree of loyalty to the source, but it is very appropriate to consider whether the items which have been changed made for a better film or a worse one. In general, there are so many changes from the book to the film in this case that any such evaluation will lead to a morass of positives and negatives and neutrals which will ultimately result in a hung jury. But one of the changes stands out as a major loss.

In the book the oil man knows for a fact that the preacher is a fake, because he - the oil man - made up the preacher's dogma. Early in the story, the oil man was sitting at supper with the ranch owners, trying to purchase their property. He was asked if he was a Christian and if so which Church he belonged to. Sensing that a positive answer was necessary to cut the deal, and being a cagey bastard, he danced around the issue by saying that he was Christian, but that he belonged to a sect that would not permit its members to discuss its beliefs with casual strangers. The father and Eli found this suspicious and contradictory to some of the bible's admonitions, so they asked for elaboration, but the oil man held his ground. Some time later, the oil man discovered that the old rancher was beating his daughter, so he dragged out the spurious teachings of the nonexistent True Word of the Third Revelation to persuade the old man to stop. It worked. In fact, the oil man's persuasive skills went far beyond stopping a bit of parental abuse. Years later, when Eli Sunday became a nationally syndicated radio evangelist, imagine the oil man's surprise to tune into an Eli broadcast and hear the True Words of the Third Revelation - the same willy-nilly set of bogus teachings which the oil man had ad-libbed at the dinner table years earlier for Eli and his father! This thread was probably the book's single cleverest conceit, but the film script dropped it, even though it would have dovetailed perfectly into the revised storyline, and would have explained neatly how Daniel could be so certain that Eli was a fraud.

It is not reasonable to expect a film to be perfect, even if one is Ridley Scott tinkering with Blade Runner for twenty five years, so There Will be Blood is not perfect. But it is audacious, original, and sometimes dazzling. Some of the set pieces are spectacular. And Daniel Day-Lewis is fascinating as he creates yet another offbeat character which seems to belong in a 19th century novel. Paul Thomas Anderson may be the only young filmmaker who reaches for the stars the way Welles or Kubrick once did. And by God, sometimes his hand gets mighty close.



  • Not yet announced.




The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture.


The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was not immediately released in more than 1000 theaters, but was eventually expanded to 1500+ after the Oscar nominations were announced. At press time it has grossed $16m.


Miscellaneous ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is a brilliant film in many ways, but is a dark and pessimistic film which will be truly appreciated only by film aficionados.

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