I should have known better from the start. The first sentence of Oil! reads: “The road ran, smooth and flawless, precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand.” This was too lyrical for Anderson, but also too ordered. There are hardly any roads at all in There will be blood, and those there are are not smooth. They’re not even paved. Anderson shows his oilman hero and his son – a son adopted illegally; Sinclair’s was born in an unhappy marriage – bumpily raising dust on a dirt road running beside a railroad track. The difference tells a lot. Sinclair is writing about a country in the grasp of consumer rapture, whose manufactured beauties look like nature itself. Anderson wants rawness and a society-less world.
Still, I was jubilant that a half-forgotten book of this importance and quality had been filmed with such flair. That is, until characters and incidents came into the picture that aren’t in the book. First I doubted my memory. How could I have forgotten that the son lost his hearing in a dynamite blast set off to save a well? How senile can I be, not remembering just a few months after reading the book that the father was conned by a man who pretended to be his long-lost brother? It was only when the father killed the fake brother that I knew that I was being conned by Anderson.
Shwartz goes on to outline how Anderson's film completely purges Sinclair's novel of one of its most important elements: Socialism.