I haven't read Sinclair's 1927 novel, but I gather (from this Web site and others) that Anderson took from it the story of a California oil wildcatter, his son (who serves as the book's narrator), and a Holy Roller minister (who in the book is a bit more obviously a fraud and, apart from his sex, is modeled on Aimee Semple Mc Pherson).
What Anderson left out of was the son's development as a socialist in reaction against his father's corrupt capitalism.
In the film, the wildcatter acquires drilling land through deception and cheats the minister out of $5,000, but in the book, he is also a systematic dispenser of bribes to politicians. Doheny, a fantastically successful oil tycoon in Los Angeles (Doheny Drive in West L. is named for him) who was disgraced in old age by the Teapot Dome scandal.
Doheny, along with Sinclair Oil founder Harry Sinclair (no relation to Upton), paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to President Warren G.
Harding's interior secretary, Albert Fall, in order to secure drilling rights on federal lands.
Fall and Harry Sinclair went to prison, but with a team of high-priced lawyers Doheny somehow beat the rap.
The Teapot Dome scandal, which first surfaced in 1922, is apparently what inspired Upton Sinclair, himself an active socialist, to write Anderson acknowledges the Doheny link by making his wildcatter (who in the film bears the deliciously ironic name Daniel Plainview) a native of Fond du Lac, Wis., which was Doheny's hometown.
Like Sinclair's fictionalized Doheny (whom Sinclair calls Joe Ross), Plainview is mostly admirable at the start of the narrative, as he builds up his oil empire, and mostly corrupt at the end. I want to make enough money that I can move far away from everyone.
But Plainview's corruption is less well-defined than Ross'. I've worked people over and gotten what I want from them and it makes me sick. It's no small credit to Daniel Day-Lewis' extraordinary acting performance that he's able to make even these mustache-twirling lines halfway convincing.
Ross has yielded to capitalist imperatives and eventually gives up his company's independence to join a corrupt syndicate. But the scene is a sign of desperation on Anderson's part.
Plainview, on the other hand, is aloof both personally and in his business (his refusal to sell out to Standard Oil is portrayed mainly as a manifestation of his mental instability); his evil is innate. From this point in the film on, his subject ceases to be the acquisition of money and power in America and starts being the madness and cruelty of Daniel Plainview.
For all I know, this shift from the physical to a psychological landscape makes Plainview a richer character than Sinclair's Joe Ross.