“What beats me,” he said with a trembling voice, “is why did it always have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve it?”
–The Natural (1952)
“But I didn’t see it coming.”
“How could you possibly know she’d hurt you? How could anyone?”
“I didn’t see it coming.”
“You think you should have?”
“Yes. But I didn’t. Why didn’t I?”
–The Natural (1984)
The film version of The Natural is saccharine and sentimental, laden with heavy-handed imagery and emotional manipulation. It eschews the dramatic tension of the text for a pulpy, feel-good ending. It is fantasy fodder for middle-aged men. And despite common belief, it is vastly superior to the book in nearly every way.
Bernard Malamud’s novel was published in 1952, and the era sits heavy in the pages. It’s a work about heroes, but at the same time it doesn’t believe in heroes. It’s a book about baseball that captures none of the game’s spirit. The Natural is a product of its lame times.
Malamud retells Camus’s The Stranger from the Algerian’s point of view: a gun fired by a stranger, a senseless act of violence. That act sets the tone for the author’s dark vision of baseball: fatalities, corruption, vice, and a hero to weak or stupid to avoid any of it. The usual literary device in such situations is the fatal flaw; Roy, however, has so many of them that it’s hard not to think of him as a villain, and baseball as a blight on society.
“Surely, Mr. Dubuque,” you are probably not crying out, “you are old and terrible! Your protestations are nothing more than the a pathetic filibuster against the modern novel.” But you are wrong, hypothetical and distasteful reader, for you have mistaken realism for quality. Face it: each of us runs tangent to thousands of unknown stories each day, and most of those stories would make awful novels. It is not enough to be real. The newspaper is not art.
The worst thing about Malamud’s Hobbs is not his weakness, nor his failure; it’s his complete lack of reflection. Usually films are at a disadvantage to books because they have few reliable methods of communicating thoughts directly to the reader. In The Natural, this is actually in the movie’s favor, because Roy Hobbs doesn’t have thoughts worth hearing. He wants to be the best. We all want to be the best. So?
So we’re left with a uniquely American, fifties brand of existentialism, self-loathing without limits. The loathing isn’t necessarily bad in itself – the fifties were pretty awful, beneath their pink plastic sheen – but the helplessness is unattractive. We get the sad ending not because it’s the right ending, or even because it’s the meaning that makes sense. It’s just sad for its own sake. Tragedy without catharsis, without anything to learn from it, isn’t tragedy: it’s just miserable people wasting your time.
“Such is the game,” that one jerk whines. “Everything is losing.” And perhaps it is, in the long run. But each of us has a defense against this, a method of instilling meaning into the losing. We take it into ourselves, make character out of it. Those that don’t stop watching the games by June.
Barry Levinson’s film isn’t perfect – it isn’t even great – but the message, tired as it may be, is at least a message. It’s a baseball movie, far more than it was ever a baseball book.