Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.
Fast-forward thirtyish years. In 1984, the year the Tigers beat the Padres in the Series, Barry Levinson adapted The Natural to film with Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. It’s perfect casting at this point in Redford’s career, the actor having already flirted with past-their-prime manifestations of the American Dream in The Great Waldo Pepper and The Electric Horseman. But film critics were split, with many adopting a surprisingly opposite stance than greeted the novel: the allegorical fable is too powerful, overpowering any hope of a relatable story. Maybe Roy Hobbs is more interesting than the myth of Roy Hobbs. Roger Ebert, on New Year’s Day 1984, bemoaned:
Why didn’t they make a baseball picture? Why did The Natural have to be turned into idolatry on behalf of Robert Redford? Why did a perfectly good story, filled with interesting people, have to be made into one man’s ascension to the godlike, especially when no effort is made to give that ascension meaning?
Fast-forward another thirtyish years and you’re here, now, today. The Natural is available to stream on Netflix. And both of these camps still exist, presumably: those who buy into the heavy-handed mythmaking (and -breaking) and those who fall asleep during the millionth slo-mo shot of Redford launching a fastball out of the park. As is so often the case with adaptations of authors like Malamud, you likely dig the movie more if you’ve read the book.
But they’re still different beasts, with the Hollywood film predictably more peppy and optimistic than the original book. Not only does Roy Hobbs not strike out in the bottom of the ninth, but he hits a homer that shatters the lights and short-circuits the entire stadium. It’s not entirely sacrilege — Levinson changes enough of The Natural to ensure the happy ending isn’t completely discordant with the story that preceded it — but the overall treatment of the myth behind the man makes the film hit a little less powerfully than the novel. Without the context of the prose, critics like Ebert can be forgiven for wishing that myth didn’t obscure the story.
But that was thirtyish years ago, and mythmaking is now a part of the global film industry in a way that couldn’t be conceptualized in the early ’80s. In 2017, not long after the World Series ended with the Astros beating the Dodgers, a Star Wars movie called The Last Jedi came out. Instead of building on the myth of the space franchise, Jedi mostly chose to deconstruct that myth at every turn. We’d tracked the blue lightsaber from Anakin’s hand to Obi Wan’s to Luke’s, watched it plummet down the massive silo of Bespin, witnessed it return to Rey in The Force Awakens. Then, after all that, Last Jedi snapped it in half after Luke refuses to take it back. Whether they knew it or not, the diehard fans who decried this the loudest did so because they felt they were being told that all of that myth didn’t matter.
In The Natural, Roy Hobbs’s lightsaber is the Wonderboy, a handmade bat with a garish bolt of lightning branded into it. With hushed reverence we discover that Wonderboy was carved from a great tree near Roy’s childhood home that was split open by lightning in a spectacular storm. More than once throughout the film, lightning strikes as Roy connects with a perfect pitch. Eventually, the New York Knights all wear lightning-bolt patches on their sleeves. But Wonderboy breaks, too, cracked in half on the red clay near home plate.
So does the myth matter after all? Roy takes up a new bat, one fashioned by the Knights’ ballboy, and still proceeds to launch the game-winning homer-to-end-all-homers. The power we thought contained within the bat was perhaps never specific to the thing itself, which may be the point Last Jedi was striving for in asserting that the famous saber matters less than the individual wielding it. Malamud crafted The Natural on top of a number of existing myths (many of which were shorn from the film version) including Arthurian legend, and the Wonderboy stands in nicely for Excalibur. But Levinson’s film doesn’t really find time to reference such complex allegory, and so the end of Roy’s time onscreen feels uncomfortably split between man and myth.
Midway through the film, there’s a moment where Roy meets with the Judge (Robert Prosky), owner of the Knights and the film’s clearest corporate Devil-figure. The Judge sits in darkness in his office, cigar smoke curling around his silhouette like shadowy horns, a vampiric aversion to light even while Roy visits with him. It’s one of the more explicit ties to Malamud’s mythic references, with our hero’s odyssey having already crossed what Joseph Campbell called “the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not,” having already encountered the mischievous sprite Max Mercy (Robert Duvall) and the siren Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), now winding past yet another temptation to sell his soul. As he leaves, though, Roy suddenly flicks the office light on. The Judge, revealed, hollers “come back here and turn that light off!” I honestly don’t recall if this happens in the book — but in the film, the myth of The Natural is as fragile as that.