Natural, The rating:
Was Barry Levinson right in Hollywood-izing The Natural?
When J.D. Salinger was asked why he turned down huge money to make The Catcher in the Rye into a movie, he answered simply, "Holden wouldn't like it."
On the other hand, Roy Hobbs was grateful his story in Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural was sold to Hollywood, because he was changed from a failed, shamed anti-hero in the book into a wondrous hero of epic proportions in the movie. Director Barry Levinson and his screenwriters pumped him full of glitz, glamor and glory.
Malamud's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a combination of the myth of the Fisher King, Arthurian legend, biblical symbols and baseball lore. Roy Hobbs is like Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, who was shot in a hotel room in Chicago by a female fan. And the novel ends with a paraphrase of what a young boy supposedly said to Shoeless Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe." In Malamud's novel it becomes, "Say it ain't true, Roy." The novel ends with Hobbs's striking out and shamed by a fix. The last line says he "wept many bitter tears." It is a sad rendition of the loss of the American Dream. There is no redemption.
The film made the story into a star-spangled banner of baseball -- Malamud out; Redford in. At the conclusion of the movie, after his majestic home run, Roy is romping through golden fields with his son as he basks in the smile of his adoring woman. Such is movie redemption. If Levinson were directing, Moby Dick would happily wind up at Sea World.
The DVD continues the celebration. The diamond of the package is a 43-minute documentary which has Cal Ripken, Jr. talking about his love of the game of baseball and how he connected with the film. Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1978, Ripken is an ideal choice. He is a sure-bet Hall of Famer, a record setter and an icon with feet of Baltimore clay. He has spent all his adult life playing baseball for the same organization, and he may retire any day. His comments gain emotional impact and resonance; he has special context.
Ripken has a fondness for the movies manager, Pop Fisher; he says, "I liked Pops character a lot. He reminded me of old school baseball." The Orioles third baseman speaks of being "in a trance -- the zone," in the two games where he tied and surpassed Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. In each game he hit a home run. But he concludes, "the most fulfilling moment I had was when I caught the last out of the World Series." One jarring contemporary note is when Ripken becomes Gordon Gekko and says, "I don't think greed is necessarily a bad thing." A greedy gamer?
Cal Ripken talks about "the purity of baseball," but baseball isn't pure. Today its more a business than a game. As Levinson says, "When it becomes the dollar, the purity of the game changes."
Putting a smiley face on Malamud's ironic ending only masks the reality; its not the truth of the game, its pinch-hitting a midget with a fancy swing. If he wanted to have a different view from Malamud, why didn't Levinson have screenwriters write a redemptive, optimistic screenplay of their own instead of aborting Malamud's vision?
Cal Ripken and Roy Hobbs loved the movie, but Holden wishes that Malamud had never sold the book.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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