You know how they say books are usually better than the movies that are made out of them? Well, I recently read “The Natural”, and I can tell you that in some cases, the movie is better. This is one of them.
A few years back during the baseball offseason, I took it upon myself to watch all/as many of the baseball movies as were out there, and since many were ones I hadn’t seen, it was an educational experience. One of those movies was “The Natural”, and I enjoyed it – especially the music. So when I was between books and looking for something quick to tide me over until the one I wanted became available, I saw this one and went, “Sure – why not? I enjoyed the movie!”
Well, it turns out that much had been changed from book to movie, and a big part of that is because in the book, our hero – Roy Hobbs – is a dick. No mincing words – he may be a small town guy with a lot of talent, but he’s not very nice, and is especially condescending to women who don’t meet his standards of beauty. Especially Iris – the lady who he has a sort-of-relationship with. In the book she is slightly too chubby for his taste, is slightly too old for his taste (in her early 30s!), and when he discovers that she had a child as a teenager, and that child now has a child (making her a grandmother) he bamfs out of there as soon as he can.
In the movie, Iris is his childhood sweetheart who he abandoned just before leaving town for the first time. In the movie, the child is his.
In the book, he takes a shady deal with some bookies to throw this playoff game before the World Series. It is only during the game that he changes his mind, but it is too late, and by the time he has a chance to bat again, he strikes out. The book ends there, on a very down note. In the movie, he backs out of the deal well before the game, and in the bottom of the ninth manages to hit the most towering home run you’ve ever seen. Roy and Iris go on to live happily ever after.
Obviously the movie version is cheesy and contrived as hell. But it at least makes Roy a sympathetic character that we want to see succeed in spite of his problems and deficiencies (because these are not so great to be overcome). In the book, as the story wears on, I found myself caring less and less about Roy, and hoping that something good would happen, and when it didn’t…I didn’t care that much.
The book also ends abruptly. Roy has failed, and that’s it. perhaps this is meant to be seen as Roy’s view of his own life – he couldn’t even achieve his greatest desire, so his life is over, no matter the fact that he has a steadfast woman by his side.
There is some good writing – the scene where Roy rips the cover off the ball is especially vivid – but in general, it’s a bit of a downer book. This is one of the few times I’m not going to recommend the book I read to you all. I mean, if you really want to read about baseball, it’s ok, but it’s not a fun read where you become more emotionally invested in the characters as you go along. It’s the kind where you think the protagonist is a dick, and probably deserves whatever failure he gets. If you want the more fun, more sympathetic version of this story, watch the movie.
Details: The Natural, by Bernard Malamud, first published 1952 by Harcourt Brace and Company