Bernard Malamud’s The Natural Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from a chapter on The Natural in a forthcoming book by the author, Bernard Malamud and the Limits of Desire.

 

When I ask friends about their favorite Malamud novel, they almost always say The Natural. Many then add that “Redford was great,” making it clear that they are referring to the film rather than the novel. When Malamud began his first novel, The Natural (1952), he had already earned critical acclaim for The Magic Barrel, a collection of short stories in the Jewish folk tradition of Eastern Europe. In that earlier work, Malamud used Yiddish constructions and transposed Yiddish words reminiscent of that tradition. But with his first novel, The Natural, he embraced a Midwestern hero, the American pastoral, and a pastime he loved: baseball.

To create a truly American story, he used a sport that people loved. At the time of the novel’s publication, baseball was still the most popular spectator sport in the United States. It was an especially apt metaphor with which Malamud could develop his complicated morality play. The book explores the desire to win: to have the best averages, to outrun, outscore, and outfield competitors and teammates. Baseball provides a wonderfully fertile set of American images against which to set the perennial questions of the innately competitive and combative nature of American life and of individual ambition.

Malamud himself was an avid baseball fan and a devotee of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He told me that on one of their first dates, he took his wife Ann to a double-header. Like other writers and filmmakers, he may have seen in baseball a perfect paradigm for exploring the theme of winning, the corruption of American business values, the “rules of the game,” and the elusive American dream of limitless possibility.

Malamud wove together actual dark moments of baseball history with an overlay of the failed Arthurian quest for purity of focus and perfection of skill. His character, Roy Hobbs, seems doomed to defeat, but for Malamud defeat is always a prelude to self-knowledge.

He undoubtedly saw in baseball a vivid interplay between American culture and the growth of an individual’s values. Baseball as a heroic competition was paradigmatic of the struggle of young men for mastery in distinctly American terms. On physical, cultural, and mythical levels, the game provided Malamud with a base for the problematic struggles of young men to create and distinguish themselves.

The game’s popularity was closely tied to the hopes and aspirations of American culture. In the post-World War I years, baseball was an important national pastime. It had broad democratic appeal as a sport for the masses. Small towns and local industries sponsored regional, farm, minor-league teams and even little league. They played for local pride. The game was not an expensive and sophisticated pastime like golf or tennis or horsemanship for well-to-do Americans, requiring money, clubs, and social connection. Rather, it was a game of the people, a sport meant to be played as much as watched. The major leagues themselves were based on urban competition. Teams took mythic names: “Pirates,” “Braves,” and “Giants,” or names that combined the pastoral and urban like the “Baltimore Orioles,” “St. Louis Cardinals,” or “Chicago Cubs.” It is in this context, with its elaborate national lore of scores and batting averages and American heroes—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson—that Malamud found a fitting subject for his own meditation on heroism.

Malamud found the perfect metaphor for both reality and myth in the history and romance of the game, in the resolve of the man on the mound, in the hope of the boy striving to meet a perfect pitch with the reverberating crack of bat against ball. He wove together actual dark moments of baseball history with an overlay of the failed Arthurian quest for purity of focus and perfection of skill. His character, Roy Hobbs, seems doomed to defeat, but for Malamud defeat is always a prelude to self-knowledge. By accepting these hard-learned lessons, his characters can become menschen (Ruth R. Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, University of Chicago Press, 1971).

The film-maker Barry Levinson adapted the 1952 novel to film in 1984 with significant changes to the ending. In the novel, Hobbs is a chastened man, headed back to the field of his youth. In the film, Hobbs triumphs with a home run. The film’s reworking of the novel’s beginning and end provides its own commentary on pastoral dreams and the American heroic tradition. The film’s cast included Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, and Darren McGavin. When Levinson directed the movie version he seemed to invert the novel’s ending. He began and ended with pastoral evocations: Hobbs starts out learning to play ball from his father in the field near his rural home, and he returns to this field at the very end of the film, sobered by life’s lessons and ready to teach his own son the sport. Despite the seeming differences in their endings, however, I argue that the film is actually faithful to the moral dilemma Malamud posed. The film and novel can be viewed as mirror images, sharing a similar moral vision. At the time of the film’s release, major league baseball was enjoying growing attendance but it was no longer the national pastime; professional football had surpassed it. Also of note, baseball had nearly reached its peak of African American players at a bit over 18 percent. There would be a persistent decline thereafter.

The film is actually faithful to the moral dilemma Malamud posed. The film and novel can be viewed as mirror images, sharing a similar moral vision.

Both novel and film weave together baseball lore and intertwine real baseball incidents with improbable magical realism. Of special interest is a comparison of the bittersweet dream-like ending of the novel, when the hero falters and strikes out, and the heroic ending of the film, as Roy’s pennant-winning home run sets off fireworks, underscored by Randy Newman’s triumphant music.

In the novel, Roy Hobbs fails his ambition to become “the greatest player ever;” he is accused of throwing the game. Good and evil contend and Hobbs loses. A second bolt of lightning destroys his bat “Wonderboy,” and with it Hobbs’s magical powers.

In the movie, too, there is a crack of thunder as Hobbs’s bat breaks, but Hobbs asks the batboy to find him another bat and with it, he triumphs. In contrast to the novel, Hobbs has found a moral compass in his childhood girlfriend, Iris Lemon. Although he flirted with the bribe he is offered by the owner of the team to throw the game, he has decided to play to win. Yet, having come directly from the hospital, he struggles in the crucial game. However, when he learns that Iris has brought her son to the game, and that the boy is his, the old magic briefly returns and he hits a home run. In the last scene of the film, he is depicted back in his childhood field, throwing a ball to his son. He is back where he started, but he has learned to be content as a father figure and a role model.

In many ways, Hobbs is an archetype of the quest hero who believes at first that he has endless possibilities, but must learn to recognize his limits. For Malamud, this is the heart of the quest, the trial by which not only does a person achieve manhood, but a society achieves an ethic—a religion which is a kind of universal humanism.

The Natural uses psychological romance to examine this theme. It tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a teenage “natural” at baseball as he moves from the back-pasture hometown game to a tryout for the major leagues and ultimately to a playoff game for the National League pennant. Like many mythic, “natural” heroes, Hobbs seems to have emerged from a chaotic nowhere. His only heritage seems to be baseball and his gifts as a pitcher and batter. His father provided no home: “The old man dumped me in one orphan home after the other, wherever he happened to be working—when he did—though he did used to take me out of there summers and teach me how to toss a ball.” (26).

The novel opens with Hobbs heading east to Chicago. He is on a train, traveling from the simplicity and innocence of his rural origins to the urban and complex city with its moral challenges and conflicts. Hobbs is armed with a supernatural power to hit baseballs with his magical bat Wonderboy, which he carved out of a tree that was struck by lightning. The novel’s opening is filled with elements of romance and fantasy suggestive of a fairytale or legend. Sam Simpson, an aging scout who discovers and escorts Roy, appears here like a guardian angel and a father figure. But, unlike most fairytales, the guardian angel cannot go the distance to protect the innocent. Without a guide, Roy fails to see the pitfalls, and he is doomed by his mistakes. As a result, he is on his own, and he is soon, both actually and metaphorically, “lost in the woods.”

Roy Hobbs is basically an innocent: “Gosh, the size of the forest. He thought they had left it for good yesterday and here it still was. As he watched, the trees flowed together and so did the hills and clouds. He felt a kind of sadness, because he had lost the feeling of a particular place. Yesterday he had come from somewhere, a place he knew was there, but today it had thinned away in space—how vast he could not have guessed—and he felt like he would never see it again.” (18)

In many ways, Hobbs is an archetype of the quest hero who believes at first that he has endless possibilities, but must learn to recognize his limits. For Malamud, this is the heart of the quest, the trial by which not only does a person achieve manhood, but a society achieves an ethic—a religion which is a kind of universal humanism.

Hobbs’ journey in the novel does not allow for a return, especially when failure is prefigured as literally going nowhere in the backwoods. The psychological dimension of his quest is, therefore, the yardstick for success, one that challenges the measure of worldly achievement that making it in the major leagues represents.

As Hobbs travels through the great expanses of American fields and wilderness, he is journeying to urban conflict and complication. “Whammer” Wambold, a major-league star, and Harriet Bird, a sensuous “dark lady,” are traveling on the same train. When the train stops, Hobbs challenges Whammer to a one-on-one match. Hobbs strikes him out and wins the match. But Hobbs’s first victory also brings about his first defeat: the veteran scout Sam Simpson, delighted that he has at last picked a winner, is caught up in the spirit of victory and celebrates by engaging too strenuously in horseplay. He suffers a heart attack and dies. This scene is the first of many warnings about the perils of self-indulgence. For Roy, the mentor, guide, and “father” he depended upon and trusted is gone.

Hobbs’ earliest taste of victory is lost, along with his sympathetic and mature guide, and from that point forward, Roy fails to pick appropriate mentors and misreads the signs of impending disaster. Without his surrogate father, Hobbs falls into a pattern of succumbing to the temptations of women, who bring about his undoing again and again. Harriet Bird is the first: “he felt a curious tenderness for her a little as if she might be his mother (that bird)” (28). His yearning for a Madonna-like mother or lover is a mark of his neediness. He fails to recognize that he has lived motherless and that this deprivation and his attempts at compensation interfere with his self-knowledge. Later, in a hotel room in Chicago, Harriet visits Hobbs and asks whether he will be the greatest player ever. After Hobbs says yes, she shoots him. It is among the many episodes in baseball history Malamud employs to thicken the darkness concealed in the national pastime that idealized the game “the boys of summer” played.

Malamud entitles the brief introductory section of the narrative “Pre-Game.” It might equally well have been titled the “life we learn with,” in the words of Roy’s childhood friend Iris Lemon, except that he fails to learn the lesson. The “Pre-Game” section foreshadows the longer and more involved story told in the second part of the novel in a series of nine scenes (like innings) called “Batter-Up.” This part of the story resumes more than a decade later. The young rookie Roy is now an aging ballplayer, a batter rather than the pitcher who struck Whammer out in “Pre-Game.” Now 34, he reports for duty to the New York Knights—a last-place minor-league team managed by a character Malamud calls Pop Fisher, a name that recalls the mythical Fisher King. The team name “Knights” further reinforces the idea of the quest that is threaded throughout the novel. Hobbs, now an aging rookie, gets his chance to play when the team’s star, Bump Bailey, dies suddenly after crashing into a wall while catching a fly ball.

During the remainder of the season, Hobbs dazzles the baseball world by breaking scores of batting records and by pulling his team up to a first-place tie with the Pirates. At first he seems to be fulfilling his early promise as a baseball “natural,” yet he is still inept in interpersonal or sexual relationships. Hobbs pursues Memo, who had been Bump’s girlfriend. She blames him for replacing Bump and secretly dedicates herself to his undoing. Failing to win Memo, Hobbs goes into a slump; he loses the supernatural powers he and his magic bat “Wonderboy” had as well. The phallic bat, like Perceval’s mythical sword Excalibur, represents power and potency. But Roy has been undone by his naïveté. He is misled by his sexual desire, involving himself with a woman whose motives he does not understand and whom he is mistaken to trust. Malamud here plays shamelessly with every overt and hidden phallic image he can layer, from baseball bats to male potency to castration images. The “God-given” and mysterious powers of the bat upon which Roy depends are ultimately lost, split by a symbolic second bolt of lightning. Roy loses in both the professional and the sexual arena. He has failed the test of a true Knight. Both literally and figuratively, Hobbs is left without a legend, a guide, a bat, or a “leg” to stand on.

On the last weekend of the season, Hobbs has a chance to help the Knights win the pennant; instead he is hospitalized with violent stomach pains from his gluttony the previous evening. Roy’s pre-game eating scenes, gorging on lobster, crab, ham, ice cream, bread, salad, soda, hamburgers and milk, are reminiscent of Babe Ruth’s self-destructive gluttony. Hoping again to please Memo, Roy accepts a bribe from the team’s owner, ominously named the Judge. The Judge has apparently bet against his own team, the Knights. In the climactic game, Hobbs faces a new pitcher, a next-generation surrogate for the young Roy. Hobbs has decided not to throw the game, but he swings, misses, and strikes out. His chance is lost. Hobbs has no hope of demonstrating that he had decided not to throw the game. He is disgusted with himself. Yet only in bitter defeat does he begin to achieve moral awareness: he flings the bribe money in the judge’s face. Memo attempts to shoot him in a recapitulation of the shooting in “Pre-Game,” but fails. He leaves the stadium a broken man, his career ended in betrayal of the heroic ideal, but his life saved.

The phallic bat, like Perceval’s mythical sword Excalibur, represents power and potency. But Roy has been undone by his naïveté. He is misled by his sexual desire, involving himself with a woman whose motives he does not understand and whom he is mistaken to trust. Malamud here plays shamelessly with every overt and hidden phallic image he can layer, from baseball bats to male potency to castration images.

As the novel closes he realizes, “I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again.” Hobbs, in tears, realizes that he failed to fulfill his own promise and has failed the idealism of the innocent boy, both the boy within himself and all those who see baseball players as American heroes. Failure to pass the heroic test in the first part of the novel has been replayed with grim consequences in Part Two. It is also a failure in following false fathers and guides. They cannot ensure the fulfillment of the American Dream, which in material or psychological terms is, for Malamud, a struggle within the self.

Throughout the novel Malamud uses dream material to illustrate growing psychological tension and to explore Hobbs’s struggle between conscious desire and unconscious self-destructiveness. Part One in some ways is itself like a dream, a shorthand pre-game of the events in part two. Part One even begins with a dream—a story within a story that foreshadows important elements of the larger tale. Just as The Natural contains elements of the struggle for limits and order that underlies most of Malamud’s fiction, the initial dream in The Natural foreshadows the major concerns of the rest of the novel:

 

“The dream he could never shake off—of his standing at night in a strange field with a golden baseball in his palm that all the time grew heavier as he sweated to settle whether to hold on or fling it away. But when he made his decision it was too heavy to lift or let fall (who wanted a hole that deep?) so he changed his mind to keep it and the thing grew fluffy light, a white rose breaking out of its hide, and all but soared off by itself, but he had already sworn to hang on forever.” (8)

 

This dream is symbolic of the constant struggle for mastery over impulse. The protagonist is located in a “strange field,” an outsider trying to grapple with the test of his own moral resolve. The drama emerges as the protagonist seems on the verge of commitment, but is caught up in lingering self-doubt. The story is concerned with the period of becoming, the period of decision, and the pain of accommodating to the truth, often too late.

Failure to pass the heroic test in the first part of the novel has been replayed with grim consequences in part two. It is also a failure in following false fathers and guides. They cannot ensure the fulfillment of the American Dream, which in material or psychological terms is, for Malamud, a struggle within the self.

In The Natural, the “initial” dream is symbolic of Hobbs losing his struggle to grasp and control the world. The golden ball implies the intact self, prior to temptation. It is a ball he is increasingly incapable of controlling. The ball is transfigured into a white rose, a budding of innocent sexuality and of youthful loss of control: the dream at once sets out the larger struggle of men to gain control over their universe and the specific symbol reveals that inexperience and desire will dominate over the promise of skill and ambition. It provides a wonderfully fertile set of images against which to set the perennial questions of the competitive and combative nature of American life and of individual ambition.

The Natural weaves together actual baseball history with some well-known episodes of baseball lore to ground its symbolism. Fusing together realistic and factual detail with magical elements implies that the supernatural forces are at work in the everyday. Even as the narrative seems to advance towards its more realistic conclusion, the magical elements reveal the thinly disguised allegorical themes that are an important focus of the tale.

One of the actual baseball stories Malamud uses is that of the shooting of Eddie Waitkus. An avid Cubs fan named Ruth Ann Steinhagen had a crush on the Chicago Cubs player. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and, in June 1949, when the Phillies were in Chicago to play the Cubs, Steinhagen lured Waitkus to her hotel room and shot him. She is said to have kept a picture of him in her jail cell and told reporters that if she could not have him, no one could. In 2016, when The New York Times reported Steinhagen’s death, it noted that she had shot Waitkus. She had spent several years in a state mental institution; after her release, she was not prosecuted and lived in relative obscurity.

One of the actual baseball stories Malamud uses is that of the shooting of Eddie Waitkus. An avid Cubs fan named Ruth Ann Steinhagen had a crush on the Chicago Cubs player. He was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies and, in June 1949, when the Phillies were in Chicago to play the Cubs, Steinhagen lured Waitkus to her hotel room and shot him.

Malamud must have found the sexual obsession and lack of restraint a fascinating donnée for a character who imprisons himself through his own sexual naïveté and his obsession with women. The reason Harriet so suddenly shoots Hobbs at the close of “Pre-Game” is baffling and surrealistic. Readers are left to speculate: perhaps it is a fusion of the dark lady on the train with one of several shadowy women who appear in Hobbs’s life as agents of temptation. Hobbs’s pride in defeating Whammer must be shot down. The first part concludes ambiguously. The reader is uncertain about whether Hobbs has been killed or merely wounded.

Fifteen years later, as the second part of the novel “Batter-Up” begins, we wonder whether this aging player, hired late in the season, is Hobbs reborn. Was he saved for some special deed? Malamud purposely leaves the mission and identity of this character unclear, and only slowly reveals details to clarify that this is indeed Hobbs, returned for a second chance at the game. But we also understand that if he has failed to learn from his early lessons, he is likely doomed to repeat his failure.

Another example of Malamud’s imaginative use of real baseball events to anchor his narrative is in Pop Fisher’s decision to employ a character called Doc, whose mesmerism and autosuggestion are meant to cheer up the Knights and lift them out of their slump. This is similar to an episode when the St. Louis Browns hired a psychiatrist to help them during a disastrous season; his efforts were fruitless and he was eventually fired. Malamud’s “jinxed” Knights try to use magic to ward off the evil spirit, crossing fingers over spilled salt, doing a backward flip if a player sees a cross-eyed fan in the stands, wearing colored threads sewn into socks or shorts; these are all similar or identical to actual rituals by which baseball players have tried to break jinxes, spells, hexes, and “whammies” affecting their game.

Another example of Malamud’s imaginative use of real baseball events to anchor his narrative is in Pop Fisher’s decision to employ a character called Doc, whose mesmerism and autosuggestion are meant to cheer up the Knights and lift them out of their slump. This is similar to an episode when the St. Louis Browns hired a psychiatrist to help them during a disastrous season; his efforts were fruitless and he was eventually fired.

The principal baseball event which Malamud has reworked in The Natural is the notorious “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919. Several players on the pennant-winning Chicago White Sox team conspired with gamblers to fix the World Series; the plot was discovered and they were banished from baseball for life. These events would also be worked into the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out” by John Sayles, and the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. This scandal shattered the idealism held by many in baseball. The Black Sox Scandal irretrievably compromised the game and revealed the sport’s possibilities for corruption in the close ties between gamblers and players. At the end of the novel, the newsboy’s plea “say it ain’t true” echoes the famous cry of a newsboy in 1919 to White Sox player “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, “say it ain’t so.”

These bits of baseball history give substance to the novel and a realism in which to ground the mythic, and are also grist for Malamud’s ironic imagination. He had the keen eye of a social critic for whom the ordinary and extraordinary details of American life revealed complex human motivation. The fantasy in this novel is grounded in fact, but the facts themselves are used to develop a more complex social, psychological, and moral fantasy. Although The Natural was not one of Malamud’s personal favorites, it is one that is well-remembered and continues to be in print, perhaps because of the movie’s success. “That the film adaptation has thoroughly supplanted the book in cultural memory is a most excellent Malmudian irony.” (Max Ross, “Malamudville,” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 30, 2014.)

The character of Roy Hobbs evolves from fragments of baseball myths, and it acquired yet another form in the film version of the novel, which came out only a short time before Malamud’s death. Roy Hobbs, as played by Robert Redford, hits a home run and refuses to throw the game. In doing so, he achieves moral awareness and sets an example of moral courage for the next generation. In the film, Hobbs returns to the simpler values of his rural childhood before urban complications, sexual temptation, and ego deflected him. He becomes the father he had failed to find for himself on his journey to the big time. He returns to the mythic pastoral of his childhood.

I asked Malamud what he made of this change to his story, and he responded that it might have been necessary for the audience of a commercial film. People like winners, he observed. Perhaps they would reject a movie in which Hobbs misses the pitch and causes his team to lose the World Series. Nicholas Delbanco writes that after seeing the movie with Malamud, the latter said, “Well this may or may not be a great picture, but it isn’t what I wrote. It certainly isn’t my book.” (Alan Cheuse and Nicholas Delbanco, Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work, 1996, 161.)

In the movie, the protagonist achieves moral synthesis and a family, in sharp contrast to the Hobbs of the novel, whose lesson is bitter and tragic. The novel’s Hobbs learns the lessons of restraint and order through a series of humiliating encounters; his moral failure sends him back to oblivion. Malamud conceded that the film’s revision originally troubled him, but he went on to speculate that American audiences of the 1980s might need happier endings to reinforce the virtues of honesty and hard choices. Perhaps, he observed with a tone of irony, “the same point could be made with either conclusion.” Besides, he said, he was pleased, on the whole, with the film and its recreation of baseball as played in the 1920s and 1930s.

People like winners, [Malamud] observed. Perhaps they would reject a movie in which Hobbs misses the pitch and causes his team to lose the World Series. Nicholas Delbanco writes that after seeing the movie with Malamud, the latter said, “Well this may or may not be a great picture, but it isn’t what I wrote. It certainly isn’t my book.”

For Malamud, “it mattered not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game.” Living the right life, a moral life, comes from living with full self-awareness, not from success by physical powers or a lucky bat or special circumstances. Hobbs must succeed by choice and by knowing.

Hobbs’ quest to achieve manhood, his temptation, and trial bear out the structure outlined in Joseph Campbell’s The Myth of the Hero. As other critics have observed, Malamud draws on ancient fertility rites as described in Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, and as transformed in the literary version of the grail legends studied by Jessie L. Weston in From Ritual to Romance. They are also the basis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Typically, the legend begins with an arid, wasted land. The King of the Land (sometimes called the Fisher King) is wasting away from sexual deprivation and impotence. A god or, later, a young hero, must be sacrificed to redeem the land so the crops can grow again. In Weston’s study of the transformation of these rites to restore the power of the King and the fecundity of the land, a young hero must discover the Holy Grail. To find it, he goes through a number of chivalric tests of his manhood and virtue, withstanding such temptations as lust and gluttony, before being granted a vision of the Grail. If he succeeds, the curse on the land and on the King is lifted, and the social order is restored.

Malamud uses the structure of this classical quest and plays with these elements to reveal perennial archetypes of human experience. The novel is thus on one level an elaborate retelling of a myth of the Holy Grail. The quest provides the structure against which to explore the themes of an initiation novel about the limits of desire, most especially because, to achieve the quest, the knight must remain pure. The Natural is a symbolic morality play in which the perennial forces of good and evil engage in a battle for Hobbs’s soul. In Malamud’s vision, only Hobbs himself can arrest these forces. He is a flawed hero who understands his goal too late and so he, and society, are wiser but must continue to suffer—strike three.

For Malamud, “it mattered not whether you win or lose, but how you played the game.” Living the right life, a moral life, comes from living with full self-awareness, not from success by physical powers or a lucky bat or special circumstances. Hobbs must succeed by choice and by knowing.

Roy Hobbs is perhaps unique among the Malamud heroes: he is left in tears, having learned his lessons too late. He decides to be a father to Iris’s son, realizing that redemption is the work of a lifetime. It is not too late for him to recover his soul and achieve an implied maturity that will enable him to become, at least for himself and for his newly discovered son, the father of which he felt deprived. Iris Lemon, Hobbs’ girlfriend and teacher, suggests that, “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering brings us toward happiness” (126).

The pastoral ending of the film appears to be restorative, reassuring, in contrast to the novel’s conclusion. It almost certainly would have tested better with audiences—remember, Hollywood does test-market its films—than using the book’s ending. Audiences tend not to like “downer” movies, as Malamud conceded to me. But novels are, of course, a different way of telling a story than film, with different methods of narrative-making, different audience expectations, different conventions. What the film does is make The Natural conform more to being a genre “sports” film about the triumph of the underdog. The novel was not conceived or meant to be a genre “sports” story. One has only to compare The Natural with, say, Mark Harris’s baseball novels—The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, A Ticket for a Seamstitch, and It Looked Like For Ever—to note the difference between good baseball fiction and fiction that deploys the myth of baseball for other thematic ends. Several other Malamud works were made into films: the short story “The Angel Levine” was a 1970 film starring Harry Belafonte and Zero Mostel; the short story “The Model” was a 1994 film; and the novels The Fixer and The Assistant also became films, the former in 1968, starring Alan Bates, and the latter in 1997 with Joan Plowright as Ida. Whatever their virtues as films, none enjoyed the widespread popular success of “The Natural.”

The novel was not conceived or meant to be a genre “sports” story. One has only to compare The Natural with, say, Mark Harris’s baseball novels—The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, A Ticket for a Seamstitch, and It Looked Like For Ever—to note the difference between good baseball fiction and fiction that deploys the myth of baseball for other thematic ends.

Ultimately the film, however it may have distorted aspects of the novel, skillfully compresses 221 pages of the novel into 135 minutes, creating a vivid evocation of the characters and the morality of Malamud’s vision. Perhaps this is why audiences have found the film so compelling. The images in Malamud’s book were beautifully reflected in the film. In this case, the picture may be worth a thousand words.