Thursday, November 15, 2012

Lost in Translation (Part Two): Bernard Malamud's The Natural

Yesterday I wrote about how some terrific novels sometimes get lost in their translation into film, in particular, E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and the subsequent botched effort of Milos Forman's film adaptation. If Ragtime was a case of the wrong man hired for the wrong job, however, The Natural (1984) was an example of smart and talented people dropping the ball. Bernard Malamud's first novel was a canny parable written with true American gusto in which the author digs into the spirit of one of Ted Williams' famous declarations. Looking back on his storied career with the Boston Red Sox, the baseball great once remarked, "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'" Malamud asks the question: If you were the greatest ball player who ever lived, blessed with extraordinary athletic gifts, could you just as easily piss it all away?

Malamud's 1952 novel The Natural is a vivaciously entertaining story of a thirty-four-year-old rookie named Roy Hobbs who gets a second shot at becoming a baseball star – and then blows it. Fifteen years earlier, as a can't-miss-prospect, Hobbs is almost killed by Harriett Bird, a disturbed baseball groupie who seduces and shoots him. Years later, and recovered from his injuries, Hobbs gets a new contract and arrives at the dugout of New York Knights' manager Pop Fisher to join the team. Given Hobbs' age, Pop is initially reluctant to bring him on board. His corrupt partner, Judge Goodwill Banner, has also been dumping lousy players on him all year with the purpose of decimating the team; he figures if the team finishes last, Pop will give up and sell him his share of the franchise. Hobbs changes all that by leading the Knights to a league pennant. But he's also an unbridled hedonist. When he gets involved with Pop's niece, Memo, he's distracted from his quest to be the best, just as he was earlier by Harriett, once again betraying his natural gifts. He may be a natural, Malamud reminds us, but he's still human.

As Doctorow did in Ragtime, Malamud adroitly weaves fact and fiction. For instance, as a player, Pop Fisher once committed a blunder ("Fisher's Flop") that cost his team the World Series, a faux pas loosely based on the story of the New York Giants' first baseman Fred Merkle, whose error cost his team the pennant in 1908. Malamud's sports writer, Max Mercy, is obviously based on Ring Lardner, and Walter 'Whammer' Wambold, a lumbering slugger Hobbs strikes out as a brash nineteen-year-old in the book's opening moments, is most certainly Babe Ruth. Judge Goodwill Banner has shades of former Chicago White Sox owner Charles A. Comiskey, who treated his players so badly they went into cahoots with gangsters and threw the 1919 World Series in the famous 'Black Sox' scandal. These rich associations make Malamud's novel a perfect fit for the movies, and as it happened the plot was already based on one: Elmer the Great (1933), an adaptation of a play by Ring Lardner and George M.Cohan and the second in a baseball trilogy starring Joe E. Brown as a loudmouthed rookie who attempts to break in with the Chicago Cubs.

Barry Levinson, Roger Towne and Robert Redford
The Natural, like Ragtime, was promising dramatic material. What was also promising was that Barry Levinson was brought in to direct it. Levinson had been a career screenwriter who had only recently turned to directing films. His debut behind the camera was Diner (1982), a beautifully written and directed autobiographical comedy about a group of friends in Baltimore at the end of the Fifties. The picture was remarkably perceptive, a truly fresh and honest view of sexual relations between men and women on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Diner launched the careers of a number of talented actors like Ellen Barkin, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon, and featured the lone great performance by Steve Guttenberg. So with Levinson in charge, a script written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, and shot by the justly acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff), the movie seemed ripe with possibilities. But instead of being a hip, funny yarn, The Natural became an overripe and gauzy piece of nostalgic whimsy. The film totally changed the meaning of the book by becoming a hollow piece of hero worship.

Their horrible reworking of the story, in which Roy Hobbs fulfils his destiny rather than flubbing it, had everything to do with the casting of Robert Redford as Hobbs. By the 1980s, Redford, as an actor, had grown lazy being a huge movie star and his performance here was indistinguishable from a politician running for high office. Rather than portray Hobbs as a man who could not resist temptation, he plays him as a hero triumphing over adversity. Hobbs may be mythic in the novel, yet we never forget that he's possessed with human frailty. But Redford's Hobbs is a Golden Boy who is beyond temptation; an innocent country lad whom city folks try to corrupt. Once again a hopeful and spirited work of fiction became a tired formula. Redford's saintly performance has the adverse effect of turning Malamud's pointed prose into processed movie corn. As a result, The Natural becomes canned Americana.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.       

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