The Natural is a rather innocuous film. On its surface it seems to function as a sort of conventional, sports-themed biopic, but when you dig a bit deeper, there is a reflective, almost artful film waiting to be discovered. This one is not just about baseball, it’s a fable; an all-American, crowd-pleasing fairytale. Upon even further inspection, The Natural can be seen as an example of how Hollywood bastardizes source material and the truth to the point of bewilderment.
It’s an incoherent, oddly-managed film that was nominated for four Oscars (art direction, cinematography, Randy Newman’s score, and curiously, Glenn Close for Best Supporting Actress). Director Barry Levinson’s weighs in with his take on the life of Roy Hobbs (a waxy and uncharismatic Robert Redford, who looks the part, but lacks any real depth in his performance), a mysterious middle-aged ball player who comes from seemingly nowhere to help a 1930s’ team get to the top.
Strangely, what appears to be a “bio-flick” is actually an amalgam of many ball players’ stories: there’s a bit of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Boston Red Sox great hitter Ted Williams, and Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ed Watkins. The Natural borrows most heavily from Watkins’ story: he shot a woman named by Ruth Ann Steinhagen in Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel on the night of 15 June1949. It’s a bit manipulative of the filmmakers (not to mention confusing for those with no footing in the history of baseball), to make everything presented seem like the truth. On the extras disc, the filmmakers are able to go into more detail about the film’s origins, but without this extra material, The Natural is puzzling.
We come to find out that many years before; Hobbs was on the fast-track to superstardom in the world of baseball. With the aid of “Wonderboy”, the mythical bat cut from a tree hit by lightning on his father’s idyllic Nebraska farm, Hobbs hits harder and throws faster than anyone the leagues had seen. On his rise to the top, his glory is derailed by Harriet Bird (a shady Barbara Hershey playing the Steinhagen doppelganger), a disturbed young woman who has been stalking the player and who eventually shoots the rising star; nearly killing him.
Aping the lighting motifs of classic ‘40s noirs, Levinson and camera man Caleb Deschanel (who photographed 1983’s The Right Stuff, for which he won the Oscar) are able to make The Natural seem downright tawdry and menacing in parts. They trot out femmes fatale dressed in black, lurking in the shadows, and good girls in white, lit with a heavenly corona like angels. Harriet is shown ominously in heavy darkness, wearing what looks like a funereal black lace veil, while the ambiguously-allied Memo Paris (the insanely gorgeous Kim Basinger), who professes to love Roy but still tries to use her feminine wiles to manipulate him for the team’s owners, is shot alternately in black and white, making her characters’ motives appear muddy, visually.
The film’s symbolism is a little heavy-handed at times. There are references to Homer’s Odyssey, and many other shout-outs to the world of Greek mythology, as well as to classic, uplifting sports films, and the legend of King Arthur. Add this in with the noir elements and you have a film that ambitiously tries to do all of these things well, but only hints at greatness.
Where the novel by Bernard Malamud, from which the movie is adapted, captures the darker elements of the story better (including the stalking and shooting of Hobbs), Levinson and company seem to push away from the nastier aspects of the story. Their aim is to create a timeless family classic out of a gritty story that could have been much better. Malamud doesn’t shy away from an unsympathetic climax, while the filmmakers turn this story of a fallen hero into one of personal triumph. While it works cinematically, the lack of trust in the solid source material is an Achilles’ heel.
There are so many inconsistencies between the book and the film that it is hard to even call The Natural an adaptation. The history between Iris (Close) and Roy, on the page, was set up as something much more unromantic, where on film; it is played as having a blissful purity. While Roy, in the book, is driven by lust and selfishness; on the screen he is painted out to be a saintly Superman do-gooder. The list of inconsistencies is a very long one.
This film suffers from being overly ambitious and lacks any real clarity. There are so many sub-plots and supporting characters that never get fully fleshed out that at times the film gets very confusing. The absence of a clear focus of subject (is this film about Hobbs’ stalking? Is it about the nastiness of the industry?) Definitely takes away from the visual splendor and hard work of the performers (the cast is a once-in-a-lifetime type of ensemble). The lack of any allegiance to one story is distracting, and the piecing together of so many stories may have been well-planned, but the finished product comes across a bit shoddy.
It is true that this is a Hollywood film, where we should not necessarily expect to be told the truth, but a little more edge would have gone a long way. While we are told that Hobbs is full of heart, it’s hard to actually see it. What could have been a magnificent comment on this patriotic pastime unfortunately turns in to an emotionally manipulative barrage of iconic imagery; a mess of gargantuan proportions.