Tags: baseball, Bernard Malamud, book commentary, book synopsis, books compared to movies, books into movies, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Robert Redford, Roy Hobbs, sports novels, The Natural
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The Major League baseball season begins today. In honor of the occasion, I am offering a bonus Books-Into-Movies post for “The Natural.” (If you’d like to read another baseball-related post, check out my Books-Into-Movies post on “Moneyball.”)
The movie “The Natural” is significantly different from the novel The Natural. The book is darker—the story is tragic not heroic. The Roy Hobbs appears to reader as a person hampered with unattractive flaws. I suspect the majority of people who will read this post have seen the movie, probably more than have read book. So I will address the movie chronologically. There are so many points of difference to comment on that this approach seems to be the most systematic and efficient way to approach the comparison.
The chronological structure of both the book and the movie are essentially the same:
- The opening scene of the movie shows a young Roy Hobbs coached by his father (flashing back from a glimpse of Hobbs on the train). The book portrays a difficult childhood for Roy Hobbs, with his mother cheating on his father, and Roy growing up essentially as an orphan.
- The story of the bat “Wonderboy,” complete with the musical instrument case, is from the book.
- Young Roy Hobbs’ romance before he goes to Chicago to try out for the Cubs is not in the book. The Iris character is very different in the book (which I will address in more detail as the chronology unfolds).
- Roy Hobbs’ doubts, expressed to young Iris, are not in the book. He tells people on the train that he expects to be the best baseball player there ever was.
- Max Mercy referring to a story about a woman shooting an athlete is from the book.
- Sam Simpson, the scout promoting Roy Hobbs and riding with him on the train, is from the book. Simpson is an old retired ball-player, a drunk trying to use his discovery of Hobbs to get him a regular scouting assignment with the Cubs. The initial encounter with Mercy, Simpson, and “the Whammer” is from the book, with much of the dialogue preserved.
- The match-up between Hobbs and “the Whammer” is largely taken from book. This includes the attention from the psychotic Barbara Hershey character Harriet Bird who shifts her interest from “the Whammer” to Roy Hobbs.
- In the book, Malamud describes Hobbs’ pitches as more than just fast—they have a quality of disappearing as they approach.
- “The Whammer” though clearly a Babe-Ruthish character, has blond hair in the book.
- Max Mercy’s push to get background information on Hobbs after the Hobbs-“Wammer” confrontation is from the book.
- Harriet Bird’s fixation on male heroes is from the book.
- In the book, Sam Simpson becomes ill on the train. The book implies he was injured while catching Roy Hobbs pitches during the Hobbs-“Whammer” test of skills. He is taken off the train on a stretcher after telling Hobbs to go to the hotel—“overhead the stars were bright but he knew he dead.”
- Harriet Bird shooting Hobbs in her hotel room is from the book.
The flash forward to the New York Knights dugout after the shooting is taken directly from the book:
- “I should have been a farmer” from manager Pop Fisher, spoken to his coach Red, starts the next section of the book. The New York Knights’ futility is also taken directly from the book.
- Hobbs’s arrival mid game is also from the novel, with much of the dialogue preserved including the line about the “Salvation Army band.” But Pop Fisher is not as harsh to Hobbs during this beginning contact as he is in the movie. He apologizes for his initial grumpiness and does not declare to Red shortly after their first meeting that he won’t play Hobbs. In fact, instead of being suspicious that Hobbs was sent by the Knights’ chief scout, this is a positive in Pop Fisher’s mind. Hobbs is signed as a replacement for a player who has been hit on the head with a flyball and “paralyzed in both legs.”
- In the book, Bump Baily is an egotistical jerk as in the movie—selfish, putting himself ahead of the Knights. But the book has time to fill out his character—he is a great individual player, leading the league in hitting, and he is a prankster who charms his teammates with this form of humor. He pulls some annoying pranks on Hobbs the first day Hobbs is there. Bump and Hobbs come to blows when Bump takes a hacksaw to Hobbs’ bat “Wonderboy.”
- In the book, Hobbs takes batting practice his first full day of practice with the team and hammers the second pitch out of the park. (The first pitch is at Hobbs head, sending him to the dirt, when Hobbs crowds the plate.) The next two pitches leave the park. Pop then takes the bat to check it, but he and Red are thrilled with the idea of Hobbs playing. “Pop suddenly felt so good, tears came to his eyes and he had to blow his nose.” Hobbs also looks good in the field during this first day of practice.
- The falling out between Hobbs and Pop Fisher occurs when Hobbs won’t cooperate with the hypnotist who comes in before the first game after Hobbs’ arrival. Pop orders Hobbs to participate—Hobbs refuses: “You signed a contract to obey orders…” “…not to let anybody monkey around in my mind.” Hobbs’ defiance has Fisher swearing Hobbs will never play for him. In my opinion, the movie’s scenario makes more sense. With the talent demonstrated by Hobbs right away, it seems difficult to believe a manager who wants and needs to win so badly would make such Draconian decision based on this incident.
- The book has a character Otto Zipp, a “dwarf” who is a fanatic fan of Bump Baily. Zipp roots less enthusiastically for Hobbs and turns on Hobbs during his slumps. There is no Otto Zipp character in the movie.
- Memo Paris, Pop Fisher’s niece, is described as a “sad, spurned lady.” She is Bump Baily’s girl, and Bailey treats her with casual disrespect. Hobbs is infatuated with her looks and waits for his opportunity.
- Hobbs’ introduction to the lineup occurs differently in the book. “On the morning of the twenty-first of June,” Pop tells Hobbs he is going to the minors. Hobbs tells Pop he is “quitting baseball anyway.” But the same day, the hypnotist comes in and suggests Pop should also be hypnotized to address his “hysterical behavior.” Pop blows up and fires the hypnotist. During that day’s game, Bump misplays a ball in the field (no reference to sun in the book). Pop orders Hobbs to pinch-hit for Bump during the next half-inning.
- “Knock the cover off the ball” is from the book.
- As in the movie, Bump Bailey now feels the pressure to elevate his performance and runs into a wall while chasing a fly ball. He breaks his skull and dies. Roy Hobbs takes his place in the lineup.
- Hobbs is instantly successful (as in the movie). Pop seems dubious—“I mistrust a bad ball hitter.” But Red calls Hobbs “a natural.”
- The conflict between Judge Goodwill Banner, part team owner, and Pop Fisher, team manager and part team owner, is different in the book. Banner has agreed Fisher can manage the team for life, but wants to maneuver him into quitting his management role so wants the team to be unsuccessful to make Fisher’s ouster easier.
- Hobbs’ low salary is an early issue in the book, with media writing about the injustice of it. In the book, Hobbs asks to meet with the judge and asks for a raise. As in the movie, the judge lurks in the dark. He not only refuses any salary increase, but tells Hobbs he owes the team for the cost of his uniform, replaced after it is destroyed by Bump Baily during a prank. In the movie, the judge asks to see Hobbs. The conversation is very different. The judge offers more money, implying Hobbs should perform worse to help the judge reach his goal of ousting Fisher. Hobbs turning on the light as he leaves the meeting is not in the book.
- Max Mercy poking around trying to find out more about Hobbs is from the book.
- In the book, Max Mercy introduces Hobbs to bookie Gus Sands at a “nightclub with a girly show.” Memo Paris is at the table with Sands when they meet. The initial meeting between Sands and Hobbs is similar to the book.
- In the book, Hobbs has a prodigious appetite for food. (This factors into key events toward the end.)
- The relationship between Memo Paris and Roy Hobbs is edgier, more complex in the book. Memo is more distant to Roy in the book. Hobbs chases her after Bump Baily’s death. She has some problem with her breast. When he touches her she tells him it hurts. He points out he was gentle and she says “it’s sick.” During an encounter between them, Memo drives a car at ninety miles per hour and appears to commit hit-and-run on a pedestrian (though this is not certain as they flee the scene before confirming Hobbs’ trepidations).
- There are no pitching incidents with Hobbs and the Knights in the book—no injury as in the movie when Hobbs extends himself to throw a hard pitch while showing off to his teammates.
- In the book, Pop Fisher warns Hobbs about getting involved with his niece: “She was my sister’s girl and I do love her, but she is always dissatisfied and will snarl you up in her troubles…”
- As in the movie, the Hobbs of the novel goes into a slump when he gets “snarled” with Memo Paris. In the book, Memo Paris seems to be avoiding him. She does get him to see a fortune-teller Bump used when he slumped. Pop benches Hobbs when he won’t give up using “Wonderboy,” which Pop thinks is causing the slump.
- The “lady in the red dress” (white in the movie), Iris, first appears in the book during Hobbs’ slump. She stands up and looks for Hobbs. The Iris character is totally different in the book. She has no relationship with Hobbs before he joins the Knights. She is young, but also has a grown daughter who has a child (her daughter is not fathered by Hobbs). The home run that brings Hobbs out of the slump does not shatter a clock in the book, but somehow rises through the pitcher’s legs to go over the fence. She develops a relationship with Hobbs after her presence reverses his slump. But Hobbs finds the idea of anything permanent with her repugnant—he is disgusted with the idea of a relationship with a “grandmother.” He seems inexplicably drawn to the troubled Memo Paris.
- All of the “Iris” interaction in the movie is obviously different from the book. There is no reunion and no discovery of a son.
- As in the movie, the pennant race comes down to the wire in the book, riding the roller coaster of Hobbs’ shifting performance, seemingly related to his interaction with Memo Paris.
- In the book, Hobbs imagines settling down with Memo Paris in a domestic, husband-wife type situation. He knows this is unrealistic because Memo does not seem suited to that sort of life, and he has only a small salary and a short career ahead of him.
At this point, the book diverges significantly from the movie:
- In the book, on the verge of an important end-of-the-season series, Hobbs overeats at a premature victory party hosted by Memo Paris and financed by Gus Sands. He ends up in the hospital where medical personnel find his damaged abdominal area. Roy finds out another season is not possible and even another game this season could be difficult.
- In the book, from his hospital bed, Roy proposes marriage to Memo. She admits she is afraid to be poor and suggests he buy into a company. She delivers a message from Gus—Hobbs can get money to buy into a company from Gus if he will “drop” the key game for the Knights. The judge visits him and offers him $25,000 to make sure the Knights lose the decisive game. Hobbs at first refuses. But he counters at $35,000. The judge balks, but accepts. Hobbs confirms to Judge Banner: “The fix is on.”
- In the book, there is no reference by the judge to the shooting years before as in the movie. And in the movie, Hobbs does not confirm the arrangement even though the judge drops an envelope of money on him in his hospital bed. In the movie, Hobbs returns the money before the key game, completely contrary to what happens in the book.
- Hobbs keeps his promise to throw the game in the book. He deliberately strikes out in his first at-bat. In his second at-bat, he walks, keeping his promise not to “hit safely.” The third time up, he deliberately lines foul balls at Otto Zipp where Zipp sits is in the stands booing Hobbs relentlessly. One of the balls bounces up and hits Iris, who has been standing nearby. She’s taken away by ambulance. Hobbs strikes out after that but not before he splits “Wonderboy” when hitting another foul ball. (In the movie, “Wonderboy also breaks. But the batboy brings a new bat to Hobbs when he asks the boy to “pick out a winner.” With the new bat, with blood seeping from his old wound, Hobbs smacks the decisive homerun busting into the lights, to heroic fanfarish music—none of this is in the book.) In the book, on the last at-bat, Pop Fisher scans the bench for a pinch-hitter. Hobbs begs him to go into the game. The Iris incident seems to be changing his mind about keeping his promise to throw the game. But he strikes out again.
- Hobbs’ world falls apart at the end of the novel. Word gets out that Hobbs has thrown the game for money. Max Mercy also publishes pictures of Hobbs, shot “at nineteen.” Memo bitterly tells Roy she has hated him from the day Bump died, that she considers him responsible for Bump’s death. At the end, reminiscent of the Black Sox scandal, a boy implores to Hobbs “say it ain’t true, Roy.” And Hobbs looks in the boy’s eyes but cannot lie: “…he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears.” This ends the novel. The movie’s the final scene has Hobbs with his newly discovered son and rediscovered Iris in a tranquil scene of quiet success and fulfillment, a dramatically different ending.
The Roy Hobbs of the novel The Natural is a tragic figure, talented but flawed—a man who makes poor choices in his love life and sells out his integrity. This is far different from the heroic character played by Robert Redford in the movie. The film-makers can be forgiven for making the changes they did to give the movie a more upbeat conclusion. It is doubtful this movie would have been an audience favorite if the story had ended the same way as the book did.
Previous Books-Into-Movies posts (in reverse chronological order):