Matt Melis, writing for Consequence of Sound says, regarding Bernard Malamud's novel's ending—had it made it to the big screen intact:
Malamud's ending undoubtedly stands as the more compelling conclusion (and more true to experience); however, I cannot imagine people lining up at the box office to see Roy Hobbs strike out and the movie end with Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth), and Bobby Savoy [George Wilkosz] huddled in tears in the dugout.
Yep, the novel The Natural ends with a downer. And, it does so deliberately. (Hollywood ruins it.)
And I am distracted as the movie gets going because, do you realize that 48-year-old Redford is supposed to be just 19 years old during the first act of this movie? Couldn't be bothered to cast a younger version of himself to carry the first half hour, so he just plays 19. INSERT, me sighing.
In his introduction to Malamud's novel, Kevin Baker calls it an "anti heroic tale about a baseball player whose ambitions and desires are constantly thwarted" (p. 6). Regarding Malamud's opening line—
Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame in his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in.
—Baker suggests the mythic quality that Malamud is trying for; Baker writes:
As in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the action in The Natural commences with a struck flame—and like Agamemnon, our hero will soon have his hands full.
Hobbs starts the novel on a train, going through a tunnel, and he strikes a match. It's a nice image. The film, on the other hand, starts with Hobbs, looking far older than the 19-years-old that he is supposed to be in this scene—looking tired and haggard like Hobbs later in the film, in fact—sitting on a bench at a train station. Then, he's on the train. Then, he's flashing back to a childhood montage. And, it's all so plain and obvious. Imagine if the film began in the dark, and then some young kid, looking like the hayseed that Roy Hobbs should be at 19, appears in reflection as he strikes a match, sees himself in flash of light, is surprised perhaps, or maybe we are, and then the match goes out. A flash of light, and Roy is gone. Only to fade back in a moment later as the train emerges from the tunnel and the sound comes up and we know where we are, and he knows where he is, and he's nervous, he's out of his element, but gosh darn it, he's gonna go make something of himself. And, already, we have a better sense of Hobbs as a personality than his line:
And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.
What does baseball even mean to Hobbs, is the thing. Sure, his father wanted him to play baseball, but is that it? If that is it, why did his father want him to play baseball? What is the urge to go play a sport like this in the 1930s? I mean, where is the sense of the country, the world? What was Hobbs' life actually like on the farm? He tells Pop, "Nothing like being around animals, fixing things. There's nothing like being in the field with the corn and the winter wheat. The greenest stuff you ever saw." Except, we never saw him around animals—maybe there was a dog in the flashback; I don't even remember because that flashback is so short and so stuck on father and son, on shallow interaction, and that lightning storm. We never see him fixing things, though his skill with a lathe and a plane suggests maybe he could... fix things. We never see him dealing with corn, or with wheat, or caring about corn, or about wheat. The film offers so little of Hobb's childhood precisely because it cannot wait to get to Hobbs older, Hobbs on that train, Hobbs striking out the Whammer, Hobbs getting shot just to be older and playing baseball again right after as far as the audience gets to see it. No sense of his life in those intervening 16 years, seeing other baseball greats in the paper, watching games, dreaming of being one of them, and finally making a go of it again at 35. The film includes the team therapist with his "losing is a disease" mantra—which I assume is straight out of the novel—but can't be bothered to show that Hobbs exists outside the baseball field. In fact, whenever he is away from the field—spending time with Memo for instance—it affects his play, negatively. Which is actually a nice sequence in terms of the myth the film it going for. But, that is just one short stretch, just one montage of many. The drama—and all the film noir-ish elements—comes from Hobbs' sidetrack, from his relationship with Memo, from his dealings with The Judge and Gus Sands. But, these feel like scenes out of an entirely separate film. They should be informing Hobbs' baseball story instead of distracting from it. (Within the story, they are distractions, but in our experience of the story, they should inform. There is a difference.)
By the way, Hobb's childhood, what little there is of it, in the novel, Baker explains,
seems to have been a nasty, brutish existence, relieved only by idealized romps through the countryside with his faithful dog... His mother was a 'whore' who 'spoiled my old man's life' and once drowned a fully grown cat in a bathtub, before abandoning the family altogether. (p. 9-10)
Malamud keeps Hobbs "teetering between boundless ambition and the desire to return to the womb of anonymity". The film hints at this with Hobb's regular refusal to tell anyone where he's from. But, there's no reason for this. And, we see nothing of his fantasy future(s). Cinema, a visual medium, and we don't get Hobb's
long[ing] to return to the forest, sometimes with a new family of his own, sometimes alone; even conjuring up a vision of himself, complete with dog, emerging from the woods along a lonely, nighttime road—and then only to allow his apparition to be run down by a speeding car.
The novel's Roy Hobbs imagines a future alone with his dog, anonymous, and getting struck by a car. The film's Roy Hobbs has no personality beyond being the greatest—in the film his father even tells him that he has to develop himself rather than just depend on his talent—and he doesn't even have a nice arrogance to go with that. Malamud grew up during the depression. He was excused from serving in World War II because he was his widowed father's sole support. He was a first generation American, born to Russian Jewish immigrants, and he didn't shy away from writing about the harder parts of life. "It is hard to find a truly likable character in the book," Baker says. "Nearly everyone is playing an angle, out for themselves. Women are depicted as symbols of danger, deceit, or of simplistic purity, to the point of misogyny. Men are almost as bad" (p. 11-12).
Baker offers up a nice description of what baseball means to America after calling Malamud's version a "life-and-death struggle":
Baseball has always been an American simulacrum: the green, pastoral game, with its playing field that stretches on forever, but which has its roots planted firmly in the hard city. ...the ballpark is a swath of idealized nature, plunked down in the middle of an urban block and meant to reform us, morally and physically. Malamud is having none of it. At a time now thought of as the golden age of the sport, in which money and power were only secondary considerations, his baseball is very much a business, and one that exposes the worst in us all. (p. 14)
Ultimately, Baker compares Roy Hobbs to Willy Loman, "that their befuddled, angry, postwar man who never will learn." I wonder, did Hobbs fight in the war? Does it matter? The film version is such a shallow—and obvious—attempt to insert the Fisher King into a baseball story. Hobbs is Perceval. The pennant is the Holy Grail. Pop Fisher is King Arthur (or the Fisher King; in the novel, Pop has a wound of his own—he has "athlete's foot of the hands"). But, Hobbs is also the Fisher King, himself, wounded indefinitely (he bleeds at the end of the film more than 16 years after being shot, mind you). Perceval fails to heal the Fisher King because he isn't curious enough to ask when he sees a mysterious procession. The Fisher King isn't healed. Perceval doesn't obtain the Grail. Perceval yearns to be a knight without thinking of what it means. Hobbs yearns to be a baseball player without thinking of what it means. In that regard, film Hobbs is a great Perceval. But, film Hobbs makes that final hit, breaks those lights, wins that game, lives happily ever after with Iris and their son.
Novel Hobbs has a tragic flaw beyond his old wound and a past left behind;
He cares nothing for the fans, and little for his teammates or his long-suffering manager, and he hubristically ignored every portent and superstition. He is greedy and ruthless, preoccupied at all times with making the money he believes his talent entitles him to make—and yet he foolishly squanders both his talent and the money on things he desires so intensely. He drinks and eats and fornicates thoughtlessly, and in the big final game, he wastes one critical swing after another in order to hit foul balls at a midget who has been taunting him from the grandstand. (Baker, p. 18-19)
That feels like a hero American moviegoers could actually relate to. But, Hollywood loves to idolize. Malamud's "Hobbs is one of the most thoroughly unsympathetic heroes in the history of American literature," Baker says. "To be sure, even his ambition is not purely mercenary, but even his desire to have 'broke almost every record there was' is blind and blunt—American gigantism run amok" (p. 19). Film Hobbs is not this. He's undeservedly smug, he has multiple women coming for him, but he never really shows much actual emotion. Maybe that's Redford's haggard old face, or a deliberate acting choice, or the way Levinson's directed. Or maybe film Hobbs is nothing but a cypher, a Mary Sue for every little boy in the audience who dreams of making it big in whatever sport—not just baseball—so of course he has to win in the end. But, the disconnect between what The Natural was supposed to be about and what Levinson decided to adapt for the screen is huge.
What should be a cautionary tale, at least, instead suggests that no matter how much gets in your way, no matter how many wrong turns you yourself make, you will still get everything you want in the end. Because, you are an American, and that's just how it works. It's bullshit. But, it's populist, American Dream bullshit. Reagan America bought right into it. Roy Hobbs is American imperialist white supremacist heteronormative capitalist patriarchy at its best; fuck up all you want, you still succeed... because reasons.