Iris Gaines: You know, I believe we have two lives.
Roy Hobbs: How… what do you mean?
Iris Gaines: The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.
The well-known baseball movie, The Natural, is based upon the 1952 book of the same name by Bernard Malamud. It has a star-studded cast which includes Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, and Barbara Hershey.
There are several key differences between the movie and the book. The conclusion of the movie diverges from the book’s ending, and the character of Iris is also changed. In addition, the protagonist in the novel is a much less likeable character than in the film. Thus, the movie’s optimistic and inspiring tone contrasts sharply with the cynical outlook of the book.
The Natural is a story of a gifted baseball player, Roy Hobbs, who after having lost his prime years from being shot by a deranged woman, arrives in New York to play for Pop Fisher’s Knights. Roy is very talented–a natural at baseball–yet also very flawed. After sixteen years away from the game, he is given a long-shot opportunity to make a comeback. And he doesn’t disappoint. He begins to shine, and the fans love him. As he becomes successful, his old demons haunt him, however, and he begins to make some of the same mistakes as before. In order for Pop to be able to keep ownership of the team, the Knights must win the Pennant. In the race to bring the team out of the cellar, Roy and Pop face opposition from the Judge, who wants to ensure that the Knights remain a losing ballclub.
It has been said that when it comes to mythology in The Natural, Malamud threw in the kitchen sink and then some. Malamud seems to have drawn inspiration from several sources—the legends of King Arthur, the Fisher King and Percival, as well as Homer’s Odyssey. The first name of the main character, Roy Hobbs, is derived from the Latin root of king. The bat that Hobbs uses is called Wonderboy, and it is made from a tree that was struck by lightning– much like King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, drawn from the stone. Pop Fisher’s name is an obvious reference to the Fisher King. Pop is a “wounded” manager who is about to lose the ballclub unless Percival (Hobbs) can help the Knights (again see the obvious Arthurian reference) win the Pennant (the Holy Grail).
Roy wears the number 9 on his jersey like Ted Williams. Williams’ goal in baseball was for people to say, “There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Likewise, Roy Hobbs says on more than one occasion in the movie that he wants people to see him on the street and say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.” This statement continues another Homeric theme—hubris. Right before Roy is shot by Harriet Bird, he tells her on the train that he plans to break all the records and be known as the best player to ever play the game. When Roy arrives in Chicago, Harriet calls and invites him to her room. When he arrives she asks him whether he will be the best to ever play the game, and when he responds in the affirmative, she proceeds to shoot him and then herself. From a classic point of view, Roy’s hubris, or excessive pride, led to his downfall.
It is interesting to note that Malamud based the shooting incident on a real-life situation between Eddie Waitkus and Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Waitkus, who was traded from the Cubs to the Phillies, was shot by Steinhagen at a Chicago hotel room in the summer of 1949. Steinhagen had become obsessed with Waitkus and had begun stalking him. Waitkus, who nearly died on the operating table, eventually recovered and was able to return to baseball.
As previously mentioned, the film contains many references to Homer’s Odyssey. The character of Harriet Byrd even asks Roy at the beginning of the film if he has read Homer. Like Odysseus, Roy is on a journey to get “home” after being gone for many years. The judge could be seen as Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. The judge is clearly the main villain in the movie. He hates the light, and his office is always dark. Throughout the movie, he works to sabotage Roy Hobbs, Pop Fisher, and the Knights. The symbolism for Memo Paris works on multiple levels. Memo could be short for memory. In a way she is a second Harriet Byrd. They both dress in black, and they both work for Gus Sands. Both are femme fatales who tempt Roy to throw away his success in baseball. Her last name of Paris represents distraction, fun and excitement. Memo could also be seen as the nymph Calypso, who tempted Odysseus and detained him from going home. Iris Gaines then is Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who stayed at home and raised their son while Odysseus was away.
Iris stands up at the game in Chicago because she doesn’t want to see Roy fail. She appears as an angel–the sun hits her translucent hat and gives the impression of a halo around her head. She is dressed in white, which contrasts with the black dresses of Harriet Bird and Memo Paris. Roy, after seeing Iris stand up, hits a monstrous home run which smashes the clock on the scoreboard. After years of being apart, time is “stopped” momentarily as Roy and Iris meet after the game. Now Roy is on his way “home” as he will eventually reunite with Iris after being sidetracked by Memo.
The conversation at the top of this article takes place at a critical point in the movie when Roy is in the hospital after having been poisoned by Memo. He has to make some serious decisions. His original injury from the shooting comes back to haunt him. The doctor tells him that he shouldn’t play in the last game, which will decide whether the Knights win the Pennant and go to the World Series. He tells Iris as he lay in the hospital, “Some mistakes I guess we never stop paying for.” Memo and the Judge stop by to visit him to try to persuade Roy to accept a bribe and sit out the game. Has Roy learned anything from the past?
Just as Roy faced the temptation of Harriet Bird years before, now he must again decide what to do. Here is a second round of tests, and here is a second chance to do the right thing. Will he choose Memo or Iris? Will he help Pop or the Judge? Will he play to win or for money? Will he be selfish or play for Pop and his teammates? The inspiring thing about The Natural is that it’s a movie about the hope of a second chance, of redemption after failure. But Roy’s second chance is predicated upon whether or not Roy has learned anything from his past mistakes. It’s a movie that appeals to us because we can all relate to Roy blowing it when he makes unwise decisions. We all crave the chance to learn from our mistakes and do better the next time. So we see that The Natural is not just a movie about baseball. It’s a movie about life—of failure and victory, of second chances, and of hope.