Cinema: Swinging for the Fences

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THE NATURAL Directed by Barry Levinson Screenplay by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry

In myth, baseball is a circle of light in a world increasingly darkened by corruption. It is a clean, green place that absorbs, preserves and reflects back upon us, through the heroically magnified deeds of its adepts, the purity with which, as children open to and eager for enchantment, we first encountered it. This game is a mind game, an ideal, and one that seems an almost lost legend for which people nowadays mourn, as they do for many things that graced a more leisurely and miraculous time. But baseball is also a reality, a game played by ungrammatical men who, like most people, have grown up without necessarily growing wise. They chew tobacco, indulge in alcoholic beverages and do not always fend off the groupies with the fervor expected of moral exemplars.

In all the literature that the sport has inspired, it is Bernard Malamud who best combined the mythic and the realistic streams of America's baseball consciousness. The Natural, published in 1952, reads as if Ring Lardner and Sir Thomas Malory had simultaneously invaded Malamud's sensibility, joining their gifts to produce an almost flawless first novel.

His tale was of Roy Hobbs, a ballplayer possessed of a talent and an innocence that could only have their sources in the supernatural. In Malamud's baseball world, like Malory's Arthurian one, men are ever the victims; it is women who have the power to make them betray their best selves as well as the ability to inspire them to redemptive glory. In Roy's case, all unknowing on the eve of his big league tryout, he answers a mysterious woman's summons to her hotel room where she shoots him (with a silver bullet, no less).

Still unaware of the forces playing about him, he achieves the illusion of redemption through 15 years of backroads wanderings, false heroic regeneration by using his magic bat as a kind of Excalibur, leading the aptly named New York Knights on a charge out of the league cellar toward the pennant. But he becomes a true hero to modernist eyes only when, ambiguously but courageously (and with a good woman's help), he achieves awareness of what his life and adventures mean. In literary circles this is known as coming to consciousness; in the on-deck circle it is known as growing up.

It is easy to see why the notion of adapting this story has tempted moviemakers for three decades. Hollywood's self-referential myths, far more than baseball's, revolve around the seduction and betrayal of the innocent. But now that the deed is done, it is equally easy to see how this material can lead even the most conscientious and respectful writers and directors astray. The problem is that the true life of this novel, for all the bustling melodrama of its surface, is inward; its highest pleasures are to be found in the silence it maintains about its deepest thoughts. It tips these only in a descriptive fragment here, a line of laconic, often funny dialogue there. It is perfectly possible to read the novel and enjoy it as if it had been written by that best of boys' book writers, John R. Tunis.

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