Monday night, I was disappointed to discover that MLB Network's "Bleacher Features" series -- featuring classic baseball movies -- was ending with The Natural. Oh, I won't miss the movies themselves; I probably have all of them on DVD (well, except for Cobb) and I hate commercials. But preceding each film, in "Costas at the Movies", Bob Costas interviewed the director and sometimes one of the stars of the movie, and I just eat that stuff up. It helps a lot that Costas is always ridiculously knowledgeable about whatever the subject.
Monday night, Costas interviewed director Barry Levinson, and the subject of the source material came up ...
Costas: "... You changed the ending. Because in the end, Roy Hobbs strikes out. And as the book concludes, 'cries many bitter tears.' But Malamud was still alive when the movie was released, and I read where he felt favorably toward it."
Levinson: "He did. I had heard that he went with his daughter to see the film. And she said afterwards, 'So Dad, what do you think?' And he said, 'At last, I'm an American writer.' And I thought, well, that's a great compliment."
Was it supposed to be a great compliment? It's not hard to imagine a writer seeing his book turned into Hollywood pablum and saying, "At last, I'm an American writer" with at least a touch of wryness, don't you think?
The following is from Philip Davis's Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life (2007):
When the film of The Natural appeared in 1984, starring the American golden boy, Robert Redford, Malamud had long since sold the original rights. But he did get a percentage of the second sale, worth around $125,000, when the rights were bought up by Redford himself. He did not seem, at least, to mind much that he had not made a fortune. He was flattered by the idea of Redford doing it; miffed that he was never consulted or contacted by the director Barry Levinson, but finally quite enjoyed the film -- as long as he could sit there in the dark, he said. With its optimistic ending, it was not his book, he emphasized, but he hoped they would turn it into a musical before too long.
So it seems that Costas knew his stuff. No surprise there. I loved The Natural when it came out, and I've seen it dozens of times since then, probably enjoying it a little less with each viewing. But for all its flaws, there are still a great deal of things to like about the movie. Purely as a baseball fan, I love the old ballparks and the generally authentic uniforms, and it's not hard to relate to Roy Hobbs' love for the game.