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Monday, January 30, 2012

January 30, 2012: The Two Naturals

[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the first in the series.]

What the two very different, even opposed, versions of an American classic can tell us about national histories, narratives, and perspectives on sports.

I’m sure every American Studier has his or her list of particularly egregious film adaptations of literary works—mine is definitely topped by 1995’s so-bad-it’s-hilarious version of The Scarlet Letter—but Barry Levinson’s 1984 adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural (1952) has to be strongly considered for a category all its own. Both the book and the movie are effective and compelling, full of extreme characters and over-the-top moments and shocking plot twists; and for about two-thirds of their respective lengths they’re generally very similar. Yet their final thirds deviate so strikingly, especially in their tones—Malamud’s book ends on a note of dark and cynical tragedy, Levinson’s film with redemption and victory—that it’s almost necessary to consider the film as an entirely different work from the novel. (I don’t want to spoil either any further, so won’t go into too much detail about the differences—but if you want to learn more the book’s ending is described here, and the film’s climax prominently includes this moment.)

The first thing an American Studier might do in analyzing those contrasting tones is to connect them to the two works’ different historical moments: Malamud’s novel was published at the height of McCarthyism, an era in which heroes were being destroyed (or, by testifying against their peers, destroying themselves) on a seemingly nightly basis, and the corruption and fall of his pure protagonist seems of a piece with that trend; while Levinson’s film was released in the same year that Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election with the feel-good campaign slogan of “It’s Morning in America Again.” Beyond those specific historical contexts, it would also be worth connecting the two works to two very distinct but equally defining American narratives: the novel closely aligns with the jeremiad, a narrative of historic greatness lost due to human sins and failings (just as the novel’s Roy Hobbs loses his own “natural” greatness); while the film flirts with that narrative but ultimately embraces instead the Alger-like story of a self-made man whose perseverance and fundamental goodness bring him everything he has ever wanted.

Yet I would argue that the two Naturals can also reveal two complex and interconnected national perspectives on sports, two sets of images around which much of our 20th century sporting life has revolved. On the one hand, it seems that every generation of sports fans pines for a distant era when athletes were purer, nobler, played the game for its own sake, and so on; scandals from the Black Sox to the steroids revelations have consistently seemed to illustrate how far our athletes—and perhaps our nation—have fallen from those ideals. Yet on the other hand, and despite those scandals and persistent laments, we have continued to idolize our athletic stars, to find in them the kinds of heroic victories and identities that seem to exemplify our ideals. Moreover, the latter seems in many cases directly to follow the former in our narratives—a Babe Ruth rises to dispel the Black Sox aura, an Albert Pujols helps us recover from the steroids scandals—making the ending of the film Natural perhaps an inevitable American sequel to the novel’s cynical (and equally American) conclusion.

More tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Any American Studies sports stories you’d like to see in this space?

1/30 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe and so the first prominent mixed race American child (and one whose English and Virginian life is full of both the complexities and the promises of cross-cultural American identity); and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, without whose influence (whatever your political perspectives) 20th century American and world history would have been entirely different.

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