What is the difference between myth and tragedy? Between a hero and an antihero? Between everlasting life and public humiliation? The gulfs are enormous. The novel and the film are not siblings or even distant cousins; they're not even the same species.
In Bernard Malamud's The Natural, Roy Hobbs ends in ignominious defeat. He strikes out, throws the series, is left broke, unloved, an outcast. But in Barry Levinson's The Natural Roy Hobbs ends with fireworks and fanfare. He hits a homerun, gets the girl, and is immortalized.
Malamud's novel is dark, a modern tragedy in which antihero Roy Hobbs, a gluttonous womanizer, suffers for his failures. Look at its last pages:
"Going down the tower stairs he fought his overwhelming self-hatred...He thought, I never did learn anything out of my past life, now I have to suffer again."
And later, after Roy is banned from baseball and exposed in the newspapers, like Joe Jackson after the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Roy is "forever destroyed": "he lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears."
Levinson's film, on the other hand, is a melodrama, a modern myth, a story that points to signs of tragedy until the end when it inexplicably and conveniently ends happily, as a comedy. Just look at the ending of the screenplay:
"This is it! This is the game right now. Hobbs is at the bat still. He brought them this far. Will he take them all the way? The pitch! Hobbs hits! Fading, fading, it's a foul ball! Let's go! Pick me out a winner, Bobby. Come on, Roy! Are you all right, fella? Let's play ball. Come on, one time! Attaboy, Roy! And it's spinning way back up, high over the right field! That ball is still going! It's way back, high up in the air! He did it! Hobbs did it!"
Pure cheese, right?
The differences, of course, lie in the arch of the plot, especially the third act. In the Hero-Myth Cycle of Joseph Campbell, a hero must "Return" with knowledge and powers acquired during the journey; otherwise, the quest was in vain. In tragedy, the hero acquires knowledge and powers, but he uses them at all the wrong times and against himself. In the novel, for example, Roy chases all the wrong women, and they shoot him (more than once!); he eats so much that his belly rips open and he's hospitalized during the pennant chase. Although Roy is shot in the movie (once), the film glosses over his troubles with Harriet and Memo and leaves out the bellyaching.
In terms of theme, Malamud wanted to debunk the modern hero-myth cycle. He's saying that heroes will always fail because of media exposure, the lure of money, and their extreme egos and appetites. What makes them great on the field, or in battle, is the very thing that dooms them as civilians. Because modern "heroes" are in the public eye and subject to media scrutiny, they will always fail, according to Malamud. But, in the make-believe land of the movies, all of these obstacles that the modern hero faces somehow can be overcome with a charming smile and big muscles. What makes them great on the field must make them great movie stars, so says Levinson. Just look at Robert Redford. It's a fantasy.
Such are the differences between print and visual media. The former (the novel) must ring true artistically; its characters are rooted in archetype and their symbolic struggles must point to pathways leading to a just and fitting ending. The latter (the film) must make money; no one in 1984 wanted to shell out $5.00 for a ticket and popcorn, especially a dewy-eyed little leaguer (like myself), to see Roy strike out and cry bitter tears. We wanted a cheap thrill: home run and fireworks!
As happens in most film adaptations of novels, many characters and subplots are omitted. Other characters that are well-developed, or round and dynamic, in the novel become underdeveloped, or flat and static, in the film. You might say that the women especially are underdeveloped in the film: Memo, Harriet, and Iris. The biggest difference, though, is Roy. He's an antihero or modern tragic hero in the novel—a very dark version of Babe Ruth. In the film, he's forever the Golden Boy, a mythological knight in shining armor.
Also missing from the film, of course, are the King Arthur and Holy Grail mythology, the vegetative cycle archetypes and symbols, the historical baseball and biblical allusions, and Malamud's hard-boiled style (sports journalism at its finest).
Read the novel carefully. Watch the movie skeptically.