Until Lightning Strikes Again

Retribution and the Pursuit of Greatness in The Natural

illustration by Gary Mills

The New York Knights are “a last-place, dead-to-the-neck-up ball club” when Roy Hobbs walks onto their field as their newest signed player in Barry Levinson’s 1984 film The Natural. The year is 1939 and Roy has just come up from the minor leagues, and when he enters the dugout and produces his contract from the team’s chief scout, the coaches are stupefied at the sight of him. “People don’t start playing ball at your age,” the manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) snaps. “They retire!” Roy is in his mid-30s, which is old for the game as it is, but his unsuitability is accentuated even further via his portrayal by a 47-year-old Robert Redford: as handsome and spry as he was in the films that made him famous 15 years before, but now wearier, softer, a bit grizzled. “We don’t need no middle-aged rookies,” Pop tells him (a hilarious thing for anyone to tell Robert Redford at this point in his career). Anyway, Pop doesn’t want to waste his time with Roy, so he benches his new player from the start, planning to wait out his contract and send him back down to the minors as soon as he can.

Casting the older, more wrinkled Redford as the just-beyond-his-prime Roy goes a long way, though; his tired face and terse delivery suggest that he has aged beyond his years. He has toiled, perhaps even suffered. When he walks into the sun of the field, out of the swooping shadows of the dugout below the stands, we are witnessing a strained, long-overdue return. 

It is clear to us already that Pop is foolish not to bet on Roy to save his floundering team; we’ve seen Roy play before, in a flashback to his younger days, and know him to be a virtuoso at the sport. Eventually, when Pop does finally let Roy get up to bat, Roy hits a grand slam with so much power that he tears the cover off the baseball and so sends the entire ballpark up in cheers. It’s clear that Roy is the vessel for the Knights’ possible salvation. But even with his godlike skill, Roy is at a great disadvantage, not because of his age, but because there are forces conspiring against the Knights. Pop’s Mephistophelean partner, simply known as “the Judge” (Robert Prosky) has staked a claim against the Knights; if the team loses the Pennant at the end of the season, then Pop has to forfeit his shares of the team to the Judge. The Judge has agents all around who help ensure that this will happen, from ballplayers like Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) who purposefully whiff, to a one-eyed bookie named Gus Sands (Darren McGavin), who profits handsomely every time the Knights lose a game. And then there’s Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), a jinxed femme fatale who does their bidding, and who begins to date Roy after his star begins to rise, mostly so the Judge and Gus can get him in their corner. 

Through all their machinations, Roy remains honorable, never swayed by money or promises of the so-called good life. But this isn’t to say that Roy is immune to temptation, or even that he has never given in. Roy’s origin story, told in a long flashback at the beginning of the film, chronicles his quick ascent and then his immediate fall—from the sport, from society, from grace. He spends 16 obscure years struggling to get back to the same fleeting apex of possibility before his fate had taken a turn. When he walks into Knights field, a virtual old-timer, he is desperate not to blow his chances to succeed again. 

It’s intriguing, then, that the point of The Natural is not to give Roy his longed-for second chance, but to destabilize the very concept of “second chances”—primarily through defetishizing the concept of the “first chance” or, really, the concept of the “missed first chance” that necessitates a sequel attempt. Throughout his life, Roy’s greatest ambition is to be known as “the best” in the sport; he believes that he deserves a certain kind of life—one full not of riches, but of esteem. He wants this because he knows that, practically speaking, he can achieve this; he has the gift. “When I walk down the street, people will look at me and say, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was,’” he says several times. 

The Natural will go on to locate virtue in letting go of such entitlements. What Roy comes to learn is that thinking his life has been shaped by a “missed opportunity” occludes the possibility that it has meaning precisely for its unexpected shape. There aren’t missed chances or failures; there are only moments of further learning and improvement—regardless of talent and regardless of luck, there are always chances to grow. Treating missteps as failures can keep you down for good; treating them as mistakes prevents you from making them again. Roy hasn’t learned this yet. But he will.


The film’s opening provides Roy with his own elaborate lore, revealing his preternatural, even magical, talent for baseball. A Midwestern farm kid, he is taught to both play and love the game by his father, who dies when Roy is still young. Shortly thereafter, during a thunderstorm, the giant tree in Roy’s front lawn is split in half by lightning. The teenage Roy forges a bat from the smoldering stump, naming it “Wonderboy.” And a few years later, as a high-school baseball star scouted by the Cubs, Roy heads to Chicago to make good on his prodigious skills, promising to send for his childhood sweetheart Iris (Glenn Close) when he gets there. But Roy never makes it to Wrigley Field, and this too seems to be the work of some kind of magic, but a darker kind. Shortly after demonstrating his incredible pitching abilities to a crowd at a town fair (he strikes out “the Whammer,” an obnoxious, Babe-Ruth-esque celebrity ballplayer), Roy is felled by a gunshot fired by a mysterious, black-clad young woman named Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who romances him along the journey. 

Initially, Roy’s near-murder seems too sudden, random, and coincidental to be thematically weighty—a plot twist so far out of left field, and so early in the film, serving only to facilitate the story of his eventual return to baseball as an older man. But like everything else in The Natural, it proves to be wildly mythical and highly providential. While he is on the train, we discover that Roy’s motivations for pursuing baseball have become slightly distorted from what they once were. The flirtatious Harriet, who has flattered his athletic abilities with comparisons to Sir Lancelot and Homeric heroes, asks him if greatness is all he wants. “Well,” he responds. “What else is there?” 

Harriet is trying him, testing him. She’ll ask if he has a girl, and he won’t say anything back, kissing her in the train car. When their lips touch, the lights flicker—ushering in the figurative and literal shadows that will follow Roy for the next 16 years of his life, as he is forced to find out the answer to his own question. But these shadows also signal that Harriet is otherworldly herself. We’ll later learn that she is a serial killer, murdering athletes who have become “the best;” having boarded the train with an interest in the egotistical Whammer, she turns her attention to Roy after he publicly defeats him. Roy’s prideful remarks confirm what she feels she must do. Harriet Bird is an unearthly punisher, a seemingly divine agent of retribution. After she shoots Roy, the camera cuts to a shot of the airy hotel room curtains blowing; we’ll later learn that she has jumped to her death. But, here, it’s more as if the angel of death that is the real Harriet Bird has flown away, discarding her human form in the process—having completed her mission. 

Roy’s ambitions, and capabilities, are cut down in this moment, following a display of hubris, weakness, and selfishness. His cardinal sin is that he abandons his vows to his girlfriend Iris and ostensibly cheats on her, all the while giving in to flattery, becoming greedy for renown, losing his humility. And he also ignores the advice of his late father, who had once warned him about becoming swept up in his skills: “You got a gift, Roy. But it’s not enough. You gotta develop yourself. Rely too much on your own gift and you’ll fail.” He doesn’t, and he does fail. It’s all very Greek.

Indeed, The Natural, which was written for the screen by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, fashions itself out of countless mythical yarns and spiritual traditions: several Arthurian legends, The Odyssey, the Bible, the Persian dualistic cosmology of Manichaeism. Roy, whose name nods to the Latin word for “King,” might be Odysseus vying to make it back home after an almost two-decade-long journey full of challenges, or he and his bat might be King Arthur and Excalibur—born from humble beginnings but destined to be a great man. The Natural might be a retelling of the romance of Sir Percival, who impresses the Knights of the Round Table with his nearly supernatural fighting abilities. One of the earliest accounts of the quest for the Holy Grail, in one part of the story, Sir Percival must heal the Fisher King, a frail old man in charge of guarding the Grail. Does The Natural fashion him into Pop Fisher, manager of the New York Knights? Probably, yes. In The Natural, everyone is a rock-solid archetype.

When the film was released in 1984, critics were divided by the heavy heaps of symbolism in a sports movie. Several critics were particularly dissatisfied with the film’s narrative and tonal departures from its source text, Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel of the same name, which had been loosely inspired by the real-life shooting of Philadelphia Phillies player Eddie “the Natural” Waitkus by an obsessed female fan several years earlier. Malamud’s novel is a bleaker, grittier story, but, as observed by Richard Agnell in The New Yorker, it too incorporates various legends, especially themes from the stories of King Arthur’s knights. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert lamented, “Why did a perfectly good story, filled with interesting people, have to be made into one man’s ascension to the godlike, especially when no effort is made to give that ascension meaning?” Many, including Ebert’s own colleague Gene Siskel, did not begrudge the film’s more rousing changes, because what they had produced was, cohesively, “a fairy tale.” 


The Natural, with its age-old stock characters, borrows from folklore just as much as it becomes a fable on its own. But more than that, it’s a riddle: Roy is trapped inside a maze of his own design, with no sense of how to exit. Since the first shadows had engulfed him, when kissing Harriet Bird on the train to Chicago, they have followed him through his life—except when he plays baseball well. Then he is often illuminated with golden sunlight—though never more than his initial pitching venture, striking out the Whammer in the summer gloaming just hours before all the trouble started. In this flashback, as the ball whips from his wrist, his whole body is outlined in twinkling light. The Academy Award-nominated cinematography from Caleb Deschanel is the cause of these moments of glistening triumph, as well as foreboding darkness—none more ominous than the dusky brown darkness of the Judge’s chambers. The Judge greatly dislikes sunlight, and when Roy is summoned to his office, he appears only in shadow even as he ambles around his office, his frame captured only by the beams of sunlight creaking through his flattened Venetian blinds. 

The Natural’s visual emphasis on chiaroscuro harks to the third-century Persian dualistic cosmology of Manichaeism, which focuses on a constant struggle between a world of darkness and evil, and a world of light and goodness. That conflict is clearly, centrally alight in the film. Forces of darkness want to claim Roy, but they cannot. Roy knows how to deny these creatures of the night, but he doesn’t know how to properly vanquish them. After he begins to date Memo, his skills become paused. He strikes out all the time, much to the joy of the Judge and Gus. He only gets his abilities back once Iris, the love from his youth, attends a game in Chicago. He doesn’t know she’s there—but he can feel something, scanning the crowds from down on the field. Gently, dressed in all white, she watches him flub swing after swing, until finally, she stands up in support. 

The sunlight illuminates her frame and shines through her gauzy hat. Something about this moment of pure encouragement—Iris’ forgiveness and selflessness, maybe—cleanses Roy, and he slams a baseball straight through the clock at the back of the field, stopping time to an extent. It was on his way to that very ballfield when he changed his life—foolishly, arrogantly betraying Iris—but once she stands up for him, his slate is clean. He can play ball again. 

However, once Roy returns to New York and sees Memo again, his luck twists back. Roy can’t see that his ultimate quest is not to win the pennant, but to extricate himself from these villains, once and for all. The film has a gorgeous symmetry to it—not only by its balanced contrasts between light and dark, good and evil, but also of the past and the present. Memo’s name is perhaps the most significant of all the metaphorical names in the film, because hers isn’t allegorical. It’s referential. “Memo” suggests memory: What does she do to Roy but draw him back deeper into the dark world that has long held him prisoner? What does she do but cause unlucky, damaging events to repeat themselves? She can’t quite shake the feeling that they’ve met before, and Roy disagrees, until he sees her with a gun pointed at him, late in the film, after he refuses the Judge’s last bribe to skip out on the last playoff. “You’re right, we have met before,” he tells her, taking the gun from her hand. 

Amid all the gargoyles and baseball players, Roy is the only character in the film who actually experiences any development. Everyone else is calcified on their respective sides. But the two characters in the film who might seem flattest for their perpetual virtue, Roy and Iris, are also the most complex in their ultimate decisions to accept their circumstances with grace and love. No one is more gracious than Iris; before he left for Chicago, 16 years before, Roy had gotten Iris pregnant. He never wrote to her, never contacted her, and so he never found out. When Roy discovers that he is a father (during his final game), it gives him remarkable strength—strength enough to perform an exceptional feat during his last time up at bat. Throughout the film, Roy is sincerely committed to being a role model to the throngs of children who adore him. It’s this sincere desire to protect them that almost causes him to make a deal with the Judge: After the Judge learns about the near-murder-suicide of Roy’s past, the Judge threatens to publish photographs of Harriet Bird’s horrific crime scene, sourced by the nosy, conniving sports reporter Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). “If kids could see this,” the Judge threatens. But still, Roy does not give in.

He wants to win the pennant for Pop and free the Knights from the Judge’s stranglehold, and he believes that this is more important, and will do more for his personal reputation, than the sullying power of the photographs. Crucially, Roy is also holding on to his desire to give himself the career he has always longed for, the career he still feels he always deserved (and deserves now more than ever after all his hard work). He won’t throw it away. The Judge leaves a packet of money with Roy for his consideration, but Roy doesn’t want it. “You dropped this on your way out,” Roy tells him, in his office, a few scenes later. “I thought I could rely on your honor,” the judge snarls at him, after Roy throws the bundle on his desk. “You’re about to,” Roy tells him. 

At this point in the film, though, Roy is still convinced that he’s going to be able to have everything he wants, even though the odds are not in his favor. When the Judge visits him to bribe him, Roy is actually in the hospital; in an attempt to force him to throw the game, Memo has poisoned Roy—slipping him a mickey during a party, causing him to collapse. In the hospital, he learns from a doctor that the silver bullets with which Harriet Bird had shot him have remained in his system, near-fatally poisoning him for 16 years. “Some mistakes we never stop paying for,” Roy explains to Iris, when she visits him in the hospital.

He laments to her that the doctors are telling him to quit, that his poisoned body won’t be able to sustain playing baseball much longer. Frantic after learning this news, he despondently repeats to Iris, “I coulda been better. I coulda broke every record in the book.” She is nonplussed. “And then?” she asks him. “And then?” asks Roy. “And then when I walked down the street people would’ve looked and they would’ve said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.” 

The dialogue is almost a mirror of the initial conversation Roy has had with Harriet Bird, only Iris does not seek to punish Roy for his ambition. Instead, she redirects it. “I believe we have two lives” she tells him. “The one we learn with, and the one we live with after that.” Iris provides the first suggestion that Roy’s detour to baseball was not, in fact, a detour, but the point. But even if it is not fate that caused Roy to end up with the life he has, it’s still the life he has. “Think of all those young boys you’ve influenced,” she tells him. “With or without the records, they’ll remember you.” She insinuates that the greatest reward he can achieve is not the record-breaking stats he has not yet attained, but a place as a role model for the young generation, which he already has. In this conversation, she reminds Roy that he can’t change his life. He can just change the way he lives it, the way he looks at it.

The film’s pantheon of villains—Gus the bookie, the Judge, Max Mercy, Memo and even Harriet Bird—have no such flexibility. They all operate within the same binary understanding of the world: that people and careers and fortunes are to be made or broken. All these characters pit people against one another for their own satisfaction and profit. The bookie Gus Sands, who bets against Roy every chance he gets, is notably one-eyed. He is something of a cyclops—another monster from The Odyssey whom Odysseus must defeat. Roy does not allow Gus to get the better of him—but in a way, all of the film’s villains are versions of one another, hideous underworld figures who manipulate others for their own benefit. Simply resisting a few of them, while giving in to the others, is not enough to destroy their collective power.


The only thing that can fully vanquish them is Roy playing one final game: just one last game to fulfill his obligation to Pop and win the Pennant before retiring. Roy needs to accept that he won’t be able to get all the glory he has long been chasing. He needs to understand that his time has passed. Neatly, he learns this lesson not from any of the devils surrounding him, watching the game from the Judge’s dark office above the stadium, but from the next generation. 

Roy can’t get a hit in this final, pivotal game. It’s a stormy evening, with thunder cracking in the distance. Up at bat, Roy is straining past his limits but is still striking out. The wound in his side—from where the doctor extracted the silver bullets—has begun to tear, and blood soaks through his uniform. This image is ersatz in its Christlike allegory: he’s sacrificing himself, but for misplaced reasons. But his fortune changes when Iris, who is watching the game in the stands with her son, passes a message to Roy that her son is his, too. Learning this—that he has a child—changes something in him. He walks up to the plate, mulling over this new information. It seems that he has had a little bit of inspiration; now that he has a son to care for, killing himself over baseball does not seem worth it. Roy lost his own father as a teenager; he has a chance to do for his boy what his father could not have possibly done for him. 

If Roy is wondering about this, while up at bat, then his faithful baseball bat Wonderboy actually gives him the answer. In this penultimate, pivotal scene, Roy’s beloved bat, with its lightning bolt insignia, splits when he hits a foul ball. Lightning strikes in the sky at the same time, as if the bat’s power is being summoned back home—or, since the bat had been forged from the stump of the tree Roy’s father had died under, perhaps this is a message from Roy’s father himself, reminding him that having a family is greater fortune than mere success at the sport. 

Looking at Wonderboy’s splintered remains, Roy turns to the young batboy, Bobby Savoy, whom he had previously helped make a wooden bat of his own, and tells him to pick him out “a winner.” Roy is two strikes down, with only one chance left. Bobby picks out his own bat, the “Savoy Special,” and hands it to Roy, who swings at the incoming ball with all his might. He hits it. With the child’s bat, he belts the baseball so far and so high that it smashes a stadium bulb, spraying the dark field with beads of golden light, through which he runs in slow motion towards home plate. Roy makes this spectacular feat of magic—this memorable moment in his career, possibly even the “greatest” moment in baseball history—precisely because he has decided to give up on his wish to become the greatest player in the game. This decision, made effortlessly and selflessly, finally undoes his punishment, finally sets him free, and finally vanquishes the evil forces that have conspired against him for so long. Set to a crescendoing musical score from James Horner, Roy’s slow-motion lap underscores the triumph of this scene; he can’t turn back time, as he has long been trying to do, but he can linger in this special moment, for a little bit.

The baseball’s smashing into the light sends currents along to the other lamps, exploding them, too. As Roy runs around the bases, to make his final, and greatest home run, veritable fireworks rain down in front of the Judge, Memo, and Gus, who are peeking at the field through the blinds in the darkness of the Judge’s office. The sparks reflect against the Judge’s window-panes, and when he sees the light, he winces as if he’s in physical pain. Because Roy has sacrificed his dreams for the love of his son, rather than sacrificed his life in pursuit of greatness, goodness, and humility have finally, overwhelmingly, triumphed over evil and greed—this time, for good. Golden droplets of light cut through the dark night, bouncing onto the field themselves, as if cleansing it, blessing it, forever wiping away the influence of the Judge on the ballpark.


Neatly completing the film’s circular ending, the final shot of the film is almost the same as one from the beginning: of a father and son playing catch in a Midwestern wheatfield. Only, this time, Roy is the father, not the son. In his final moment at Knights Stadium, Roy is able to make the greatest magic when he agrees to pass the torch—when he understands that his time is up, and he gives himself over to mentor the next generation, instead of prolonging his own glory. Because of this, he is able to have one final moment of extraordinary magic, one last powerful, electric miracle—his longtime reward for the lifetime spent cursed into finding his way.