A different kind of mirror character: Robert Redford’s The Natural

The NaturalI love The Natural. It’s a fantastic movie, a baseball classic. For me, it’s on that list of movies that, if I find it playing on television, I’ll drop everything and watch yet again. And recently, thanks to The Sundance Channel, I have re-watched the movie a few times, enough to notice some writing-related things that interest me.

Much of The Natural was filmed in various locales in Buffalo, NY, where I grew up, during the ’80s when I still lived there. In fact, some of my friends were at the stadiums as extras, part of the cheering crowds, when some of the game footage was filmed at War Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. “The Rockpile” – standing in for New York Knights Field) and All High Stadium (standing in for Wrigley Field).

You can see a full list of the locales and buildings around Buffalo that appear in the movie at this Forgotten Buffalo site. Check it out, it may give you an appreciation of the underrated architecture in my hometown.

In particular, watch for the gorgeous Buffalo Central Terminal, as it was in the early ’80s at least, in one of the more sepia-toned scenes from the film:

 

Another thing I love is mirror characters in fiction. These characters, sometimes known as foils, usually possess opposite values to your protagonist. Because of this opposite nature, they often manifest as antagonists (Harry Potter and Voldemort, for example). The manifestation that interests me more, however, is the sidekick (think Kirk and Spock).

The great thing about these mirror characters is they really help the reader understand the main character better. Through their contrasting nature, the characters CHARACTERIZE EACH OTHER. Think of color theory in painting or interior design. Two contrasting colors – say orange and blue – are often placed side-by-side, making them both appear brighter.

I introduced a mirror character of the sidekick (former best friend) variety in my most recent MS. She was meant to only exist in the beginning of the story, to demonstrate some of my main character’s qualities, to magnify them. I was therefore fascinated when she elbowed her way into the rest of the narrative, standing up straight and shouting emphatically, “Nope, I’m sticking around. I like this story.”

In my head, it went something like this:

 

My favorite moment in The Natural is one you might not expect. It doesn’t involve a mirror character in quite the classic definition, but employs another kind of mirror that is every bit as inspiring.

The moment is near the end, yes, in that final at-bat where Roy Hobbs gets the chance to win the game. But it’s not the home run itself. (Although, of course I do love that moment when the sparks fly off the lights and the crowd goes wild.)

Some may remember that Roy starts the at-bat against the starting pitcher for the Pirates, who, after nearly pitching a complete game shutout has clearly begun to lose his edge. When he falls behind in the count to Roy, we see the fearful reaction of the Pirates’ manager – telling us that he realizes, if he wants to win this pennant, he needs to call a relief pitcher in.

Roy HobbsWhile Roy waits, the manager reaches into his bullpen and calls on a young Iowa farm boy with a blazing fastball. As he steps to the mound, a low camera angle is used to magnify the big kid’s presence. He looms over us as the viewer, the muffled announcer in the background describing how un-hittable he is. Stopping just short of calling him a natural.

And that’s the moment. If you’re not caught up in the drama of that last at-bat, the anticipation that Roy will save the day, you see the mirror being held right in front of Roy – or, 60 feet and 6 inches away on the mound, that is.

Because this kid from Iowa, this fireballing pitcher, it’s Roy. That’s who he was early in the film, before he made a terrible mistake and his life fell apart. A life he’s trying to get back, to re-discover, in this single at-bat. Roy was a great pitcher first, before he got shot and could no longer do it, had to become a great hitter instead. It was Roy who, as a kid, faced the great Babe Ruth and struck him out on three pitches.

Now, Roy must succeed against the younger version of himself.

And if you recognize that, you also see that, while the movie has its share of literal antagonists – from the greedy owner to the superficial newspaperman to the owner’s lackeys – the figurative person Roy’s been battling against the whole film, his entire life, really, is HIMSELF.

Those types of moments, for me, are story magic. In books, movies, whatever – they’re the sort of thing that make want to keep writing.

 

 

 

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