I have to admit, because of the ongoing AFI Top Ten arc that I began way back in January, I positioned and timed this review to coincide with this particular month. You see, it’d match up with the Sports post in that series. Plus, it would occur the same month as the annual All-Star game and be smack dab in the middle of baseball season (my review partner remains a staunch fan of the game). What can I say? I try to be felicitous when I can. So, you know what I’m going to write next, yes? The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, like an old double-play combo, will execute another of our reviews in parallel. For July, the wordy one will examine one more book… no, that doesn’t quite describe it. Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella has been termed a novel of magical realism. It was published in 1982, and is probably the poster child for that very genre of fiction. I’ll look at its film adaptation, the re-titled Field of Dreams, which was released seven years later in April of ’89. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: an Iowa farmer, one Ray Kinsella, begins to hear a voice call to him. Mystifying, the voice in his corn field tells him, “If you build it, he will come.” Somehow, Ray interprets this message as an instruction to plow under a portion of his crop to build a baseball field on his farm. Even more fantastic for this son of a minor league player, the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven Chicago ‘Black Sox’ players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series appear on it. If that wasn’t enough, even as the venture threatens his family’s financial livelihood and homestead, the voice and strange appeals continue. Ray will be compelled to seek out a reclusive author to help him understand the meaning of it all and the ultimate purpose for his field.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
For someone who has done only a few films, director/writer Phil Alden Robinson can still boast he managed to deliver a movie others, even among those with larger filmographies, rarely succeed in pulling off. That is, he put together a spellbinding and simply magical motion picture up on to the big screen. Field of Dreams easily resonated among a wide movie audience as the 80s were coming to a close. And it is still weaving its spell to this day, and continues to catch new viewers. Much like Kinsella’s novel, and the sport of baseball, it symbolized our passions and imperfections through extraordinary means.
“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.”
I think, because I finally read the W.P. Kinsella novel, I now more fully appreciate what the director/writer from Long Beach, N.Y. accomplished in bringing Shoeless Joe from that storied Iowa farm to motion pictures. Yes, both share fantastical circumstances entwined with real history. But, while the lyrical novel remains rich in the descriptions of its characters (both actual and mythical), it’s the author’s use of metaphor throughout the book (no wonder many lit courses throw this at unsuspecting high schoolers) that made adapting it to film an enormous challenge. It is one that Robinson certainly fulfilled.
How did he do it? I’m think that the director, since he had the benefit of also being the screenwriter, employed the time-honored tip all good writers use. They know only too well that to really get a story across to either the reader (in books) or the viewer (film) is, “Show, don’t tell.” The combination that spoke volumes for the film was its use of some of the notable dialogue from the novel and how it was juxtaposed against some absolutely splendid imagery, with credit going to DP John Lindley‘s capable lenses. It resulted in the something we as viewers want when we go to the movies, especially with our favorite books. An adaptation that successfully distilled the source material’s essence. Believe me when I say this. It would have been so damn easy to have screwed this one up, and the filmmakers (thank the gods of Baseball) didn’t.
As well, the film was served by jettisoning some aspects from the novel that would simply have been extraneous or head-scratching to movie audiences. Ray’s twin brother for one (don’t ask if you haven’t read this). Plus, the emphasis on the idealism and dreams of the 60s, especially when placed along side the world full of pragmatic realists from the late-80s, struck a chord with many who experienced both decades (and that in-between). Additionally, Robinson skillfully condensed the book’s storyline — at 107 minutes, it feels just right. However, I believe his most crucial screenwriting decision, an alteration made to the material, is what sets it apart. When Robinson reposition and emphasized a significant aspect from the novel as the key moment of the entire film, and held it till the finale (contrary to W.P. Kinsella’s original story), well, that made the movie the classic it’s become.
Let’s set aside why I think the book-to-film adaptation works. The other distinct facet that made Field of Dreams as good as it was is its remarkable cast. Big stars, familiar character actors, and everyone else gave some outstanding performances. Kevin Costner has caught a tremendous amount of flak from some in the last decade. But no one, I mean, absolutely no one, was more popular in film during the stretch surrounding this film’s release. Right from Bull Durham and into this production only cemented his stature of the time, and The Untouchables was but two years old at this point. He may not be the best actor around, but Costner made the most of it as Ray Kinsella. Moreover, I’ll admit here Amy Madigan never garnered a second look from me in film till she made the book’s Annie (Ray’s stellar wife) literally leap from of the page and into this movie. As in the novel, her character grounded and galvanized her husband. Yet, I think it’s the rest of the supporting cast that is the other secret in the film’s triumph.
I mean, sticking the larger-than-life and formidable actor (I mean really, who the hell else could voice Darth Vader?) James Earl Jones as the reclusive, J.D. Salinger-like, writer Terrence Mann was inspired. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling that side character off today (or uttering the film’s most accomplished monologue (see below), the film’s expressed analogy that is baseball in American life. So, too, was the clever use of Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson. Even back then, still early in his career, Liotta could be an intense presence (recall his startling début in Something Wild a few years before). So, this went against type and still worked. With all of that, and having the least screen time, I daresay the legendary actor Burt Lancaster may have left the largest impression in a film filled with them. His casting as the grand old man that was Doc “Moonlight” Graham fit like no other. Retaining the same grace of an old athlete near his end, Lancaster would have one of his last and truly memorable roles in this film. His ghostly walk into the corn field could well have topped off what was a more than worthy career.
As I mentioned in mid-July, if the late Nora Ephron’s treatise from Sleepless in Seattle, that An Affair to Remember is a film “men don’t get“, then it’s up to Phil Alden Robinson’s film adaptation of the Shoeless Joe novel, easily his best work, which is the other side of that coin. At least, for those of us with XY chromosomes, that is. Similarly, it is a work that pivots off of loss, this one through the medium of sport, and grabs hold of us like few movies before or since. Perhaps, it is easier for later generations to express themselves emotionally today than that of my, and certainly of those in my father’s, age group. Yes, Field of Dreams manifested itself on-screen as a ‘feel good’ movie of its time. Yet, it captured for many of the men in the audience watching (then and now) a certain lightning-in-a-bottle quality. Too often, fathers and sons lose each other for a number of reasons or circumstances, as they grow older. For many, we don’t get to reclaim the love, and the prospect to reconnect, till the other is lost from them — seemingly, forever. Those of us who meet that criteria, through this film, got to experience (fleetingly perhaps) the opportunity we’d all gladly hand a little of our money over for. The chance to once again toss the baseball with the man who first put it in our hands.
“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.”
Parallel Post Series
- The Black Dahlia
- The Whistleblower
- Drive (book/audiobook review)
- The Big Sleep
- The Maltese Falcon
- Rosemary’s Baby
- The Hunt for Red October
- The Day of The Jackal
- Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return)
- Starship Troopers
- Jurassic Park
- Free Fall
- Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home)
- Devil in a Blue Dress
- Angel Heart (aka Falling Angel)
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Princess Bride
- A Scanner Darkly
- Children of Men
- Minority Report