Title: Field of Dreams
Release Date: May 5, 1989
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Production Company: Gordon Company
One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was W.P. Kinsella. I was excited when I learned that his novel Shoeless Joe was getting adapted into a movie. But when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed. There were a lot of changes from the book to movie, and on screen the story just seemed to ooze with cheesiness. Over the years, Field of Dreams has become regarded as a classic baseball movie to the extent that Major League Baseball has started hosting an annual regular season baseball game in an Iowa corn field. I figured Father’s Day was a good opportunity to revisit Field of Dreams and watch it with my kids for the first time.
The basic story is that aging hippie and baseball fan Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) having married Iowa native Annie (Amy Madigan), has acquired a farm that they live on with their young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). Hearing voices in the corn field, Ray comes to a realization that he must build a baseball field on his farm. As a result, the deceased but not ghostly former baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, and is soon followed by other former baseball stars. Other messages prompt Ray to go to Boston to take the reclusive counterculture author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game, and then to a small town in Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player who played only one half-inning in the 1920s. As all this happens, the Kinsella’s farm is failing and faces foreclosure at the hands of Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield).
The movie still oozes cheese. There are changes from the book (including removing two significant characters) that effectively change the story. There’s also a move away from the book’s magical realism to more of a Reagan-era nostalgia for baseball as something emblematic of America. My wife noted that James Earl Jones’ famous speech about baseball has elements that feel eerily close to MAGA ideology. While baseball is upheld as being something that was from a time when America was “good,” all of the former ballplayers who emerge from the corn come from a time when baseball was segregated. That being said there’s a scene in the movie I’d totally forgotten where Annie takes on a group of conservatives who are trying ban books at the public schools which felt unfortunately relevant to our times. Even then though, the feel of the movie is still steeped in a toothless nostalgia, this time for for 1960s.
With all that being said, the biggest change from the book to the movie is also the best, and I think improves upon the book. In Shoeless Joe, Ray takes the real life author J.D. Salinger to Fenway Park. The filmmakers knew that they couldn’t depict the notoriously reclusive Salinger on screen and instead created the fictional 60s icon Terrence Mann, who is more than just a substitute for Salinger but a character with a well-developed history of his own. It’s surprising that in 1989, Hollywood cast a Black actor in the role originally written as white character, doubly so since in 2022 there are people who still lose their minds when a Black actor is cast as a character originally written as white. Jones is great for the part and his performance brings a lot of energy and authority to the movie right at a time when it needs a jolt.
I probably sound like I’m hating on the movie, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but I’m just a harsh judge since I love the book so much. It is a bit slow-going, but then again so is baseball. I love baseball, and I’m not immune to the magic of ballplayers emerging from a corn field or an impassioned speech about baseball’s role as America’s pastime. For all it’s flaws, Field of Dreams is one of the best baseball movies ever made.