FIELD OF DREAMS
Phil Alden Robinson built it. They came
LIKE MANY OF the best sports films, Field Of Dreams isn’t really about sport at all. Oh sure, it’s in love with sport — in this case baseball. The sights, the sounds, the smells. The way it can make people feel, the way it brings them together. But ultimately, it’s about something greater.
Based on the 1982 novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, Field Of Dreams is the story of Iowa-based farmer Ray Kinsella (Costner), who hears a voice while tending to his crops saying, “If you build it, he will come.” Convinced the maddeningly non-specific instruction is telling him to plough under acres of farmland to build a baseball diamond, he sets to work, putting his family’s livelihood in jeopardy in the process. The “he” who will come being Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) — one of the eight members of the Chicago White Sox who were banned from the game for life for throwing the 1919 World Series. Sure enough, Jackson shows up, eventually bringing with him the other disgraced players (although only certain people can see them). And then, with the magic proven but the bills mounting up and Ray’s creditors circling, he doubles down on The Voice’s commands — heading to Boston to track down a reclusive author (“Ease his pain”), then to Minnesota to track down a retired (and, as it turns out, dead) ball player (“Go the distance”).
As good as Costner is in the film (and he was at the peak of his leadingman powers), the real star of Field Of Dreams is screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson, who turned out to be astonishingly adept at streamlining a rather scattershot novel (gone, for example, is Ray’s twin brother who ran off to join the circus). While he kept the spine of the film’s story the same, there are key differences — not least that the author in the book is not the fictional Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), but the very real J.D. Salinger. One of the initial concepts Kinsella (the author, not the character) had was that one of Salinger’s characters would turn up at his doorstep — a Ray Kinsella appeared in the short story A Young Girl In 1941 With No Waist At All. While annoyed with the novel, there wasn’t a lot Salinger could legally do about his “character”. But when it came to making the movie, Universal insisted the character be changed rather than deal with the potential hassle of a nuisance lawsuit. It actually improves the film — there’s unavoidable baggage with a real person, even if it’s a fictionalised version. Terence Mann can be who the filmmakers need him to be to service the story. Even if it’s something as simple as relocating him to Boston, rather than making Ray schlepp all the way to New Hampshire
to pick him up before taking him to Fenway Park.
But there’s more to it than just the Salinger switch. The key moment in the film where Annie (Ray’s wife, played by Amy Madigan) speaks at the debate over whether Terence Mann’s books should be banned by the local high school (she’s against) isn’t in the book — Robinson added it not only to set up his now fictional author, but also to give depth and personality to Annie, and show that this woman would support her husband in his outwardly crazy endeavours. And while Kinsella liked the film, he complained that Annie’s brother, Mark (Timothy Busfield), wasn’t villainous enough. He’s missing the point. The movie version of Mark isn’t a bad person, he’s just someone who isn’t privy to the magic. Yet. His company buying the mortgage on the farm isn’t done out of callousness or greed, he’s driven by trying to protect his sister. He’s grounded in reality, which is what a film as fantastical as this needs — not a cartoon villain.
Robinson also showed remarkable proficiency in his understated visual storytelling — which is nowhere more obvious than in the sequence in which Ray hears The Voice (rumoured at different times to be either Liotta or Ed Harris, but credited as “Himself”) for the first time in the cornfield, Costner surrounded by six-foot-high plants. At one moment, Costner walks out of the frame, but Robinson doesn’t cut. He holds the camera still, leaving us with a screen full of green. Then The Voice comes again, and Costner rushes back into the frame, fruitlessly searching for the source. It’s simple, but extraordinarily effective.
If losing the battle over the renaming of Salinger to Mann suggests studio interference, it’s important to note that Robinson actually picked his battles wisely, knowing when to concede and when to fight. And the most important of these was regarding the ending — a moment of catharsis rarely matched in cinema (for both main character and audience) when it turns out the “he” who will come, whose pain Ray had to ease, was actually his once-estranged, since deceased father. The man who imbued Ray with his love of baseball, who raised him to stories of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Shoeless Joe Jackson, but who Ray fell out with and eventually even refused to throw a ball around with in the back yard — “Can you believe that?” Ray says. “An American boy refusing to have a catch with his father?”
The novel makes his father’s return Ray’s goal throughout — he can sense his father’s arrival and obeys The Voice as a means to making it happen. Robinson stripped it out in favour of making it a surprise to heighten the emotional payoff. Universal execs, so enamoured by that take on the ending, decided it shouldn’t be the ending at all, and wanted Ray’s father to return early enough to allow him to join him on the road trip. Robinson resisted, pointing out — not unreasonably — that it would have far less resonance. Luckily, the execs relented.
It was a wise decision, because that’s what Field Of Dreams is ultimately about, and why it still chimes three decades on. It’s about holding close the people who matter, not allowing rifts to linger, and making the most of your important relationships. Not just father-son relationships, but any that truly mean something to you. It’s about redemption, it’s about forgiveness, and it’s about love.
Oh, and perhaps it’s a bit about baseball.
Above: Farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is compelled to dig out a baseball diamond in amongst his corn crops.
Above: Annie (Amy Madigan) and husband Ray keep their eye on the baseball along with radical author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones). Left: A ghostly apparition in the form of disgraced Chicago White Sox player Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).