FIELD OF DREAMS

Phil Alden Robin­son built it. They came

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - JONATHAN PILE

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).

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