Field of Dreams is based on a baseball novel called Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. (The marketing honcho who came up with the limp new title should be smacked.) The book begins with an Iowa farmer who hears a voice whispering the words, “If you build it, he will come.”
Somehow the farmer takes this to mean that if he builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, the ghost of the great player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will appear there. And so the diamond is built, Jackson appears, and the farmer goes on a magical odyssey that includes kidnapping writer J.D. Salinger and taking him to a Red Sox game.
As you can guess, such a book requires a delicate balancing act. It is the sort of balancing act that might be easier achieved in a novel than in a movie, since the phantoms of Kinsella’s fantasy become much more real when seen on the screen. That’s one of the problems of the film version, written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson.
Robinson’s other problem is that he has a tendency to state, rather than show, his themes. And he’s made the characters into survivors from the 1960s, thirtysomething folks who still (loudly) carry the dreams that shaped them, a point he hammers home incessantly.
Yet, for its occasional clumsiness, “Field of Dreams” exerts a lyrical pull. The corn runs as high as an elephant’s eye, but a lot of it is irresistible. Farmer Ray (Kevin Costner) quickly builds his baseball field, to the remarkable approval of his wife (Amy Madigan) and young daughter. He’s afraid of becoming like his father, who never did a spontaneous thing in his life; so Ray listens to his voices. After playing catch with “Shoeless” Joe (and other ghostly members of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” team) for a while, Ray goes off on his quest to find the famous writer.
The movie changes J.D. Salinger into a fictional writer (played with gusto by James Earl Jones), who is going to lead Ray to a small town in Minnesota and the eventual revelation of what this has all been about.
The fantasy elements are difficult to capture. But the cumulative effect of all the whimsy is quite persuasive, and it helps that Robinson catches both the romance of baseball mythology and the mid-American beauty of the farmland. “Is this heaven?” asks the confused ballplayer. “No,” says Ray, “It’s Iowa.”
There is flavorful supporting work from Ray Liotta, as “Shoeless” Joe (Liotta, shortlegged and dark, even looks like a baseball player from the 1920s), Timothy Busfield (from TV’s thirtysomething) as Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law, and Burt Lancaster, who does one of those bigger-than-life cameos that reminds you that there really were movie stars once.
Kevin Costner was last seen as a more down-to-earth baseball player in Bull Durham, and he underplays all the dewy myth-making going on here. Costner brings an unadorned reality to his simple character, a man who found a diamond in a cornfield.
First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989
It would seem from this review that I didn’t anticipate the movie becoming instantly beloved. But at least I picked up on a couple of lines that would turn into catchphrases, including the “No, it’s Iowa” bit. Phil Alden Robinson has had a wandering career since the success of this film, which is curious for someone who obviously found the popular pulse for a moment there. I would have to watch this movie again to see whether it’s any good, but I’m not feeling the pull. Meanwhile, the real-life cornfield used for filming has become a place of pilgrimage and, occasionally, baseball games.