By Paul Ferrante
Can a film that’s not really about baseball be called the greatest baseball movie of all time?
That’s the question we have to ask ourselves regarding Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson’s interpretation of the W.P. Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe, which blended history and fantasy - with a heaping helping of emotion - to create a story so moving that it’s unusual not to see men cry as they watch it. Including me. Let’s get this off the table right away: I cried the first time I saw the ending, and I at least tear up every time I see it again - even if the sound is turned off on the TV! What is it about this film (whose tagline “If you build it, they will come” has become a part of our American lexicon) that has left an indelible mark on the psyche of baseball fans?
Well, as was the case in 1984 with the release of The Natural, which I have previously discussed in the pages of Sports Collectors Digest, Field of Dreams taps different emotions that most of us can relate to. Like The Natural, there is the theme of second chances and redemption for the main character, Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner.
But while there are parallels in these two baseball classics, there are important differences as well.
If you’re into numbers, The Natural cost $28 million to produce, and made $47,951,979 at the box office. Not bad, not outstanding. But Field of Dreams, which is 30 minutes shorter, cost only $15 million and did $84,431,625. So, it wins the Battle of the Box Office going away. However, The Natural continues to translate into revenues when you consider the film-related items such as clothing and memorabilia that are still found everywhere today - if you don’t believe me, just check out eBay. Field of Dreams memorabilia output pales by comparison. That is, unless you check out a cottage industry that sprang up in Dyersville, Iowa as a result of its success. We’ll get into that a little more deeply later on.
First, let’s consider where the two films differ.
Novel to film
The novelist Bernard Malamud had nothing to do with the film version of his story, The Natural; nor did he care to. Later on, critics of literature and film alike would rail against the changes (most notably, the ending) director Barry Levinson and screenwriters Phil Dusenberry and Roger Towne made to Malamud’s novel. But the filmmakers all agreed (as did the star of the film, Robert Redford) that the “exploding light tower” Hollywood ending was the only way to go for the movie to be a success. Thirty years later, we can say with assurance that they made the right call.
Field of Dreams is the adaptation of the novel Shoeless Joe, W. P. Kinsella’s first novel, which was published in 1978. And though he has written others, most notably The Iowa Baseball Confederacy - which takes baseball fantasy to another level and which I highly recommend - Shoeless Joe is regarded as his masterpiece. It’s so beautifully written, especially his descriptive passages, that it is almost poetic. It is what I aspire to produce in my own T.J. Jackson Mysteries novels. (In fact, when someone asks me to describe the plot of Roberto’s Return, which SCD graciously profiled in the past, I say, “Think of it as A Night at the Museum meets Field of Dreams.”)
When director Phil Alden Robinson first was given the book to read, he went in thinking there was no way it could be a successful movie. According to Robinson, it had three elements that conventional thinking of the time doomed it as a movie: farmers, ghosts, and baseball. (Remember, this was before the success of The Natural in 1984.) But then a funny thing happened. Robinson became so engrossed in the story that he literally read it cover to cover in one sitting.
Then he decided to write a screenplay for it himself. (Like The Natural’s Barry Levinson, he was a relative newcomer as a director.) But he did make changes. For example, in the novel Ray has a twin brother, who is the one who’s more estranged from their father, John. The brother is eliminated from the film and Ray becomes the counterculture renegade who never made peace with his dad. There is also a character in the novel, Eddie Scissons (who for years has been passing himself off as the oldest living Chicago Cub) who is omitted. Finally, Robinson replaced the character Ray “kidnaps” - the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger (who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m sure most of us read in high school) with the 1960s activist Terrence Mann, played superbly by James Earl Jones. (Ironically, Jones is not a big baseball fan, though he also had roles in the baseball films The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings and The Sandlot, as well as starring on Broadway in the baseball-themed drama Fences.) It’s just as well. Salinger, who was alive at the time, might have sued the studio.
But the spirit of the novel comes through in the movie, from the relationship of Ray and his wife and daughter, to the appearance of Joe Jackson, to the story of “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster), and finally, the reunion of Ray and his dead father.
W.P. Kinsella said that when he read the screenplay for the first time, he cried at its beauty, hoping Robinson could translate the words and emotions onto film. Here’s an interesting tidbit: when the head of Universal Studios pressured Robinson to change the film’s title from Shoeless Joe (which he thought would evoke images of homeless people to the general public) to Field of Dreams, Kinsella was all in, claiming that his original title for the novel had been Dream Field.
Reaction and reviews for this film were for the most part positive, as critics agreed that Robinson had indeed stayed true to the book. Even the late film critic Roger Ebert, who had trashed The Natural, gave Field of Dreams a four star rating.
The Natural was filmed on location in Buffalo’s ancient War Memorial Stadium after an exhaustive cross-country search for a period-correct venue. And, you might recall, I considered it one of the four major elements of the film’s success. Well, Field of Dreams’ ballpark couldn’t be more different: the famous cornfield in Dyersville, Iowa (over 200 of the area’s farms were scouted by helicopter before this one was chosen) that Ray partially plows under because a voice tells him to. It’s undoubtedly the most famous “ballpark” of any baseball movie - and it isn’t really a ballpark.
A deal was struck with the farmer, Don Lansing, who owned the land (and whose farmhouse got a major makeover to open up the ground floor for filming and add the famous porch and swing), and the cornfield scenes were slated to begin filming in summer of 1988. One problem: Iowa was experiencing its worst drought since the Dust Bowl of the Depression. So, they trucked in $25,000 worth of water (to the chagrin and envy of neighboring farmers) to irrigate the crop. It ended up growing the corn so tall that for the first “voice” scene Costner is actually walking on wooden boxes so the cornstalks aren’t over his head. Then, on the July 4 weekend, part of the property was plowed under and a grounds crew from Dodger Stadium - armed with tons of dirt and truckloads of sod - leveled the field and made it a baseball park. Unfortunately, the sod died almost immediately in the parched conditions, so what you see in the film is dead grass painted a lustrous green.
Ray’s cornfield is, of course, iconic in every way, from the time Shoeless Joe first shows up (in the novel it’s during the daytime), to when the Black Sox drift into the cornstalks after their game (“I’m melting!”), to when Ray and his dad play catch as the headlights from hundreds of cars can be seen from above snaking through the countryside toward the farm. (This scene was shot by helicopter, the cars driven by local residents who also agreed to black out the nearby town for effect.)
But the end of the filming was not the end of the Lansing farm’s fame - it was just the beginning. Don decided to keep the baseball diamond part (the corn part was owned by his neighbor) as a tourist destination. Originally, no admission was charged; revenue was derived solely from a souvenir shop on the premises. Something like 65,000 people annually showed up - to walk around, recapture the spirit of the film, or simply play catch with a loved one. Couples even had their wedding there.
In 2011 the site was sold to a company called Go the Distance Baseball for somewhere in the area of $5.5 million. Go the Distance envisioned a 193-acre, 24-baseball diamond sports training complex called All-Star Ballpark Heaven that would incorporate the farm’s grounds; but this led to legal wrangling over zoning issues that directly affected neighboring farmers. As of spring 2014 there has been no construction of the sports complex.
But on Father’s Day in 2014, stars such as Kevin Costner, Timothy Busfield (who played Ray’s bottom-line banker brother-in-law in the film) and Dwier Brown, who played Ray’s dad, returned to Dyersville to take part in the 25th anniversary festivities, which included concerts and celebrity softball games. Even Bob Costas was there in an emcee role.
And so, while long-gone War Memorial Stadium was a key in The Natural’s success, the cornfield ballpark in Field of Dreams will probably live on forever, in one form or another. When James Earl Jones said, “They will come, Ray,” he wasn’t kidding.
The film’s hero
Both Roy Hobbs and Ray Kinsella are men seeking a second chance in life. And like the Arthurian legend employed in multiple facets of The Natural which I discussed last time, the protagonist in Field of Dreams can be likened to the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, who must go on a long journey, encountering obstacles along the way, before he can return to his home and make things right. Ray’s odyssey takes him across the country to places like Boston, Massachusetts and Chisholm, Minnesota where he is joined respectively by the characters Terrence Mann and Archie “Moonlight” Graham.
Roy wants to undo the mistakes that derailed his promising baseball career (a weakness for women and self-centeredness, to name a couple) while Ray wants to seek peace with the father he shunned. (In the novel this is clearly stated at the beginning, while in the movie his father’s appearance at the end is a tear-jerking surprise. What’s interesting about this moment is that in the script Robinson tried to be subtle when Ray was introducing his father to Annie and Karin. But test audiences were confused as to the identity of the mystery catcher. That is why the famous line, “Hey, Dad, would you like to have a catch?” was added.)
But these two guys are decidedly unalike, despite being “farm boys.” Redford’s character, though more sympathetic than the protagonist of Malamud’s novel, still has a sense of coldness and wariness at times, probably brought on from the bad luck that’s befallen him in his life; whereas Ray Kinsella is a lovable, at times idealistic, hero who wears his heart on his sleeve and whom you want to see succeed in the worst way. When he experiences his little victories in the story - building his ball field despite the disparagements of others; bringing Joe Jackson back to life; persuading Terrence Mann to come to Iowa; picking up the young Archie Graham along the highway; refusing to sell the farm despite his brother-in-law’s exasperated exhortations; and, finally, making amends with his father - you can’t help but feel totally happy for the guy.
Costner brought such humanity to the role that it’s hard to imagine any other actor in his place.
Of course, the father/son component is what ties the whole film together, the reason grown men weep during viewings. Yes, we’re sad when Roy Hobbs’ father dies of a heart attack and pleased at the end when Roy plays catch in the wheat field with his son, but when Ray asks his dad to play catch at the end of The Field of Dreams, it connects with something so deep inside us that our emotions just flow. It’s weird how these two very different stories ended with the same American rite of passage: a father having a catch with his son.
Now let’s examine the likenesses.
It took years for Phil Alden Robinson to get Field of Dreams made - five years alone were spent on the screenplay versions. And, like The Natural, it was a tough sell because of its content. Universal Pictures, as the fledgling Tri-Star had with The Natural’s Barry Levinson, took a chance on a new director with a vision. Robinson was dogged in his determination, but he had his doubts along the way - even during filming. Through the daunting task of rewriting the plot without losing the essence of Kinsella’s beautiful tale (the movie itself is sometimes compared to the Yuletide staple It’s a Wonderful Life) to the many studio rejections and tough filming conditions, Robinson persevered, and was rewarded with critical acclaim, including three Oscar nominations. But even more important, he was left with the satisfaction of creating what’s considered a modern American classic.
I loved the ensemble of actors that blended so well in The Natural, and Field of Dreams is no different. As previously stated, Kevin Costner, who was extremely “hot” at the time, and who had already starred in another noted baseball movie, the irreverent Bull Durham, gave real depth to the character of Ray. Feisty Amy Madigan was perfect as his wife Annie, who could be both tough and supportive at the same time. And who could forget the adorable Gaby Hoffman as their daughter Karin? (The first time I saw the movie with my new wife I remember saying, “I want one just like that.” Luckily for me, I got my wish.)
When James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann delivers his soliloquy on baseball in that Darth Vader baritone of his near the end of the movie, it is as powerful a speech as any ever delivered on film. He is at the same time cantankerous, funny, and vulnerable - but would you expect anything less from this all-time great actor? In fact, when Robinson wrote the screenplay and decided to remake the J.D. Salinger character, it was Jones he had in mind as his model. Thank goodness he took the part.
Burt Lancaster, as Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, was in the twilight of a fabled acting career, but he made the most of his supporting role. When he tells Ray his dream of having just one major league at-bat, you really want Ray to help him make it happen.
Which brings us to our Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray Liotta. At the time of his casting in the movie, Liotta, who would become famous for roles in such films as Goodfellas, was a relative newcomer. On the surface he doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Jackson character, who was a country boy from the Deep South (one might lean more toward D.B. Sweeney’s characterization in the movie Eight Men Out). Jackson was barely literate, and no matinee idol.
But Robinson chose Liotta (despite the fact he batted right-handed, unlike Jackson, and had to be tutored by legendary college baseball coach Rod Dedeaux to hit and field competently) because he conveyed a sense of mystery in his demeanor. And although it all worked out, he’s the only character in the film where I can imagine other guys playing the role and maybe being more convincing.
Cinematography and music
Although neither of these categories match the absolute importance they held in The Natural (to me, anyway) they are nonetheless valuable. Cinematographer John Lindley captures the Midwestern ambience so well in his scenes around the farm (some of which, like in The Natural, were shot during “Magic Hour,” the time window right around sundown, like Ray’s reunion with his father).
Also aesthetically notable are the scenes in and around Fenway Park and Ray’s chance encounter with Doc Graham on the deserted street in Chisholm (Galena, Illinois was the actual filming site). Although there are no “lady in white” or “exploding light tower” moments, Lindley’s style lent a true sense of magic to many of the key moments.
Likewise, James Horner’s music score is not as over-the-top as Randy Newman’s from The Natural, but it didn’t have to be. And, the movie’s title theme doesn’t stick in your head the way Newman’s (which is played at MLB ballparks all the time, and even sometimes paired with images from Field of Dreams) does. It’s more subtle, to be sure, but totally effective. The next time you watch the film, listen more carefully to the music. It tugs at your heartstrings almost effortlessly. I should also mention some of the pop songs used in the film, such as the Allman Brothers’ “Jessica,” “Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, and “China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers. These tunes help portray the character of Ray as a child of the ’60s.
Attention to historical detail
As I said in my The Natural article, except for the bushy mustaches of characters Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) and Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth), the late 1930s is captured perfectly by its filmmakers in everything having to do with Major League Baseball, from the equipment and uniforms to the stadium. Furthermore, the Art Deco furnishings and costumes of the characters are spot on.
Likewise, Field of Dreams was accurate in the Black Sox’ uniforms and equipment. Of course, the righty Joe Jackson thing bugs me a bit, as well as Jackson bringing Gil Hodges (who played 30 years after him) to round out his fantasy ballgame roster, but the history aspect isn’t important in this case - it’s Ray’s quest to “ease his pain.” And, yes, there really was a “Moonlight” Graham. W.P. Kinsella found him in the Baseball Encyclopedia when creating the single-appearance (for the New York Giants) MLB player in his novel. The screenplay changed his lone appearance year from 1905 to 1922, but the facts about his life after baseball, as related to Terrence Mann by the elderly gents in the local bar, were taken from actual articles written about Graham in the Chisholm town paper.
Regarding collectibles and memorabilia, I found a couple interesting items on eBay as I was writing this feature. First was a set of 63 original production “call sheets” from the filming, which were distributed to the cast and crew. Each one details what scenes are being filmed on a particular day, which of the cast and crew are needed, etc. The starting bid for the lot was $2,400. Next was a “game worn” White Sox woolen cap used by one of the “ghost players” and encased in a display hat cube, with a starting bid of $3,300.
Want a cheaper hat? An embroidered suede modern day cap from the Dyersville souvenir stand will set you back around $32 on eBay. In addition, posters and publicity still photos from the film are all over the internet; you might also find the 3/4 life-sized lobby cardboard standup of Costner. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that anything connected with the real Shoeless Joe Jackson brings big bucks for any auction house, but that was the case even before the film brought him back into the American general public’s consciousness - and renewed calls for his exoneration and inclusion in the National Baseball Hall Of Fame.
Which brings us back to my original question: Is what some consider the finest baseball film ever actually a baseball film? That’s dependent upon your point of view. I see it as a story of faith, redemption, and second chances told through the lens of baseball. But if I had to choose between it and The Natural, a pure baseball story, I would have to flip a coin. Though these films, five years apart, have already passed anniversary milestones, they never cease to make me stop flipping channels, sit for a while and admire them. And maybe have a good cry.
Paul Ferrante is a contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com, through his website www.paulferranteauthor.com, and the T.J. Jackson Mysteries Facebook page.