When an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) walking through his cornfield suddenly hears an ethereal voice whisper "If you build it, he will come,” he's inspired to create a fully equipped baseball diamond in the middle of his property. Soon the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) shows up to play ball, along with his teammates who collectively came to be known as the Chicago Black Sox after they w accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Is the field there to redeem them? To ease their pain? Soon the voice convinces the farmer to seek out a reclusive writer and bring him to the mysterious ballfield against his will. What follows is one of the rare works of magical realism to strike a major chord with audiences of the 1980s, tapping into America's obsession with the national pastime, the heartland, and unresolved daddy issues.
Filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson was a screenwriter struggling to become a director. He'd written Bob Clark’s Sylvester Stallone / Dolly Parton musical comedy Rhinestone (1984), and been horrified when his script was drastically rewritten by Stallone. He vowed to direct his own material if he ever got the chance. He did a couple more gigs as a writer—penning the hit Carl Reiner comedy All of Me with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, and doing a polish on Andrew Bergman’s terrific script for the Chevy Chase vehicle Fletch (1985). Though Robinson’s directorial debut In the Mood (1987), a period piece about a teenage Casanova, fared poorly at the box office, he was able to convince 20th Century Fox and producers Lawrence Gordon and Charles Gordon to buy the rights to W. P. Kinsella’s 1982 book Shoeless Joe. Robinson consulted Kinsella frequently during the adaptation, but when Fox read the script they passed, claiming it was too esoteric and sentimental. The Gordons set the movie up at Universal with a modest budget and tight shooting schedule. Everyone felt Costner was the ideal actor to play the Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, but doubted he’d want to make another baseball movie, as he’d just finished shooting a romantic comedy set in the world of minor-league ball, Ron Shelton’s terrific Bull Durham. But Costner loved the script and didn’t mind doing back-to-back baseball pictures—both would turn out to be huge hits for him.
As with another modestly budgeted film from ‘89, Heathers
, the filmmakers bumped up against the J.D. Salinger conundrum, as the famously hermetic and litigious author is one of several real-life figures to feature prominently in Kinsella’s book. Salinger threatened the production with a lawsuit if his name was used, so Robinson rewrote the Salinger character into a fictional author named Terence Mann. In doing so, he was able to tailor the part for James Earl Jones, who provides this light and often goofy fantasy with much-needed gravitas. Robinson hit another home run in casting the legendary Burt Lancaster, who plays another real-life figure, Archibald "Moonlight” Graham. The first-rate cast, which includes the eternally spunky Amy Madigan as Ray’s wife and seven-year-old Gaby Hoffman as his daughter, grounds the schmaltzy material and keeps us invested in the story’s outcome. Robinson manages to create legitimate stakes in a movie where seemingly anything can happen and even death is impermanent. He wastes so little screen time on trying to explain the magical realism conceits that we easily accept them. Still, the movie will work better for some viewers than others—it’s particularly effective for those who long for a closer relationship with their father.
Universal wisely opened Field of Dreams in a small number of theaters and gradually rolled it out to a larger number of screens as positive reviews and word-of-mouth grew. The film ended up being in general release from April through December of ’89. Film critics fell about themselves comparing Robinson to Frank Capra and Costner to Jimmy Stewart, but while Field of Dreams is Capraesque in its “corny” optimism, vision of American individuality, and championing of a common man, its pace, humor, and (most of all) its bottom-line conclusions are much more grounded in values, tropes, and themes of the 1980s. The movie became a perennial favorite and was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.
Despite its sentimentality, this charming work of magical realism about an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield effectively taps into America's obsessions with the national pastime, the heartland, and unresolved daddy-issues.
Phil Alden Robinson
Lawrence Gordon and Charles Gordon
Phil Alden Robinson
Based on the novel Shoeless Joe by
Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, Gaby Hoffmann, Ray Liotta, Timothy Busfield, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster, and Frank Whaley
21 April 1989
Color / 1.85 : 1
21 April 1989
1.85 : 1