Feature for family movie night this week was Field of Dreams. Last week we watched Thirteen Days. Sounds as though we're starting a Kevin Costner retrospective. Don't worry. Next week we're not screening Waterworld. Or The Postman. Or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or...Did this guy make a decent film between Field of Dreams and Thirteen Days?
OK. Tin Cup. But besides that one?
And, yeah, that's meant as an opening for someone to come along and make the case for Dances With Wolves.
Field of Dreams is as hokey, sentimental, and loveable as I remembered. Made me want to call my dad after, which is what I actually did from the movie theater when I saw it the first time, twenty years ago. Shoot me. I'm a sap sometimes.
The movie sells its magic realism pretty well. More unbelievable than the ghosts in the cornfield is the wife who not only understands her husband's crazy compulsions but actively supports them. Nevermind. Amy Madigan sure looks good in a pair of cut-offs.
Got a question. Anybody read the book Field of Dream's based on, Shoeless Joe, lately? I read it in grad school where I got my copy signed by the author, W.P. Kinsella. And by the way, it wasn't heaven, it was Iowa, but there were days there when I'd have understood the confusion. I read the book first, and liked it, but Field of Dreams came out long enough afterwards that I didn't really have Shoeless Joe in mind when I saw the film and didn't do any serious comparisons that affected my appreciation for either.
Last night, though, it struck me that the movie improves on the novel in at least one way---with the substitution of the made-up reclusive author Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, "kidnaps" for a fictionalized version of the real writer the novel's narrator goes searching for, J.D. Salinger.
Probably because it's entirely invented, the career and biography of Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, has a more persuasive weight. Career-wise, Mann seems to be an amalgam of Ken Kesey, Ralph Ellison, Alan Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Richard Brautigan, and James Baldwin, with a touch of Jack Kerouac and a hint of Norman Mailer, and just this much of Salinger---One of Mann's book had has as profound an influence on adolescent psyches as Catcher in the Rye and he stopped writing all at once and with no warning, leaving his fans bewildered and bereft and desperate for news that at least one more new book by their hero was out there, if only its author would relent and allow it to be published.
Unlike Salinger, however, Mann is not truly a recluse. He is leading a normally public life, just not the life of a literary celebrity. He's in hiding only from his fans and their expectations. He is still engaged with life, but on a smaller, apolitical scale. But, to his own secret dismay, in giving up writing he gave up much of his enthusiasm for living. So he has a motive for going along Ray on his apparently lunatic quest and the temperament to act on that motive.
Making Salinger the writer whose pain Ray thinks he's meant to ease was a literary in-joke that would have been lost on a movie audience. It's a joke that's in with a smaller and smaller audience of readers every year. In 1983 when the book was published and probably in 1989 when the movie came out, not only was it still not a forlorn hope that Salinger had one more book in his desk drawer but there was still a singificant number of people for whom Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter were important books. Nowadays, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find among even the most well-read crowds many people desperately waiting for the next Salinger or, for that matter, think that Catcher in the Rye is worth re-reading, if they can even remember why the book mattered so much to them to begin with. The joke would have been lost on most of the movie's audience anyway, but by replacing Salinger with Mann the filmmakers saved the movie from dating itself.
But probably the best thing about the switch is that we get to see James Earl Jones as Terence Mann. While it might have been fun to watch someone like Donald Sutherland or Gene Hackman doing Salinger, I don't think that even they could have sold this incredibly corny speech the way Jones sells it. Jones is so good that he almost makes it possible to ignore the irony of a black man telling us that baseball represents all that was good and could be good again while backed up by the ghosts of white ballplayers who never had the chance to play against or with African-Amercians.
Your turn: Other movies that actually improve on the good books they're based on?
Baseball trivia: Besides the fact that he's too handsome and well-spoken, what else is wrong with Ray Liotta's portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Email your answer.
Is it heaven? No, it's Iowa: They built it, so you can come.