Shoeless Joe vs. Field of Dreams

I’ve long maintained that Field of Dreams is not a baseball movie.

It’s really not. It is at it’s core, a story about an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who is long racked by guilt wishing to reconcile his relationship with his deceased father, John, by way of their one mutual love, baseball, as the backdrop. The wonderful novel from which the film is based – Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, tells a noticeably richer story and like most book to film adaptations, the written version is different than the visual. The changes from book to film, due largely for pacing & budget’s sake, spin a wider and thicker web with many signficant differences. At the risk of sounding overly theoretical and metaphysical, let’s examine the main changes between the novel and film. Which is better – the book or the movie, you ask? Well, that’s entirely up to you. However, if you have not read the book, stop reading now if you wish to avoid spoilers…

Several important characters were in the book but not the film. Most crucially:

Eddie Scissons: An oldtimer who originally owned Ray’s farm. He also claims some fame as the oldest living Chicago Cub (or is he?)

Richard Kinsella: Ray’s identical twin brother. He has a girlfriend named Gypsy and whether by design or by intent, he cannot see the field or the players…

Abner Bluestein: Real estate business partner of Ray’s skeptical brother-in-law Mark.

JD Salinger: The book’s version of Terrence Mann. In real life Salinger threatened to sue if his personage was used in the film, so the fictional character of Mann, brilliantly played by James Earl Jones, was created.

Other important book to film differences:

  • In the book, “the voice” that Ray heard was not a whisper. It was in the form of an old-style PA announcer. (Think Tex Rickards and you’ll get the idea.) This type of voice really puts a spooky charge into the creation of Ray’s leap of faith endeavor.
  • Ray only built one part of the field at a time, not the whole thing like in the movie.
  • The players didn’t disappear into the cornfield. Rather they exited the ballpark through a door in the left field wall. This was historically (at least partially) accurrate as many ballparks in the deadball era didn’t have tunnels through the dugout to the clubhouse. Most parks back then had their clubhouse entrances somewhere in the outfield, and some didn’t even have visitors clubhouses at all.
  • One of the most common questions among fans of the movie is “where do the players go when they disappear?” Well, this question was directly addressed in the book. When Ray asked the players what becomes of them when they leave the field, Sox first baseman Chick Gandil answers “we sleep.” “And wait”, says Happy Felsch. “And dream…oh, how we dream,” adds Shoeless Joe Jackson. Taken literally, this would attest to what Jackson and others alluded to in the film, in that there IS an afterlife and the players are fully conscious of it. Taken figuratively, one can assume the players simply don’t know where they came from, how, or why they are there, which Jackson also hinted at in the film. This whole scene is open for endless debate. (My personal theory is that the Black Sox were in a sort of purgatory, while honest, noble players like Ray’s father, were in heaven—yet all former players got to enjoy their Lazarus-like resurrection to this Edenic field regardless of which afterlife they came from.)
  • When the field is fully built, a semi-transparent mirage of an entire stadium completes the effect, with ghostly players appearing along with the “real” players that first came to Ray’s field, which only Ray and his family can see or talk to. As such, they got to watch entire games and not just practices as were shown for much of the film.

Thus, while not surprising that the novel lays out more detail and enriches the storyline, there is no real wrong answer as to which is better. Both are excellent. Yet the novel, in several ways, delves a bit deeper into the actual baseball angle, with several subtle references and offering tidbits of folklore about the game. While many of these are not present in the film, studying the book gives one that “oh! NOW that makes sense!” feeling when watching the movie.

My advice: Enjoy both the book and film for the full experience of this magical story.

…and go have a catch with someone.





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