‘Shoeless Joe’ and ‘Field of Dreams’

How do we judge books that inspire more memorable films?

I’ll be honest: I fell in love with Field of Dreams long before I’d ever heard of Shoeless Joe. My appreciation for the film colored my reading of the book—a bias that usually works the other way around.

Shoeless JoeThere are things to like about Shoeless Joe: its enchanting and imaginative premise, the way it invokes the idealism of the sixties against the pragmatism of the eighties, and the many lines of dialogue that found their way into the film. The narrative is dreamlike, disjointed, and at times awkward, but that’s what I expect from magical realism.

I don’t know what to make of the book’s shortcomings. Secondary character development was almost nonexistent. Both plot and dialogue were overwrought. Kinsella’s use of simile was baffling: “I was as proud as our yellow cat when she dragged home a snake or mouse to prove her ability as a huntress.” This particular example was lodged within an otherwise brilliant passage, and similar distractions pop up throughout the book. Time and again this over-showing interfered with the emotional weight of the story.

My takeaway isn’t that Shoeless Joe is a bad book; it’s that Field of Dreams is such a good adaptation. Phil Alden Robinson wrote a masterful screenplay, pruning the story of its less compelling elements and expertly selecting the book’s most memorable dialog. Ray’s wife Annie, disappointingly one dimensional in Shoeless Joe, is feisty and self possessed as played by Amy Madigan. James Horner’s score perfectly accents the story’s potency, which was weighed down in Shoeless Joe by literary excess.

In the end, I’m left with measured respect for an inventive original and admiration for a well-crafted derivative—a product of brilliant illustration, interpretation, and alteration. If only every film adaptation made its source material seem so dull.

[ February 2014 ]

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