Adapted from the 1982 novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, the film is built on a unique story idea about an Iowa farmer who feels compelled to build an expensive baseball field.
Ray Kinsella (Costner) is an honest farmer with a nice family, but explains in the prologue that he and his father, who was a baseball fanatic, had a falling-out and were unable to reconcile before the latter's death. One night, Ray is out in his cornfield when he hears a disembodied voice whisper "If you build it, he will come." Surprised, he is later given a vision that what he is supposed to build is a baseball field, and that the famously disgraced (and long-deceased) "Shoeless" Joe Jackson will return from the dead to play baseball there. For obvious reasons, Ray is left wondering how he could ever get such a bizarre idea. But after a long talk with his wife Annie (Madigan), Ray decides that he wants to do something outrageous because it feels right and not be afraid of what others might think.
With the farm barely making a profit to begin with, the cost of building the baseball field and the loss of the farmland it occupies puts the Kinsellas in financial trouble. But after a few months, Shoeless Joe (Liotta) does appear, bewildered himself but with an honest desire to play some baseball. Eventually more dead baseball players from Jackson's era return to play. Unfortunately, Ray and his family are the only ones who see the players and the bank is looking down on them.
Eventually Ray receives another insight ("Ease his pain") and comes to believe that this means he has to track down aging author Terence Mann (Jones) and take him to a baseball game. Even he doesn't have a clue why, but decides to continue acting on these strange impressions.
Field of Dreams has a very strange concept, but what it carries is an underlying metaphor of faith and redemption. It is one of Costner's most well-known films and also one of James Earl Jones' most famous roles outside of voicing Darth Vader and Mufasa.
It was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Build tropes and they will come:
- Actual Pacifist: Terence, which is how Ray is able to call Terence's bluff when he attacks him.
- Adaptation Distillation: In the book, Ray meets his father in the last third of story, rather than at the climax. Terence Mann in the film is a Lawyer-Friendly Cameo of J. D. Salinger in the book. The book also contained subplots about Ray's identical twin brother Richard and an aging ex-ballplayer named Eddie Scissons.
- Adaptation Expansion: There was no book banning scene in the book. The entire scene was created to give Amy Madigan's character something to do, as well as give an early indication of Mann's character.
- Adaptation Title Change: Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe.
- And I'm the Queen of Sheba: When introduced to Terence Mann, Mark calls himself "the Easter Bunny".
- Arc Words: "If you build it, he will come." "Ease his pain" and "Go the distance" are secondary arc words, but just as important.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Terence Mann. Either that, or he got to see Ebbets Field again — though the film implies both are the same thing.
- Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Ray and Mann pick up the younger Moonlight Graham while driving through the Midwest and take him to the field so he finally gets a chance to play baseball.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Annie is very nice and supportive of Ray, despite nearly bankrupting his farm to make a baseball field. Yet when a Moral Guardian accuses her husband of being un-American for supporting Terence Mann, she's willing to kick her ass.
- Book Burning
- Brandishment Bluff: Ray, out of desperation, tries to kidnap Terence with a finger in his jacket. Terence isn't fooled for a second.
- Chekhov's Skill: While the ghosts appear in the prime of their baseball careers, they retain the memories and skills throughout their entire lives. Fortunately for Karin, Moonlight Graham spent the majority of his life as a doctor.
- Chewing the Scenery: James Earl Jones' "they will come" speech was initially played normally, but was told to ham it up as the reading seemed too antiseptic. The next take was the last.
- Comically Missing the Point: Terrence Mann does this at Fenway Park.Ray Kinsella: So what do you want?
Terence Mann: I want them to stop looking to me for answers; begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy!
Ray Kinsella: ...No, I mean, what do you want? (points at the concession stand)
Terence Mann: Oh. A dog and a beer.
- Cool Old Guy: Doc Graham. He was known in his town as a kind, caring man who always looked after his patients even when they couldn't pay and is fondly remembered by those who knew him nearly two decades after his passing. When he meets Ray, he shows himself as a sharp, humble and witty man who isn't at all resentful about missing out on playing more baseball, happy to have worked as a doctor. When he steps out from the field to save Karen, he even assures Ray that everything is fine and he was happy to get to play with legends even if it was just for one game before leaving. He was also played by Burt Lancaster in his final role, making him cool automatically and showing that he'd lost none of the wit or charisma that defined his career.
- Dying as Yourself: A variant as Doc Graham has already been dead for years but he walks off the field as his older self and is referred to by his team mates as "Doc", showing that was his true self all along.
- Expy: While Terence Mann is a stand-in for J. D. Salinger (who filled Mann's role in the book), he does borrow some elements from the politically-active black writer James Baldwin.
- Film of the Book: Based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.
- Finger Gun: Ray tries this to get Terence Mann to come to Iowa. It doesn't work, but he's able to convince Terence, anyways. Later becomes a Once Done, Never Forgotten for Ray.Terrence: You said your finger was a gun.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Graham steps off the field to save Karin's life, at the cost of never being able to play on the field again.
- Hippie Van: The Kinsellas are shown to have been very liberal hippie-types in their youth (both went to Berkeley, both were fans of a radical author named Terence Mann, Ray jokes that his major was "the 60's"). True to their roots, Ray drives a VW bus.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Along with the film Eight Men Out, this film and the book that inspired it have been instrumental in sparking attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Shoeless Joe Jackson. The film presents Jackson as a misunderstood and tortured soul with regard to the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This whitewashing ignores several facts, which get conveniently ignored. First, Jackson admitted via grand jury testimony (dated September 29, 1920) under oath that he accepted money to throw the Series, something court transcripts delineate plainly; he also changed his story regarding level of involvement with some frequency. Some observers point to Jackson's glowingly good stats in that World Series as proof that he wasn't actually participating in throwing games — but this ignores that he only played well in games that were "on the level" (not every game in the 1919 Series was fixed) or in fixed games after a loss was assured. Inning-by-inning analysis of thrown games and perusal of "clean" games shows this clearly. See this link for details.
- I Could A Been A Contender: Averted. While Doc Graham says he would've loved to play a big league game just once and was delighted at finally getting the chance with Ray, he has no regrets at all about abandoning baseball to pursue medicine.
- Invisible to Normals: The ballplayers, apparently. It isn't until Moonlight transforms back into his old doctor form that Mark can see them.
- Irony: Moonlight's sacrifice fly means he still hasn't gotten an official at bat against major leaguers, but hey, he got an RBI and a plate appearance. You could also read it as God doing a bit of psychotherapy to help Moonlight come to terms with his one major regret.
- Lame Rhyme Dodge: At the store, a group of customers overhear a farmer talking about Ray hearing voices. Ray unconvincingly tells them that he heard noises.
- Manly Tears: Ray has to fight back some tears when he asks his father's ghost for some time to play catch.
- In a meta sense, this movie is infamous among sports fans for making guys tear up watching the finale.
- Meaningful Background Event: When Ray goes out for a walk in Chisholm after learning that Moonlight Graham died in 1972, Graham walks right past him in the background before Ray realizes that he's stepped back in time.
- Meaningful Echo:
- Combined with a Meaningful Name."Moonlight" Graham: Tell me, Ray Kinsella. Is there enough magic in the moonlight to make my wish come true?
- When Ray hears "If you build it, he will come", Ray assumes that "he" is Shoeless Joe Jackson. He also assumes that "Ease his pain" refers to Terrance Mann and "Go the distance" refers to Moonlight. When those Arc Words are said near the end of the movie, the "he" being referred to is revealed to be someone else entirely. After the last time it's said, the "he" is revealed to be Ray's father.Shoeless Joe: If you build it, he will come.
- Combined with a Meaningful Name.
- Missing Steps Plan: Played for Laughs with the case of Terence Mann; after Ray "kidnaps" him, the author's father makes repeated calls to his Boston residence and, when he doesn't answer, reports him as missing, which makes the national papers. Mann decides to contact him...then wonders aloud, "What do I tell him?"
- Monochrome Casting: One of the criticisms leveled at the film is that apparently baseball is just as segregated in the afterlife as it was in the real-life early 20th century.
- Moral Guardians: The townspeople who wish to ban the work of Terence Mann.
- Nice Guy: Doc Graham is described as such, both by his obituary and those who remember him as a kind man who was known for always helping others. When we finally meet him, he proves his reputation to be well-deserved and he is every bit as charming, humble and altruistic as he was described as being. He even gives up playing on the field to help Karin and sincerely assures an apologetic Ray that it's fine and he was just happy to get to play for as long as he did.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The famously reclusive author Terence Mann was the famously reclusive author J. D. Salinger in the original book, but Salinger threatened to sue if he was featured in any adaptation of the novel. Also counts as a Race Lift.
- Somewhat ironically, given the reason for the name change, there is a fairly well-known American stage performer named Terrence Mann in real life!
- Averted in the case of Moonlight Graham, who really did exist.
- Not Now, Kiddo: As Ray and Annie fret over the costs of building what looks like a pointless baseball field, Karin tries about three times to tell them that there's a man in the field.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Only believers can see them.
- There's also the whole question of the ghosts' age. They appear as they did in their playing days, but seem perfectly aware that they're dead and even talk about how long it's been since they last played, frequently cracking jokes about it. They also apparently have their entire life's worth of experience within them, as evidenced by Moonlight Graham knowing that he can save Karin despite not studying medicine yet, and Ray's father recognizing his son despite being younger than Ray himself when they meet.
- Papa Wolf: Ray's a pretty laid-back guy, but when Mark grabs at Karin towards the end of the film, he immediately loses his cool and tells him to "get his damn hands off her".
- Playing Catch with the Old Man: After building the titular field, Ray and his father John's ghost talk about heaven then play catch as most of the audience starts crying Manly Tears.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: In the novel, Ray builds the field bit by bit (starting with the left field); in the movie, Ray builds the entire field all in one go. Plus, the movie focuses more on the magic of the field, the romanticism of baseball, and Ray's relationship with his father. It gets rid of confusing plot elements from the book such as Ray's identical twin brother Richard, and a depressing storyline with an old former ballplayer named Eddie Scissons.
- They also changed J.D. Salinger to Terrence Mann when it became apparent that Salinger would sue, making the adaptation both financially and legally pragmatic.
- The entire PTA book banning scene was invented for the film to give Annie some characterization, and also to establish Terrance Mann as a radical author from the 1960's whose work was offensive to some (which would not have been necessary if it were Salinger.)
- Precision F-Strike: Mark (Timothy Busfield) clearly mouths "What the fuck?" when Moonlight (Burt Lancaster) crosses the gravel.
- Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Ray receives most of the visitations from the Voice, but Annie gets in on the act as well—when Ray has a dream about going to Fenway Park with Terence Mann and tells her about it, Annie remarks that she had the exact same dream and starts helping him pack. At the end of the film, it's little Karin who casually discusses how the baseball field will make the family money, and it's clear that she's getting this information from an external source.
- Red Herring: The voice. Ray thinks that "If you build it, he will come" refers to Shoeless Joe, "Ease his pain" refers to Terence, and "Go the distance" refers to Moonlight. The voice meant Ray's father in all three instances.
- Moonlight doesn't hit a triple like he fantasizes about during his speech.
- Refusal of the Call: Subverted. Doc Graham gently turns down the chance to play on The Field, saying he'd rather be a doctor. The next morning, however, a teenage ballplayer named Archie is hitchhiking to go to minor league tryouts.
- Played straighter when Terrence Mann initially pretends that he didn't see anything at Fenway Park, leaving Ray to think the mission was all a fool's errand. As he prepares to drive away, though, Terrence jumps into the road and reveals the truth.
- The Scapegoat: Played for Laughs when Ray reveals that he stopped having games of catch with his dad because he read Terrence Mann's The Boat Rocker. Mann complains that he has a history of his books being blamed for people's problems: "That's the sort of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It's not my fault you wouldn't play catch with your father!"
- Scenery Porn: The field itself was built on two separate properties to allow for uninhibited sunset shots, several scenes set during "Magic Hour" (very late twilight) were actually shot over the course of several days to preserve the lighting. Also makes effective use of the Driftless Area to represent the Eastern U.S.
- Secret Message Wink: Moonlight Graham tells Ray his one wish: if he ever got to bat in the major leagues, to stare down the pitcher and wink, "making him think you know something he doesn't." Later, Archie bats at his first game and gives a wink to the pitcher to psych him out—giving a hint that young Archie and Moonlight are one and the same.
- Significant Background Event: IMDB users have pointed out that if you watch closely, you can see Terrence Mann stiffen up and react to the name "Moonlight Graham" appearing on the scoreboard at Fenway, hinting that his claims of not seeing anything are false.
- Strawman Political: The Moral Guardians are depicted as racist and authoritarian as well as prudish. (One of the books? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)"And I say SMUT, and filth like this has no place in our schools!"
- Trailers Always Spoil: The Japanese poster described the film as a man who is on a quest to meet with the ghost of his baseball playing father. It was sort of a cultural shift in focus, since the Japanese always emphasized ancestry.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
- Moonlight Graham was in fact a ballplayer who appeared in only one MLB game, before becoming a doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota. The film takes some liberties with his story: Graham died in 1965, but producer Francis Ford Coppola wanted to see The Godfather on a marquee, so Ray goes back to 1972 to find him. His single game was also played in 1905, not 1922.
- Ray Liotta hits right-handed. Apparently, TPTB felt Liotta looked too awkward hitting lefty like Shoeless Joe Jackson did. Liotta was apparently not happy with the decision.
- The degree of Shoeless Joe Jackson's culpability in the Black Sox Scandal is in fact clear. He testified under oath to a grand jury that he was paid money to help throw games in the 1919 World Series and kept the money. Also, a detailed look at box scores shows that Jackson only played well in games that were "on the level" (not every game in the series was crooked) and in fixed games after a loss was assured. Any idea that Jackson was innocent in the matter has to ignore some extremely damning evidence to the contrary. Also, unlike what both this movie and the previous year's Eight Men Out claim, after he was expelled, he never played under "a made up name in some 12th rate league". The reason for that last mix-up is probably the result of a story told well after his playing days. Jackson was the proprietor of a liquor store, and one day Ty Cobb (the Hall of Fame player) and Grantland Rice (legendary sportswriter) walked in to make a purchase. Joe never made any sign that he recognized them, even though they had crossed paths before during their playing days. Finally, Cobb had to ask:Cobb: Don't you know me, Joe?Jackson: Sure I know you, Ty, but I wasn't sure that you wanted to know me. A lot of them don't.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Ray is seeking the approval of his father, and the reverse is also true. The phrase "Ease his Pain" refers to John Kinsella's ghost being a "Well Done, Dad!" Guy and needing his son's forgiveness.
- You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Sort of. Doc Graham knows something is up with Ray, when he asks him if he's "Moonlight" Graham.Doc Graham: No one's called me "Moonlight" Graham in 50 years.