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 had a falling out with his father (who was a baseball fanatic) and they were unable to reconcile before his death. One day, Ray was out in his corn field when he hears a voice saying "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 "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Liotta) would return from the dead to play baseball. For obvious reasons, Ray is 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 because he is afraid of what others think.
Barely making a profit as it was, the cost of building the baseball field and the land it takes over puts them financially in trouble. But after a few months, Shoeless Joe does appear, bewildered himself but with an honest desire to play some baseball. Eventually more dead baseball players from his time period 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 Oscars 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. In addition to Mann, Ray's goalie is his 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.
- 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.Annie: Far out.
- The Atoner: Ray.Terence: (smiling) This is your penance.
- Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity: Baseball, for Ray and his dad.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Graham steps off the field to save Karin's life, at the cost of 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.
- 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.
- 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:
"Moonlight" Graham: Tell me, Ray Kinsella. Is there enough magic in the moonlight to make my wish come true?
- Combined with a Meaningful Name.
- 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 (including by Jackson himself), the "he" being referred to is revealed to be someone else entirely.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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".
- Pet the Dog: After the newspaper editor reads the obit she wrote for Graham in 1972, Mann tells her, "You're a good writer." She smiles and replies, "So are you."
- 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.
- 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.
- Put Me In, Coach!: Moonlight Graham.
- Reality Ensues: 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?"
- 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.
- 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.
- Shout-Out: "As a small boy, he had a bat named Rosebud."
- Strawman Political: The Moral Guardians, who are depicted as racist and authoritarian as well as prudish."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. Additionally, while it's true that Graham did not get a chance to bat, he played two innings on defense instead of one.
- 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 remains controversial to this day. It is known that he attended meetings of the fixers and that he took the money.
- 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.
- 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:
- Ty Cobb is also described offhandedly as so unlikable a character, no one wanted to play with him and that being the reason he's not among the ghosts of other greats. This interpretation is more in line with the public's conception of Ty Cobb from a sensationalized biography about him than his actual self.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Ray is seeking the approval of his father.
- 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.