Reading the source material

A couple of days ago, I wrote about how I had finally, after several years of avoiding it, started to read W.P. Kinsella‘s novel Shoeless Joe. I knew that it had been the basis for the movie Field of Dreams, and figured that if I liked the movie as much as I do, that the book wouldn’t be terribly different. Why invest the time in reading the book, when I already know the general story?

It turns out that I was wrong to make this assumption. There’s a reason why the book and the movie don’t have the same name. They have similar characters, and similar quotations in several places, but the thing to remember is that not everything in Kinsella’s 1982 book was included in the 1989 movie. And some of the 1989 movie didn’t strictly adhere to the book’s contents, either.

The primary case in point is the author figure that was played in the movie by James Earl Jones. His name was Terrence Mann in the movie, but in Kinsella’s book it was actually J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger had threatened to sue the movie studio if his name was used in the movie, and so Salinger’s words, including some of Jones’ speech at the end of the movie, are taken from out of the book. But Salinger lives in New Hampshire in Kinsella’s book, rather than in an Orthodox section of Boston in the movie.

There are other differences, as well. Annie and Karin, Ray’s wife and daughter, are in the book and in the movie, but Richard, Ray Kinsella’s identical twin brother, disappears in the leap onto the screen. So too does Eddie “Kid” Scissons, who the book pays a lot of attention to, but is absent by the time Hollywood had prepared their script.

Another difference is the dates involved. Kinsella’s novel takes place in 1979, and Ray’s trip back in time to meet Moonlight Graham happens in 1955. In the movie, however, the story takes place in 1989, and the Moonlight Graham encounter takes place in 1972. The movie’s depiction of Ray as a counterculture baby boomer who drives a VW bus isn’t directly from the book, either. Ray in the book has a mustache and sideburns, while the Kevin Costner movie version of Ray is as clean-shaven as can be.

I could go on all day about the differences between the words that Kinsella wrote in the early 1980s, and the version of those words that Phil Alden Robinson brought to the screen at the end of the decade. But my larger point is this: If you like a movie, and it’s based on an adaptation of a book, understand that reading the source material is a good idea. Things will get lost, or added in, or altered along the way–Ray and his father never did “have a catch” in Kinsella’s novel, as they did in the movie–but as long as the spirit of the author’s work is reflected on the screen, the adaptation can still serve its purpose.

I remember using the word magical to describe Field of Dreams in a blurb that I wrote for the Northwestern Film Guide back in 1989. It was the best word I could think of when the film came out, and in all the years that have passed since then, I haven’t been able to come up with a better, more descriptive term than that. And so magical it is, both for the film and, as I have finally come to realize, for Kinsella’s novel. Neither of these two should exist independently of the other, which is my way of suggesting that you read it, if you haven’t done so already. It’s well worth the time.

2 thoughts on “Reading the source material

  1. I have the Shoeless Joe on my kindle but I haven’t started it yet. I bought it when it got marked way down and it’s just sitting there in my cloud. I think I keep saying the same thing, I already more or less know the story. Maybe I’ll get it started soon now.

    PS – I like the new look.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. The book is worth a read, for sure. Hope all is well. I’m sure the Sox are making the summer worthwhile.

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