Wednesday, February 18, 2009

When reading "Shoeless Joe," try to forget you've ever seen "Field of Dreams"

(I couldn’t find “The Southpaw” at the bookstore, so the first baseball book I’ll review for this blog is “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella.)

It’s funny how the mind works.

I’m a big reader - I almost always have a book in my hand or within arm’s reach. I’m not much for contemporary books, by which I mean novels written in the last 15 years. My favorites are classics like “East of Eden” and “All The King’s Men,” as well as 60’s pulp paperbacks like John D. MacDonald’s brilliant Travis McGee series (but that’s for another post.)

In the course of reading what I consider classic novels, I’ve run into a lot of books that were adapted into movies. Oftentimes, I’ve already seen the movie before I start reading the book.

When I’m in that situation, I have the ability to disassociate what I read from what I’ve seen on the screen. For instance: when I read “The Godfather,” one of my favorite novels, in my mind I don’t picture Al Pacino; I create a blank slate and let Mario Puzo’s words create Michael Corleone for me.

(My wife, who usually reads books that haven’t been made into movies, takes a different approach: she’ll play casting director and assign real-live actors to the characters in the books she reads. If she’s reading a dashing leading man, he’ll look like George Clooney in her mind; a precocious young girl becomes Dakota Fanning; a wizened old black man becomes Morgan Freeman.)

When you read a book like “Shoeless Joe,” it’s incredibly important to try and forget about the movie based on it, “Field of Dreams.” I’m not saying it’s a bad movie; it’s one of my all-time favorites, and in fact I watched it again just this week. But the movie is so, SO different from the book. Here’s the analogy I use: if “Shoeless Joe” was a painting, it’s almost as if the people involved with “Field of Dreams” discovered only a small corner of the painting and had to create a whole new picture to go with the original corner.

The differences can be seen in just the first few pages of “Shoeless Joe.” In the movie, main character Ray Kinsella builds a complete, beautiful baseball diamond in his cornfield. In the book, Ray Kinsella builds only a makeshift structure. Here’s a passage:

“I laid out a whole field, but it was there in spirit only. It was really only left field that concerned me. Home plate was made from pieces of cracked two-by-four embedded in the earth. The pitcher’s rubber rocked like a cradle when I stood on it. The bases were stray blocks of wood, unanchored. There was no backstop or grandstand, only one shaky bleacher beyond the left-field wall.”

But when Shoeless Joe Jackson finally appears out of the mist, Kinsella magically finds himself sitting inside a full baseball stadium:

“From where I sit the scene is as complete as in any of the major-league baseball parks I have ever visited: the two teams, the stands, the fans, the lights, the vendors, the scoreboard.”

Quite a bit different from the movie.

As I continue reading “Shoeless Joe,” I’ll make occasional posts about it. Let me know what you think.

--Matt Kelsey

1 comment:

  1. Matt, I think the good people who pronounce all the syllables in lit-tra-ture call this "magic realism." Why it appears so often in baseball novels is a question. You see it in the Natural, The Seventh Babe, all three Kinsella baseball novels, For Love of the Game, and others. Why baseball lends itself to so much magic realism is a mystery to me.