The Man in the High Castle
I was apprehensive when I first heard that Amazon Studios were adapting The Man in the High Castle (1962) into a television show. What if this version of my favourite Philip K. Dick novel was terrible? Or worse, what if it was good and, on account of Amazon’s unique way of commissioning shows, it never made it to series? Because for a few years now, Amazon has been engaged in the practice of annually streaming a handful of new pilots for free but only commissioning a full season from those with the best viewer feedback. It’s been a hit and miss affair (the hit being Transparent; the miss being mostly everything else). However this particular show benefits from the involvement of executive producer Ridley Scott, a veteran of PKD adaptation, and of writer Frank Spotnitz, late of The X-Files. The result is a confident and well paced pilot which – aside from a few dodgy CGI sequences – delivers a terrifically realized version of this much lauded novel to the screen.
Minor spoilers from here on out…
As many will know, PKD’s The Man in the High Castle depicts a world where the Allies lost the Second World War. America is subsequently partitioned between the victorious Nazis and Japanese. The remains of the USA (the East Coast and the South) now form part of the ‘Greater German Reich’ while the West Coast has been reorganised as the ‘Japanese Pacific States’. Between them lies the Rocky Mountains neutral zone into which many people – notably those of Jewish or African-American heritage – flee in order to escape the oppressions of the West and the exterminations of the East. At heart the novel is, as Andy Duncan has said in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003), a ‘thoughtful and thorough examination of several “ordinary” Americans,’ an aspect of the story which this pilot preserves to its benefit.
The year is 1962 and truck driver Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank of Bones) joins the American resistance in Nazi occupied New York. Through his eyes, the show presents the viewer with a lot more of the Greater German Reich than the reader of the novel ever encounters. Time Square is dominated by Nazi imagery and there is the consistently unnerving slight of ‘Johnny Jackboots’ on street corners and television screens, young men with American accents wearing Nazi uniforms and talking proudly about their time in the Hitler Youth. Yet wisely there is no text crawl to set this scene, no expository lump which might play well to spec-fic fans but risk alienating mainstream viewers. Instead, detail is sketched in gradually as the pilot progresses. We learn only offhand that Washington was flattened by a Nazi H-bomb at the war’s conclusion. We see on a map that St. Louis is now New Berlin. Most chilling of all is Blake’s conversation with a swastika-clad state trooper by the roadside as ash drifts through the air. ‘What is that?’ Blake asks. ‘Oh that’s the hospital,’ the trooper tells him. ‘They burn cripples, the terminally ill… drags on the state’. The casual way by which this information is imparted does more to cement this alternate history than almost anything else in the pilot. To the trooper this isn’t horror or murder or extermination. It is simply ‘Tuesday’.
While the Nazis are obviously evil, there is – as in the novel – more nuance granted to the Japanese characters. A cut from a brutal Brownshirt put-down of a resistance cell to a dojo training session across the continent introduces Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos of Mob City), an Akido student living quietly in San Fransisco. It is in this scene – built around a martial art which does not attack but which defends – that the divide between Fascism and Taoism which underpins the novel, something Patricia Warrick explored in Science Fiction Studies back in 1980, is most clear. Equally it is a solid introduction to the immediately engaging Juliana, a character who possesses enough thoughtfulness and idealism to balance out the naïve patriotism affected by Joe Blake when the pair inevitably collide in the neutral zone’s Canon City.
Back when the novel was first published, the alternate world it described was essentially contemporaneous with that of its readers, most of whom would themselves have lived through the Second World War and recalled exactly what was at stake. To the modern viewer, however, the Nazi and Japanese occupation of 1962 is essentially an alternate history twice removed from our own. This could have been sticking point for the adaptation (thankfully nobody decided to “modernise” the storyline) but in fact becomes an advantage with period detail – subtly adjusted – performing much of the heavy lifting with regard to world-building.
Of course there are changes from the novel (perhaps making this alternate history thrice removed!), one of the primary ones being the reduced role of the I Ching. This venerable divination manual does get a look in during the pilot but does not yet (and may never) occupy the central place in this adaptation that it does in the novel. PKD himself claimed to have used the I Ching when plotting The Man in the High Castle but it is difficult to imagine the writers and producers behind this adaptation following suit! Indeed, where the author’s interest in oriental philosophy was spread evenly among the protagonists of the novel, here it is mostly communicated through the character of Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese trade official poised to be swept up in the dangerous international politicking engendered by Hitler’s declining health.
Other alterations are for the most part sensible and have been made with an eye to how The Man in the High Castle will function as an ongoing series. The number of characters has been compressed for the moment with, for instance, Robert Childan – the businessman who caters to the Japanese appetite for artefacts of pre-war American popular culture – excised from the storyline. While Childan was a valuable presence in the novel as the character who had most thoroughly absorbed the speech and behavioural patterns, even the modes of thought, of the occupying forces, some of that is taken on by Juliana in the show. So too is the question of the porous membrane between what is real and what is not. In the novel this was largely told through the story of Childan’s faked antiques (nodded to in the pilot by the factory which employs Juliana’s boyfriend Frank Frank; Rupert Evans in another role radically reduced from the novel) but here it is cleverly incorporated into the story’s main MacGuffin: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
Those who have read the novel will recognise The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the book-within-the-book written by the titular man in the high castle. For the screen version of the story, however, this anti-fascist text becomes a series of newsreel clips, essentially a show-within-the-show by which the pilot takes up the novel’s questioning of the relationship between the artificial and the authentic. ‘They look real because they are real,’ Julianne says, spellbound by the figures in footage of a successful D-Day landing and of the Japanese surrender among other things. This film is described as a ‘way out’, something which might be worrisome (especially given the references of Juliana having been hit by a bus prior to the story) if that didn’t so nicely reflect the words of the novel’s Juliana on meeting Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘You showed me there’s a way,’ she says, their discussion circling around Abendsen’s use – like that of Philip K. Dick himself – of the I Ching in his composition process. Thus just as in the novel, this version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the means by which ‘the reality of this alternate world,’ as Andy Duncan put it, ‘is ultimately called into question – but, then, so is the reality of ours’. Retaining it in an appropriate fashion for a visual medium is one of the real strengths of The Man in the High Castle pilot.
Yes, as a fan of the novel I was predisposed to enjoy this. However that same love of the source material would not easily have embraced a substandard retelling. Thankfully Scott and Spotnitz have delivered a satisfying and extremely well-made adaptation of one of the finest works of a major twentieth century writer. From its sad but beautiful title sequence through to the numerous questions raised by its final minutes, The Man in the High Castle draws the viewer into a world and a story of rich potential. With the attention it is rightly receiving – as well as the variety of “The only new Amazon pilot worth watching” style articles it has already generated – one would hope that The Man in the High Castle will soon receive the full season order it deserves.
Other posts which may be of interest:
- Initial Thoughts on Sherlock: Series Three
- Some Notes of Fringe‘s Scientists, ‘Mad’ and ‘Bad’ alike.