Looking back over my previous posts, I see I’ve been waiting for an adaptation of The Man In The High Castle for over four years. It was first announced as being adapted by Ridley Scott for the BBC in 2010, but after disappearing into the netherworld of development hell, it was then announced as an Amazon series last year, and the first episode of it has now appeared as part of their latest pilot season.
The big question, then, is was it worth the wait? On the evidence of this pilot episode, yes it was, and also worth the (hopefully shorter) wait for it to return as a full series. His involvement may not be quite so hands on this time, but Ridley Scott has shown yet again how to adapt a Philip K Dick novel. Just as Blade Runner used the characters and themes of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but was prepared to deviate from the plot, so does The Man In The High Castle. There’s an understanding that a book and a TV series tell stories differently, especially one that’s being told through the multiple levels of Dick’s imagination. In short, I would definitely recommend watching it, whether you’ve read the book or not. Spoilers for the book and the adaptation follow, so read on at your own peril.
The Man In The High Castle is one of the most famous works of alternate history, and in one of its most famous forms – what if the Axis had won the Second World War? The story is of a conquered and defeated America where the East Coast is part of the Greater German Reich, while the West is now the Pacific States of America, part of Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The key insight that the adaptation keeps from the book is that this is a defeated America, not merely an occupied or isolated one. In the East, the Swastika is everywhere and what resistance there is that remains is almost completely ineffective while Nazi ideology is widely accepted. There’s a scene in the adaptation that shows this casual acceptance quite chillingly in just how casually people can come to accept the horrific.
Life in the west may not seem as oppressive – and the adaptation makes a clear point to show the racial diversity in San Francisco that’s missing from New York – but that’s because, unlike the Reich, the Empire prefers to hide its power, making it more shocking when it is deployed. The adaptation does a great job of capturing the feeling of Dick’s novel, though there’s a curious omission in that Robert Childan doesn’t appear. However, other elements of his part of the story are there, and I suspect he will appear in future episodes.
The key theme of the novel that the adaptation has picked up on is the concept that everything is not what it seems. Almost every main character in the pilot is either hiding something or pretending to be someone they’re not – Juliana takes on Trudi’s life to flee to the Rockies, Frank hides his Jewish ancestry, Joe is undercover (but just how deep?), Tagomi is more than a trade minister and even Obergruppenfuhrer Smith (a very chilling Rufus Sewell) wants people to believe he doesn’t know what he does.
Beyond that, the idea of questionable reality that permeated Dick’s novel is in the adaptation too. In the adaptation The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is no longer a book, but a film. For a moment, it seems wrong, but then I realised it’s entirely logical – in the novel, Abendsen’s book represents ‘inner truth’ and how else would characters in a novel be able to discover that they weren’t real except through another book? In the same way here, the film represents more than just the scenes it depicts but the idea of a whole other truth. When Trudi gives it to Juliana, she calls it ‘a way out’ and Juliana’s viewing of it is presented as a quasi-mystical experience. There’s a fantastic performance from Alexa Davalos in that scene, that convinces us of the importance of what she’s seeing before we get to see any of it. The film becomes something that treads the line between mystery and mystical and just as with the book, it’s the effect it has on people that’s more important than the content of it.
I definitely recommend watching this – just sitting down to write about it has prompted a lot of thoughts that make me want to see it again. It’s well-written and acted, with some fantastic design that helps to bring the world to life (I thought the flag of the Pacific States was a brilliant touch, melding red, white and blue into the Rising Sun). What’s more, I want to know what happens next. It’s clear that the story is following the plot of the novel, but adding in more too. There’s a revelation at the end of the episode that isn’t surprising if you’ve read the book, but it feels that there may be more going on, especially given how nothing is what it seems.
It could turn out to be another damp squib, showing lots of promise in the pilot and then stumbling when asked to keep the plates spinning for several episodes but The Man In The High Castle has got my attention and left me eagerly anticipating the next episodes.