An excellent adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s best novel
by MATTHEW GAULT
After the highway patrolman finishes helping Joe Blake fix a flat tire, the cop offers him a sandwich. Blake is nervous. He’s stuck in the Midwest at the mercy of a police officer … and he’s carrying illegal cargo.
Blake wants to leave, but he accepts the sandwich. Better not to cause a stir.
As Blake takes the meal, he notices a tattoo on the officer’s forearm—a knife through a flower. Blake asks what it means. “Oh?” the cop says. “A soldier so fierce he’d kill a rose.”
“That was you?” Blake asks.
“A long time ago,” he answers. “We lost the war didn’t we? Now I can’t even remember what we were fighting for.”
Ash falls from the sky, peppering the two men. “What is that?” Blake asks.
“Oh, it’s the hospital.”
“Yeah,” the cop says. “On Tuesdays they burn cripples … the terminally ill. Drag on the state.”
This is the 1960s in an alternate timeline—another universe where the Axis powers won World War II. This is Amazon’s newest show The Man in the High Castle.
The new series is based on Philip K. Dick’s Hugo award-winning 1962 novel of the same name. The book is one of Dick’s best and most accessible. He was an author known for strange science fiction stories about the malleable nature of reality and perception.
Hollywood has adapted many of his works since his death in 1982. Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report are the most memorable. But none of these adaptations quite capture the tone and feel of the source material.
The Man in the High Castle is different. It’s good, and stays true to Dick’s vision even as it strays from the specifics.
The television show is set in early ’60s America. In this version of history, Giuseppe Zangara—who in reality killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak in 1933—assassinated Pres. Franklin Roosevelt instead. Without FDR’s leadership, America delayed entering World War II.
Germany developed the atomic bomb and the Axis powers conquered the world, occupying America in 1952. Hirohito and Hitler divided the United States in two. Japan took the Pacific states, and Germany took the eastern half.
The Rocky Mountains act as a neutral zone.
The cast is an ensemble. Joe Blake is a young guy who wants to make his father—a veteran—proud of him. So he joins up with the American underground resistance in New York to transport something priceless across the country.
Juliana Crain is a woman with an affection for Japanese culture living in San Francisco. Her estranged sister Trudy shows up one day and gives her a mysterious film reel that changes Juliana’s life.
Frank Frink is Juliana’s live-in boyfriend. He’s an artist who works in a factory crafting replica Americana for Japanese tourists. He spends all day churning out Colt Single Action Army revolvers, but he dreams of showing his own paintings.
Too bad the authorities consider his art degenerate.
The Japanese diplomat Nobusuke Tagomi prepares the American territories for a visit from the Emperor. He’s a man obsessed with oracles and he sees an inevitable war between Japan and Germany—a war the monarch wants to avoid.
Those in charge of adapting The Man in the High Castle for television have, so far, done an incredible job. The set design gives the series a grounded sense of place.
From the opening moments in Nazi-controlled New York City to Japanese-held San Francisco, the background gives the series a stark and moody tone. The costumes are likewise incredible.
We’re not just watching Nazis, we’re watching American Nazis, and their uniforms reflect that. Brown shirts stretch over longshoreman bellies. The stars and stripes blend with the swastika.
The drab and muted tones contrast with what most Americans picture when they think of the ’60s. The bright pastels and energetic colors of the era aren’t here.
This is a world that underwent arrested development in the ’50s. As if American culture stopped evolving once foreign powers took control.
Amazon’s series changes a few things from the book. So far, they strengthen the show.
After one episode, audiences know far more about Blake and his motivations than Dick ever revealed in the book. The nature of Fink and Crane’s relationship is also on display in a way the novel never explored.
But there’s one huge change that will upset some fans. I think it’s brilliant. Spoilers below.
Central to the book is an alternative history novel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It’s a work of fiction describing a world like our own, a world in which Roosevelt survived and the Allies won the war.
Hawthorne Abendsen wrote the novel. People call him the man in the high castle, because he lives in secrecy in the Rockies—hiding in the neutral zone.
Amazon’s television show keeps The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, but changes it from a book to a film reel. It’s a smart move. TV is a visual medium, and it’s hard to convey the emotional impact of a book on screen.
Turning High Castle’s MacGuffin into a film allows the audience to experience the transformative nature that art has on the characters. We watch what they watch, and understand how such a simple bit of film can instill hope in the hearts of the oppressed.
If Grasshopper remained a book, this would be harder to do. Crane and Blake would read the novel and discuss it on screen, and we’d simply have to take their word for it.
In Dick’s novel, we read along with the characters. In Amazon’s show, we watch along. Both tropes are effective, and each relies on the strengths of their respective mediums.
Amazon produced The Man in the High Castle as part of its pilot season. The company creates new shows by shooting pilots, and putting them up for anyone to watch.
Before Amazon will produce more episodes, viewers must say they want more. I want more. I think, after you watch, you will too. It’s a Philip K. Dick TV show and the finest adaptation of his work I’ve ever seen.
You can see it for free. Watch it, rate it and write a review. With any luck, we’ll see how the series handles Crane and Blake, the Empire of Japan and the strange metaphysical bend the novel takes in its back half.