The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

Amazon Studios released Season One of ‘The Man in the High Castle in late November, catering to our desire for instant gratification and the modern trend towards binge-watching TV shows.

It’s been almost a year since I read the book, and I’ll admit I found the (rather short) novel dense at times. The main premise is an exploration of an alternate world where the Axis powers have won World War II. I thought the show did an admirable job of weaving together the multiple narrative strands and focusing the deliberately obscure geographical locations of Dick’s alternative history.

I have to mention that controversial ad campaign. Well that was super awkward. I wonder if perhaps stirring up some controversy was part of the aim to get people talking about the show, but the show’s creators were evidently familiar with the source material and executed a tactful adaptation which was belied by the ad campaign. Luckily the trailer is way better:

The overall themes and questions of patriotism, duty, family, cultural identity and fate were explored tactfully, and the ideological conflicts between Capitalism, Fascism and Taoism are presented subtly, without huge info-dumps or obvious bias – save for the final scene in Season One which felt contrived, and in my opinion began to present ‘real history’ and the familiar post-war 1960s America as a Capitalist utopia.

Dick’s novel has a metatext, a banned book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” by fictional author Hawthorne Abendsen (also the novel’s eponymous Man in the High Castle who is said to live in an impenetrable castle where the Nazis can’t find him). In the show they’ve changed this to a smuggled film reel to incite revolution, or rather, several different film reels. This works much better for the medium, and actually I found it more effective because the Grasshopper reels used in the show contain what the viewers will recognise as famous historical footage from World War II onwards such as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. One is not historical footage (or they may have edited it onto historical footage), but is almost prophetic, showing two of the protagonists in events that may come to pass.

One of my favourite scenes is an awkward dinner exchange between the wealthy Japanese Kasouras and antique American art dealer Robert Childan, which builds on this idea of cultural appropriation, colonialism and historicity. The Kasouras have Anglicised given names, have a fetish for Jazz music and what we might consider mass-produced trinkets. Childan hatches a revenge plan with Frink’s help to create a forgery, and has a wonderful speech about historicity. However, when Betty is presented with the forgery, she claims Frank Frink‘s (Rupert Evans) jewellery contains “wu” (balance or harmony) and is therefore valuable after all. Juliana’s necklace, a gift made by Frank, is admired but also scorned because it doesn’t adhere to the prescribed ideas of aesthetic value.

While many iconic scenes from the book are adapted well, there are others that either I don’t remember from the novel or were embellished for the show. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but I do wonder about the show’s pacing. The novel isn’t particularly long and I wonder how many seasons will be commissioned; I assume Season Two is in the works as the finale did leave many questions and there are definitely some big plot bombs to drop. Many of the scenes involving Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) were captivating, but there were some performances I didn’t find as compelling, and while I grant it’s difficult to portray character arcs that involve deception and impersonation, this makes it all the more important to be convincing.

In the novel, I found myself disliking all the characters or finding their actions exasperating, whereas in the show I think the writers tried to make characters relatable or at least fascinating to watch. There are characters who are morally questionable, but I felt even they had agendas or belief in some kind of code or truth. In essence, I gave a damn what happened to most of the protagonists. While the show honours the book’s ensemble cast, I was pleased that Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) was given a more central role and was more proactive. This move towards giving the female characters as much complexity and agency as their male counterparts may be an inevitable, and hopefully conscious, part of a 2015 adaptation of Dick’s 1962 novel. The show doesn’t shy away from the gender issues of that society, with Juliana exploiting and being exploited for her gender, and explorations of masculinity, especially in a military context – both with the Nazis officers and the Kempeitai and shown through the characters of Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaardand Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente).

Further reading:

  • My student essay for a Sci-Fi course, discussing ‘Othering’ and post-colonial theory in Dick’s novel, which can be read here.
  • Den of Geek’s raving reasons to pick up the novel.
  • i09 on the differences between the novel and the show’s pilot.

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