Philip K. Dick has long been one of my favorite science fiction authors, excelling in inventiveness and concision. His stories are plot-driven and to the point, which makes them almost perfect for movie adaptations. Some of those (think The Blade Runner) came out splendid, while others (think A Scanner Darkly) were more mixed blessings.
Of course, this being science fiction, making movies out of novels was always hampered by cost. Science fiction is not cheap to special effect on any day, and plot-driven (as opposed to action-driven or character-driven) movies are a particularly expensive type. They have none of the bombastic effects of, say, a planetary explosion while not much of the cheap timeouts of a romantic subplot.
Many of Dick’s novels have hence languished for decades in the realm of the undoable. Things are not helped by the fact one of the central themes of Dick’s work is the loss of reality – a problem he was facing in real life, as he was losing his grip on it. That seems to be much less of an issue for most people than it was for him, and as a result much of the logic of Dick’s plots becomes irrelevant. That is particularly true of the author’s later work.
Of his early work, though, The Man in the High Castle always seemed within reach. It’s an alternate history, events that happened after the Allied Powers won WW II. (For my history-challenged friends: the USA and USSR actually won WW II. Also, the Allied Powers were Germany and Japan. Mostly, in both cases.)
Imagine America falls. Japan takes over the West Coast, while Germany takes the Eastern half of the country (approximately to the Rocky Mountains). Dick’s favorite place on earth, San Francisco, becomes the capital of the Japanese Pacific States of America, while New York City is the new capital of the Greater Nazi Reich. (I hate to quibble, but a German would call that Greater German Reich, not Nazi Reich.)
That’s the setting of the novel, and the setting of the show. Fortunately, it is a TV show, not a single movie: there is too much material in the novel to make a reasonable movie out of it without cutting plot everywhere. So we get to see the single subplots of this complex story move in parallel.
There is war brewing again. Expanded Germany is an economic, technological, and scientific powerhouse that is undergoing political turmoil. Factions within the ruling Nazi party are jostling for supremacy, and their attitude towards the remaining competing power, Japan, becomes their signature position. Should the right party win, war is inevitable, and Japan knows it is going to lose. So it’s of the utmost importance for the Empire to stall as long as possible, to attempt to achieve technological and military parity.
We are following the story of a single group of people, Americans, we might call a family. One belongs to the American resistance, those that are chafing under the foreign regime and want to return America to its independence and former greatness. She gets killed in the initial moments of the story and hands her mission to her sister, who happens to be the girlfriend of a half-Jewish guy. The half-Jewish guy, Frank Frink (obviously, Philip K. Dick didn’t have a naming consultant on retainer). is an artist-turned-machine-shop worker in San Francisco.
All hell breaks loose, now. The sister decides to complete the mysterious mission and tries to deliver a film reel to someone in the neutral zone between the two empires. That’s the mountainous center of the country, and she manages to travel to Canon City, the sort of capital of the unincorporated neutral zone. She gets there thanks to the help of a truck driver, who quickly turns out to be a Nazi spy.
The plot starts fanning out from there. We get to meet the occupying authority in San Francisco (the Japanese) and learn about an imminent visit by the Crown Prince of Japan. There is a German spy from the faction opposed to war that wants to smuggle the blueprints for the atomic bomb to the Japanese. His contact in San Francisco is the trade minister, a man obsessed with his Japanese garden and the I Ching.
On the Nazi side, we have the main contact of the truck driver, who is a kind family man in one scene, a ruthless murdering Nazi in the next. He is the subject of an attempted murder early on. Unlike the relatively pacific Pacific (pardon the play on words), the German side of the country is a political mess (coincidentally, much as it is now, with fewer assassination attempts).
So much for the story. The adaptation is fairly faithful and makes very good use of the expanded powers of the visual. Where the novel doesn’t waste a lot of time on the things and places it touches, the show revels in the contrast between Nazi New York, Japanese San Francisco, and neutral Canon City. Everything looks strictly late 40s, modernist, and gorgeous.
I guess the show decides the medium is important enough that it turns the plot-driving device of the novel, a book (in fact, a novel-within-the-novel), into a movie. Instead of driving bound paper around, the protagonist has a movie reel. That’s the single most important departure from the book. Oddly, the movie reel would have been a much better device in the original novel, as reels were rare and irreplaceable, while books were mass-produced even in the times of Philip Dick. Nowadays, of course, there is no need for physical copies of movies any longer, and a movie reel is just a weird thing that used to be used.
The cinematography is spectacular. Scenes are cut crisp and without wanton lingering. Editing is perfect: while I have gotten used to pressing the fast forward button in virtually every show I’ve watched, I found myself rewinding so often, I just ended up letting go and watched as intended.
Special effects are pretty much limited to the rendering of cities. I confess the sight of the Nazi embassy in San Francisco, set in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, gave me the chills even more than the Nazi headquarters in New York City. There isn’t a whole lot that needs to be special effected, either. One opportunity missed is to show the two competing capitals, Tokyo and Berlin, in their Nazi splendor. There are a few shots of the planned Berlin, but at least in the first season (yes, this is just the first season!) not a whole lot of events happening there.
The acting is sadly uneven. Frank Frink and his factory sidekick (Rupert Evans and DJ Qualls) keep their performances strictly stoic where maybe a little more despair would be appropriate. The sister, Juliana, and the truck driver, Joe Blake (Alexa Davalos and Luke Kleintank) are played strangely even-keeled despite being both characters torn by conflicting emotions and ravaged by lack of understanding of the situation.
Our main Nazi, John Smith (see note on naming consultants above) gives hints of an outstanding performance. Rufus Sewell is credible as the irascible Obergruppenführer and as the paternal figure. When playing one, there is always a hint of humanity left in him (mostly in a tinge of tiredness at the things he has to do). When playing the other, there is always a crook in his smile and a twinkle in his eye that tells you that there is more to it than wife and kids get to see. John Smith is also the only character that will face an actual moral/ethical dilemma when he finds out that his son (SPOILER ALERT) is genetically diseased and that the “only logical thing” is to exterminate him.
The two characters that shine, maybe because the stoic performance is sort of expected, are the trade minister, Nobusuke Tagomi (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and chief inspector Kido (played by Joel de la Fuente). The two are the yin and yang of the story: Tagomi is tired and (world-)wise where Kido is angry and knows he’s being played. Where Tagomi is indeed playing a game at extremely high stakes that involves the survival of his nation, Kido simply feels lied to and manipulated and takes things personally. The two of them are performing a strange game of cat and mouse, where the mouse (Kido) seems to be able to back threats with action.
The first season ends before we even met the namesake Man in the High Castle. All we know is that he hands out intel to the resistance in exchange for the movie reels brought to him. Also, we know that the movie reels show a different ending to World War 2, an ending different than the actual outcome, creating an alternate history within an alternate history.
Dick’s theme of reality uncertainty is kept on, but in a very subtle fashion. For instance, Frank Frink works at a factory that makes replicas of “Americana,” artifacts of American history, like Zippo lighters and Civil war guns. In the novel, that’s a device used to ask the fundamental question: How can you tell real from fake? While in the plot the question is about the Americana (Frink, after all, creates replicas that are sold as real), in Dick’s life the question was always about life itself.
Ridley Scott, he of The Blade Runner fame, was executive producer on this series. Amazon.com bankrolled the whole thing as part of their Prime Video lineup.
All in all, it’s incredibly compelling TV. The story follows a complex plot, but clarity is created by characters that are all starkly differentiated. It’s not hard to follow what’s going on, because things develop as an outward flow from a single point of introduction. It’s like watching a soap opera that makes sense and is about events instead of people.
The show is remarkable in that the episodes are created to be binge-watched. There is no recap at the beginning of an episode, and no significant cliff-hangers at the end of each. Also, there is none of the see-saw quality of cable TV shows, with their eternal need to keep viewers interested enough that they’ll stick through a commercial break. This is TV as it is intended to be, and as it was before the tragic time of “commercials interrupted by show.”
Clearly, everyone involved had high hopes. We don’t even get to know the man in the high castle by the end of the season, so there is at least the expectation of a second season. Amazon has also been heavily marketing the show on its service.
The only letdown I experience is that I may just have to wait a whole year to see a second season.